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Austin’s Asleep at the Wheel has a lengthy résumé that includes nine Grammys, tours with Bob Dylan, and a recent well-lauded collaboration with Willie Nelson—Willie and the Wheel. The members of Asleep at the Wheel are practitioners of Western Swing, and, according to their Web site, they have “kept a buzz on a genre that might be described as ‘fringe,'” while maintaining musical integrity.
Asleep at the Wheel also has long standing ties with the Washington D.C., area: The group formed in 1970 in West Virginia and started gigging in D.C. They’ve been frequent inaugural ball performers since George H.W. Bush took office, and were scheduled to play the White House on September 11th, 2001.
Washington City Paper spoke with Asleep at the Wheel founder and sole remaining original member Ray Benson ahead of Wednesday’s show at the Birchmere.
Washington City Paper: Though Austin is Asleep at the Wheel’s home base, you do have strong connections to the D.C. area. You’ve played inaugural balls for several presidents and were scheduled to play the White House on 9/11. Aside from the Texas connection with the Bush family, why do you think you’re popular with the Washington crowd?
Ray Benson: Well, we started in D.C. We formed in West Virginia and the first gig we played was at L’Enfant Plaza during the Medicine Ball Tour opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper of all people in 1970. We’ve also been playing in the area for 40 years.
WCP: You had some brushes with President Obama on the campaign trail. Any plans or invites to play the Obama White House? What do you think of their commitment to the performing arts?
RB: We’ve certainly planned playing the White House—they just haven’t invited us yet. [Laughs]. I’m very optimistic about their commitment to the arts. I’m hopeful that the federal government makes a bigger investment in the NEA and arts education. I’ve done work with arts education in the state of Texas, and its not just for performing artists—its for scientists, engineers…its for people that use the creative part of their brains to accomplish great things.
WCP: Willie and the Wheel is quite successful, even generating an on-air shout-out from former Clinton staffer and CNN commentator Paul Begala as the best record of the year. What was your reaction to that?
RB: It was great. I don’t know Paul personally, but he’s from Austin and as far as politics we just want to bring everyone together under one Asleep at the Wheel umbrella [laughs].
WCP: So Asleep at the Wheel are the the real unifiers from Texas?
RB: We really hope the divisiveness that has been so poisonous to our country, we hope that everyone can start thinking about working together. Cooperation is a hallmark of America. Now I sound like a goddamn political candidate.
WCP: A lot of musicians don’t like to label or categorize themselves, yet the Wheel is proud to own the Western Swing label. Have you found that label automatically conjures a context for new listeners coming to your music? Big hats and country piping on the shirts?
RB: The mantle of Western Swing is an all-inclusive one. We can play blues, jazz…fiddle music, anything that we want to play. The definition of Western Swing is more focused on instrumentation and style. In other words, I can play a Count Basie song, I can play a Dylan song, a Willie Nelson song, and I can play a Ray Benson song. The common thread is that we use fiddles, steel guitar [not pedal], piano, bass, drums, and a horn or two and that’s the instrumentation that defines a Western Swing band. What we can play is wide and varied as long as it fits into that instrumentation.
WCP: Who are the other practitioners of Western Swing that you consider peers or contemporaries?
RB: Well, first there is a difference between country swing and western swing. When George Strait does his version of swing music it is country swing. It’s not as jazz and blues orientated as the western swing Asleep at the Wheel plays. As far as contemporaries, there’s dozens of ’em—the Cow Town, a trio sort of thing, Big Sandy and the Fly Right Boys, the Wiyos Band from New York—its very much like bluegrass was in that there’s a lot of folks playing it.
And Merle Haggard, when he decides to play western swing, he has an incredible band.
WCP: Van Morrison helped the Wheel with its first record deal by mentioning you in a Rolling Stone interview—have you ever been able to return the favor?
RB: Yes, in fact when Van did his country record he borrowed my fiddle player and steel guitar player, and took them on the road. Van and I talked two years ago when he came and visited me in Austin about me producing an album for him but he’s still got a lot on his plate.
WCP: I’m looking at the picture of your studio and there are three portraits on the wall—who are they and what significance do they hold?
RB: Those are three velvet Elvis portraits.There’s the young Elvis, the Hawaiian Elvis, and the 70’s Elvis. One of the main reasons they hang there is that we have a vintage API board in the studio, one of the very same boards Elvis sang through in the RCA studios in Nashville.
WCP: Asleep at the Wheel is approaching its 40th anniversary. What secrets to career longevity have you learned from the iconic performers you’ve played with, like Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan?
RB: Both have very different ways, Bob is always changing and Willie always stays the same [laughs]. I learned to do a little bit of both. Also, while Willie is always Willie, he’s also much like Dylan in that he’ll take on a challenge and that’s what keeps you fresh.
WCP: You’re proud of your Texas base and Austin, even being named the Texas state musician. Willie famously left Nashville and convinced you to move to Austin. What place does Nashville still hold for country music? What do you think of Austin’s ascendancy into a musical powerhouse?
RB: Nashville has some of the finest musicians, songwriters, and engineers in the world, but unfortunately it’s controlled by pop radio and record companies that want to make a gazillion dollars and really could care less about making good music.
Austin’s success has a lot to do with its variety. From Jerry Jeff Walker to Spoon, Ministry, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Thunderbirds, Fastball, Sean Colvin and dozens more I’m remiss in not mentioning. The whole scene is based on creativity.
WCP: Are there new bands or artists that you’ve been playing with that you’d like to see get more exposure? Last time I was in Austin I was blown away by Carolyn Wonderland.
RB: I produced Carolyn’s record and she’s great. She’s working on her second record now. I just finished working on the James Hand record. He’s an amazing hillbilly singer. I don’t work with her but there’s a young lady you’re going to hear a lot about called Kat Edmonson, a fantastic jazz singer.
WCP: Any plans to write or produce more plays [Benson, along with Anne Rapp, wrote A Ride With Bob, the first-ever play about the life and music of Bob Wills] or other non Wheel or music related projects?
RB: A Ride With Bob is our main one, with the plan being we’re going to film it one of these days. We just finished a five date run of sold out shows so it keeps on going.
WCP: Asleep at the Wheel is also known for having a lot of members over the span of your career—who wins in a bar fight, Asleep at the Wheel or Lyle Lovett’s Large Band?
RB: Oh we kick their ass [laughs]. Lyle’s my good pal and one of the greatest of all time, and we used to back him up, but in a World Federation Wrestling match we got them beat.
Asleep at the Wheel performs at the Birchmere this Wednesday, August 26thth with the Olivarez Trio. Tickets are $35. at 7:30 PM wi