Taking the Wheel

For the second time this decade, Ray Benson pays tribute to Bob Wills

Once, during the early 1980s, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel tried to escape from the enormous shadow that blanketed the Western swing band since its 1973 debut album, which featured the immortal Bob Wills cut "Take Me Back to Tulsa." The Austin-based band had run into a brick wall: Money was drying up, album sales were way down, and audiences were shrinking. The band was $200,000 in debt in 1980, and Asleep couldn't get a record in stores between 1980's Framed and 1985's Asleep at the Wheel. They lost more labels than old luggage, and to cover the rent, the band started doing beer commercials and some soundtrack work -- anything with a paycheck attached to it.

Asleep's members had decided it didn't pay to play music no one wanted to hear, music that had gone out of fashion around the time Eisenhower was in office. So they eradicated Bob Wills songs from the playlist; no more "New San Antonio Rose," no more "Faded Love" or "Take Me Back to Tulsa" or any other venerable treasure from Wills' catalog. Asleep at the Wheel erased the hints of country music from its repertoire and plowed through night after night, set after set, of straight-ahead jazz. No twang, no steel-guitar slide, no nothing that could remotely link these young men to a moribund music dead and buried somewhere between the towns of Turkey, Texas, and Hollywood, California, decades earlier.

By doing so, Asleep at the Wheel nearly killed what was left of its career. It began alienating audiences -- what audience it had left, anyway. The word betrayal kept coming to mind. Benson recalls a night in Waco during the early 1980s when he realized he had made a mistake; even now, the memory of it doesn't make him laugh. After a show, an elderly woman came up to Benson and chastised him for not playing any Bob Wills. "You sound terrible," she told Benson. Soon after that, Asleep at the Wheel fell back on the wagon. It was Bob Wills or bust: Take me back to Tulsa, and quick.

The King is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
Brenda Ladd
The King is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
"Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done," says Benson.
"Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done," says Benson.

Since then, Benson has served as keeper of the Western swing flame, for better or worse. He is perhaps the most recognizable practitioner of the country-jazz hybrid -- and not simply because he is, as Kinky Friedman likes to call him, the tallest Jew in Texas. Three decades, give or take that little time off, of playing Western swing will do that to a man: make him the torch-bearer, even if it's a mantle he never much craved.

"It's a very strange little deal with Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Wills, and Ray Benson," Benson says. "Not that I don't love the music and work on it and research it and am very proud of our helping to revive it, but it's sort of one of those things that has dogged us -- and I don't mean that in a negative way -- from the first time we did some Bob Wills stuff on our first album. It was like, boom -- people just gravitated toward the Bob Wills cuts. And they did so because of the power of the music and Wills. Western swing would have been a footnote without Wills. He was the Elvis Presley of country music. And Bob Wills is still the king in Texas."

That's why Asleep at the Wheel is releasing its second Bob Wills tribute album of the 1990s this week -- though, in truth, every Asleep album is a Bob Wills tribute. Ride With Bob -- featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, Clint Black, Tracy Byrd, and Reba McEntire -- arrives six years after Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. According to Benson, this was always the plan: to release two Wills tributes, then follow those up with an homage to jump-'n'-jiver Louis Jordan, the second half of the equation (as in: Bob Wills + Louis Jordan = Asleep at the Wheel).

Benson had proposed the trilogy to Capitol Records in 1992, and the label scoffed. But they wanted a Wills tribute, if only because they figured an album like that could sell -- especially with the performers Benson was looking to invite, among them Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, George Strait, and Vince Gill. There was no way a record like that could be a money-loser, even if the songs, most of them more obscure selections from the songbook, were written by and originally performed by men who were, for the most part, a long time in the ground. The label even gave Benson and the band money to debut the record in Dallas at the Longhorn Ballroom, once known as the Bob Wills Ranch House. The November 1993 performance, which featured several original Texas Playboys on stage with Benson and his band, was among the last times Eldon Shamblin, the Playboys' lead guitarist since 1937, played his magical instrument in front of an audience.

For any other artist, that should have been enough: Benson had made a record honoring his hero and shared Wills' old stage with so many of the man's old comrades. But Ray Benson looked back at the Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and thought only of doing it over -- this time with a group of younger musicians, and with a roster of songs counting among their lot some of Wills' best-known tunes. Hence, Ride With Bob, which is being released on DreamWorks Records, a label not known for its country success (it released Randy Travis' latest right to the cut-out bin).

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