After nearly 50 years, 25 albums, 10 Grammys and countless miles on the road, you could forgive a man for wanting to call it a day. But that’s not Ray Benson’s style. The lead guitarist, vocalist and eternal leader of Asleep at the Wheel is keeping the pedal to the floor with a new album, a slew of shows and an undying vision to keep this distinct brand of music alive.
On Friday, Sept. 14, Asleep at the Wheel will drop New Routes, the band’s first new material in over a decade. For Benson and the band, it’s both a return to the old days and the start of something new and exciting.
“We’re getting back to our roots,” he says, “and at the same time, we’re having fun with this wide palate of music.”
Benson founded the band in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia. Since then, more than 100 artists have been a part of Asleep at the Wheel, with Ray being the sole constant.
“Asleep at the Wheel has always been me and whoever I could get to hop on the bus,” he says, laughing. “But I’m thinking this group we have now is going to stay on the bus for a while.”
“Asleep at the Wheel has always been me and whoever I could get to hop on the bus. But I’m thinking this group we have now is going to stay on the bus for a while.” – Ray Benson
This group includes Eddie Rivers on sax, Connor Forsyth on keys and Josh Hoag on bass, among others. One of the new members, fiddler and vocalist Katie Shore, was discovered by Benson at his bar in Austin.
“She was the final piece,” Benson says. “I heard her sing, and I knew she would be a perfect fit for what we have going.”
In the early days of the band, Benson had no trouble finding musicians who played the roots American style he was looking for. But as music changed, so did musicians — and it became more challenging to find artists who could mesh well with Asleep at the Wheel’s signature style.
“I couldn’t find players of my generation who knew this kind of music,” he says. “And when you have a band for this long, you sometimes have to reinvent yourself along the way.
"But now all of these great instrumentalists are just a click away, and these young folk have really done their homework.”
By the sound of the new album, that homework is really paying off. New Routes includes a slew of original pieces, including “Call it a Day Tonight,” which Benson co-penned with Shore. The album also includes a bevy of covers, as the band puts their unique, Americana-infused spin on tunes from Guy Clark and Moon Mullican. Country, jazz, jump blues, swing and folk are all explored across the album’s 11 tracks, with one Willie Nelson-inspired tune courtesy of guest artists Seth and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers.
The band played the album at an album release party at the famed Longhorn Ballroom — a place they haven’t been in 25 years. It’s a homecoming in many ways. Asleep at the Wheel was back in Texas after a tour in which they traveled more than 25,000 miles and played everywhere from Central Park to Newfoundland. But true to form, Asleep at the Wheel will keep on rolling with shows in Texas all throughout the fall and another new album on the way.
“It’s so important we preserve this type of music," Benson says. “That’s what we’re doing every time we step onstage, and we’re not slowing down anytime soon.”
Asleep at the Wheel’s New Routes will be released Sept. 14. They come to Fort Worth on Oct. 20 and McKinney on Nov. 23.