Asleep at the Wheel: The Wheel Gallops Through Western Swing

THERE IS a thin line that divides musicians who attempt to give new life to a dying musical form and those who traffic in nostalgia. The former manage, miraculously, to make the oldest kinds of American music — folk, bluegrass, blues — sound as new as the cry of a month old baby, while the latter never seem able to escape the datedness of the era when their chosen music originated.

Asleep at the Wheel, the ten-piece band which performs tonight at the Keystone Berkeley, manages the former. Known for reviving the Western Swing that legendary Texan Bob Wills created and popularized in the mid Thirties, the Wheel (as it is known to its fans) peddle this four decade-plus old music as if it were something they were still in the process of inventing themselves.

Of course the Wheel doesn’t just limit itself to Western Swing. In the course of a loose and rowdy set, the band will gallop through country-western, zydeco, rockabilly and even an occasional New Orleans styled R&B number like a Pony Express rider making quick pickups at one horse towns scattered throughout Texas. There is the excitement of a gathering of Born Again Christians at an Asleep at the Wheel concert, although the fuel for a Wheel performance is more likely to be alcohol than a leap of faith.

Despite the breadth of the music the band plays, it is Western Swing that it is best known for. Western Swing, for those unfamiliar with the strange brew that Bob Wills fashioned, is the point where country and western runs full force into the big band sound of, say, Glenn Miller. Popular in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, it has faded during the past few decades along with cowboy ballads and yodeling.

Asleep at the Wheel is led by Ray Benson, a towering man with a fondness for second-hand Forties three-piece suits, a newspaper boy’s cap pulled low on the forehead and a full, bushy red beard and moustache. Benson plays guitar, sings, writes songs and leads the band through its set with a loopy, good-old boy style that seems one part Grand Old Opry, two parts stoned hippie.

When the group last played the Great American Music Hall, the highlight of their set came when Benson dispensed with his guitar and danced, hopped and bopped along the entire front edge of the stage while singing a jazzy shuffle, ‘Am I High’.

“Am I high,” sang Benson, “Please don’t lie/Or have my legs been rubberized?/Tell me true friends/Am I high?/Was it the booze that made me confused/Or perhaps the cocaine that caused me to exclaim/As I fell to the floor ‘give me more, give me more.'”

Downstairs in one of the Music Hall dressing rooms, Benson unbuttons a gray wool vest that matches his slacks and settles his six-foot-six frame into a chair as he grabs a glass of white wine. Old friends wander in and join members of the band in conversation.

“You like Ray’s matching boots,” asks vocalist Chris O’Connell.

Benson pulls up both pant legs to display one fancy black, stitched cowboy boot and one brown boot, equally fancy. “Just like Nudie wears,” grins Benson, referring to the near legendary country-western clothes designer responsible for some of country-western’s most outrageous outfits. (Nudie once costumed Elvis in a gold lame suit.) “That’s where I got the idea,” admits Benson.

Born and raised outside Philadelphia, Benson has shed whatever roots he once had for the drawl and style of a Texan. “It don’t matter where you’re born,” he says. “It has nothing to do with that. It’s the way you live and act.

“I listened to country music when I grew up,” he continues. “Picked up the guitar when I was nine. Played square dance music. Played rock and roll. And I listened to country music. Jazz too.”

BENSON ADMITS that it was a bit schizophrenic living near Philadelphia and being into country music. “Yeah, nobody else I knew was into It. I Just dug it, man. It was on the radio.”

Benson, along with pedal steel guitarist Lucky Oceans and the Wheel’s former keyboard player, Leroy Preston, formed Asleep at the Wheel in Paw Paw, West Virginia, in late 1969, shortly after Benson saw Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, another band that was heavy into reviving Western Swing. But performing a country and western repertoire in West Virginia wasn’t any way to make a living.

“California is so media oriented,” says Benson, explaining the group’s move to Oakland in 1971. “It was hip. Actually, Cody was the major inspiration. They were doing so well out here and had created such a scene; dancing and boogying and honky-tonking in Berkeley, of all places! It seemed like the place to go.”

But after several years of hand-to-mouth living in a rundown Oakland house that most of the band shared, and one unsuccessful album for United Artists, Asleep at the Wheel made the move to Austin, Texas, in 1974. “We felt we needed to go to Texas,” says Benson, dispensing with the wine glass and gulping right from the decanter. “So we could have the experience of playing western dance halls. That allowed us to do all those damn country and western tunes over and over every night to dancing people. We had to master our art, man. I think our band benefited immeasurably from doing that and I don’t ever want to do it again!” Benson lets out a laugh that manages to cross a yuk with a whoop. “Cause it’s a lot of work and it doesn’t pay well.”

Switching record companies, the Wheel started scoring country hits, including ‘The Letter’ and ‘Miles and Miles of Texas’, which made the country audiences aware of the albums they had recorded like Texas GoldWheelin’ and Dealin’ and The Wheel.

Yet according to Benson, despite the record sales and hits, the group still makes little money, despite a touring schedule that often finds them on the road 275 days a year. This is because a group like the Wheel will incur thousands of dollars in expenses recording albums and touring. Once they have a hit, all the debts must be paid out of their record royalties, before they start seeing any of their money. The group travels from gig to gig in a large, customized Silver Eagle bus. “We have a couple of banks keeping us afloat. That’s the facts,” slurrs Benson.

Asked about the Wheel’s ability to play in a variety of classic folk styles without making the performances come off like exercises in nostalgia, Benson explains, “There is nothing new under the sun in this infinite universe. It’s just recreating. I think people tend to put a premium in this day and age on innovation and I don’t agree with that. You don’t have to go out and do something new for it to be valid. That’s all!”

And with that, Ray Benson wanders off in search of another decanter. “Am I High?”

© Michael GoldbergSan Francisco Chronicle, 13 January 1980

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