Asleep at the Wheel

CAN AN ELEVEN-PIECE WESTERN SWING BAND EVER FIND WEALTH AND PROSPERITY IN THE WORLD OF ROCK’N’ROLL?

A sympathetic probe into one of the burning questions of our age.

WHEN YOU’RE around a band like Asleep At The Wheel, there’s a phrase that keeps on springing into your mind. It’s the one that Frank Zappa used to be so fond of using when he was talking about the old Mothers Of Invention. The phrase is “no commercial potential”.

Don’t think, however, that there’s anything wrong with the band’s music. Asleep At The Wheel are one of the tightest, best rehearsed and most professional outfits that I’ve seen in many an oft. The problem is that there are 11 of them, and they’re all playing what can only be a minority interest music.

Commercial potential (or viability, if you like to use words like that) looks about as far away as the Holy Grail if you’re thinking in terms of supertax, buying your mum a house and living in luxury. It’s easy enough to lose money keeping a heavy metal three-piece on the road. The problems are multiplied by a factor of many when you’re dealing with an 11-man Texas swing band.

Asleep At The Wheel don’t appear all that concerned with supertax or living in luxury. Their aims are a lot more simple. They want to keep it together, keep it on the road and go on playing the kind of music that they obviously love.

YOU MAY be asking, round about now, what exactly is western swing? I’ve asked the same question of Lucky Oceans, the pedal steel player, and Link Davis, one of the two-man horn section.

Western swing is basically a hybrid, in the same way that rock and roll is a hybrid. It’s a blend of black music and white country. Unlike rock, though, the black constituent isn’t the kind of electric guitar orientated, small group R&B that sired rock. It goes further back to the free blowing big band jazz that flourished in Kansas City some 30 years ago.

From the middle to the end of the 1930s Kansas was a roaring, wide open city. A corrupt city administration and a prosperity based on grain and cattle made it possible to sustain a rowdy, vigorous red light district. Whores and brothels abounded. The night spots and casinos almost rivalled modern Las Vegas.

Although the wages were low, there was always work, and it drew musicians like a magnet. It was the place where Count Basie and Lester Young took their first steps on the road to immortality, and the youthful Charlie Parker first cut his teeth on an alto saxophone.

Although it’s the black bands that are chiefly remembered from this era, Kansas City also attracted large numbers of white, country pickers. This was only natural. It was the city where the Texas cattlemen went to spend their money and have themselves a good time.

It was inevitable that the country boys, when confronted by the hard driving, blues based, black bands with their big, open-ended horn lineups, should wonder how this kind of music could be incorporated with the guitar and fiddle country that they were playing.

Although quite a few attempted this difficult exercise in cross breeding, the most succussful were Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They developed a unique kind of big sound country that blended horns, guitars and fiddles into what amounted to a down-home, shit-kicking big band sound. The words Texas swing moved info the musical vocabulary.

THESE MAY be the simplified origins of the music, but they hardly explain why a bunch of longhairs from the land of Waylon Jennings and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators should take up playing it, almost against all the odds.

At this point lead guitarist Ray Benton takes up the story. Benton is the archetypal tall rangy Texan. He must stand a good 6’5″ in his cowboy boots. He has a slow grin and a wispy blond beard. We’re sitting in the coffee shop of the Nijmegen concert hall. The rest of the band are puzzling over the menu – written in a Dutch version of haute cuisine French. The Dutch coach driver is doing his best to be helpful but isn’t getting very far.

Singer Chris O’Connell has her hair in curlers in preparation for the show. In the hall itself, Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band are going through a sound check. Albert Lee is belting out ‘That’s Alright Mama’. Ray Benton chews reflectively as he talks about the early days.

“I guess we must have been the first hippies playing country music in the south. This was the time when everthing was split right down the middle. Hippies smoked dope and listened to rock and roll. The rednecks drank whiskey and listened to country music. It was kind of hard crossing those lines.”

But why western swing? Surely most people who grew up on rock and roll and moved into country did it via Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams or Willie Nelson, a path that led to guitar based bands.

“I suppose we just moved in another direction. You have to remember that quite a few of us were into jazz. It was just a natural coming together of everthing we were interested in. There’s a lot of Count Basie and Lester Young influence in the band, as well as Bob Wills.”

Was it hard getting started?

“It wasn’t easy.”

What kind of places did you play in those days?

“Anywhere that would pay us. Colleges, bars, honky tonks. It was rugged at times.”

This fits in with the only other time I’ve seen the band. It was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, outside Detroit. I’d gone with Wayne Kramer and John Sinclair to see them in a tiny beer joint no bigger than the average British pub. At that time they were living in a converted Greyhound bus. Benson laughs.

“We just about ran that bus into the ground.”

But things have changed now?

“Hell, we still play a lot of the same places. Things still aren’t that easy, but it looks as though they’re getting better. This tour should help a lot.”

You had quite a bit of help from Commander Cody along the way?

“Yes, George (Cody) helped us out a lot. We played on his tours, and that was quite a boost. Then the time came when he told us we ought to do it on our own. You can only help people up to a point, and then it isn’t any help at all. It was hard at first, but it was the best thing in the long run.”

By this time, the Hot Band has finished with the stage, and Asleep At The Wheel move out for their own sound check. One of the tunes they use to get a balance on the PA is Louis Jordan’s ‘Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie’. It starts to be really obvious that the band are super eclectic. And this kicks off a conversation, back in the bar, with piano player Floyd Domino.

“We draw on a whole lot of sources. There’s rock and roll, country music, blues. There’s even some cajun music in there. You also shouldn’t forget the jazz influence. That’s really very important to us.”

The mention of cajun brings up the name of Clifton Chenier. To me, Chenier is a legend on record. To Asleep At The Wheel, he’s a familiar face.

“We done a few tours with Clifton. They can be weird at times. When we got down to the real deep south, we couldn’t always play in the same places. The tour would split itself in half. We’d do the redneck honky tonks and Clfiton would to the chitlins circuit.”

We get back to the subject of influences. With so much going on, isn’t it hard to maintain the band’s identity?

“You have to remember they’re only influences. We don’t go out and reproduce the past.

“The band works everything out its own way.”

This becomes abundantly clear when the band go on stage to open for Emmylou. It’s hard to imagine the blend between electric guitars, violins and horns if you haven’t heard it before. The way Asleep At the Wheel put it across, it’s clearly 1977 country and yet there are strange echoes of the 40s big bands. They are very definitely playing in their own ballpark, and according to their own rules.

About three songs into the set they baffle everyone by announcing that the next tune is by Count Basie. If anyone had told me a few hours earlier that I’d be standing at the side of a stage in a provincial Dutch concert hall listening to a country jump band from Texas playing Count Basie, I simply wouldn’t have believed them. When I’m actually on the spot, it all gets uncannily plausible, so plausible that I managed to forget the name of the song.

They steam into it with direct, down the line energy that could put the average rock and roll band to shame. The instruments aren’t over arranged, but they cook along with an amazing free form precision. Particularly outstanding is drummer Scott Hennige. He lays down a kind of powerhouse bop drumming that is little short of miraculous. Even the stage crew are watching with rapt attention.

When you’re talking about a band like Asleep At The Wheel, it’s hard to avoid getting hung up on their musicianship. Sure they’re good, exceptionally good, but they’re not out on stage to impress their audience with how smart they are. At root they’re a good-time band, the sort of band you want to get a buzz on before you see them and keep it going all the way through the show. They’re the sort of band for jumping, foot stomping and getting drunk to.

On the ride back to Amsterdam and the Hilton hotel some the band are showing signs of weariness. Link Davis complains ruefully.

“I haven’t slept since I got to this goddam city.”

The lure of the Amsterdam clubs, Dutch beer and almost legal hashish has been too much for these boys from Texas. The previous night they’d played the infamous Paradiso and then some of them went on to a bar and jammed with a few of the Hot Band. Tonight, on the two hour drive from Nijmegen, they resolve to make it a night of rest.

© Mick FarrenNew Musical Express, 9 April 1977

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