NASHVILLE (Billboard) - When Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson started a band in Paw Paw, West Virginia, in 1970, he had no idea that 40 years later he would still be at the helm of one of America’s most adventurous musical outfits.
During a four-decade career, the band has earned nine Grammy Awards, launched a critically acclaimed theatrical production, performed with everyone from Willie Nelson to President Obama to the Fort Worth Symphony, released more than 25 albums and had an airport roadhouse named after its frontman.
“At times it feels like it was yesterday and at times it feels like a hundred years ago,” Benson says. “If I look back to 1969 when I quit college and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ it’s hard for me to believe that it all happened way beyond my expectations.”
Those initial expectations were modest. “I was hoping that in 10 years I would have enough money to buy the farm that I lived on and go back to farming and teach music in a music store. That was what I was considering would have been a very successful career, if I got a 10-year run of playing and making records,” he says. “But it just kept going, and there’s more to be done.”
Asleep at the Wheel will celebrate the band’s history, as well as Benson’s 59th birthday, at his annual invitation-only birthday bash March 16 in Austin, during the South by Southwest conference.
As successful as the band has become, Benson is never content to rest on his laurels. He enjoys dual roles as a musician and businessman, having opened Bismeaux Studios in 1989 and launched Bismeaux Records in 2006 while the group has kept on touring and recording. The most recent release from Bismeaux is “Esta Bueno,” the first album in 10 years from the Texas Tornados, the band once described as the first “Tex-Mex supergroup.”
Asleep at the Wheel, meanwhile, teamed with Nelson for the 2009 album “Willie & the Wheel,” fulfilling a longtime vision of renowned producer Jerry Wexler. Before his death in 2008, Wexler had chosen the classic western swing songs that Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel recorded for the album. Wexler had conceived the collaboration in the early ‘70s, when Nelson was signed to Atlantic Records, the producer’s longtime home. The set earned a Grammy nomination for best Americana album. Another “Willie & the Wheel” project is already in the works and will be released next year.
It all started when Asleep at the Wheel landed a gig opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in 1970. A year later, it was coaxed into moving to California by Commander Cody, leader of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen.
“The move to the West Coast was really good,” Benson says, “and the big break was when Van Morrison mentioned us in Rolling Stone. All of a sudden there were these record companies from L.A. going, ‘Who is this Asleep at the Wheel?’”
Benson says the California chapter was an important time in the band’s history. “We met a peer group — Commander Cody, Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, Elvin Bishop — but we also got to meet the originators of western swing like Tiny Moore. We learned from them. Then we were so broke, we took a job backing up Stoney Edwards, and that put us on an incredible journey where we wound up backing Freddie Hart, Connie Smith, LaWanda Lindsey and Dave Dudley as a country western backup band. That was an education in itself.”
In 1973, the same year its debut album, “Comin’ Right at Ya,” arrived on United Artists, the band made a pivotal move that would define its career. At the invitation of Nelson and Texas Tornados co-founder Doug Sahm, Asleep at the Wheel moved to Austin.
“We went to Austin and played and just fell in love with Texas,” Benson recalls. “Willie and Doug were both (saying), ‘Oh, yeah, you could do this here.’ Willie would put us on shows. Doug was just a great friend and told us what the scene was like.”
The move greatly benefitted Benson, and the band kept honing its sound. “What took root in Paw Paw, West Virginia, came to full bloom in Austin,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young says. “From Count Basie to Bob Wills, Asleep at the Wheel has explored the best of the American songbook, western swing style. Over these past 40 years, Ray Benson has followed his heart down Route 66 and far beyond to build a lasting musical legacy for himself and all the great players who’ve taken a turn with the Wheel.”
Through the years, the band recorded for multiple labels including Capitol, CBS and Arista Nashville, finding only sporadic success on radio with such songs as “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” and “House of Blue Lights.”
Although the band developed a reputation as one of the best live acts in the business, finding a home on radio has always been a challenge. “We were too country for rock ‘n’ roll and too long-haired and weird for country,” Benson says. “So there was no place for us. But what happened was our first or second single, ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ started playing in Tulsa, so all of a sudden people in Oklahoma liked us. When the record came out, people who understood what we were doing were (saying), ‘Wow! These young long-haired weirdos named Asleep at the Wheel are playing Bob Wills music.’ That’s when we found out just how popular Bob Wills was. We knew how great he was, but we didn’t realize he was the Elvis Presley of Texas, Oklahoma and the West Coast.”
The band’s appreciation for Wills and continuing efforts to keep his legacy alive are a consistent thread through the group’s career. In 1993, it recorded “Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills,” featuring such contributors as Garth Brooks, George Strait and Vince Gill. In 1999 the band released “Ride With Bob,” featuring the Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Manhattan Transfer, among others. The project netted two Grammys. It was accompanied by a longform video, “The Making of Ride With Bob,” which captured a regional Emmy.
In 2005 the act launched one of its most ambitious projects, “A Ride With Bob: The Bob Wills Musical,” written by Benson and Anne Rapp. Benson had met Wills briefly, but was on his way to visit him in 1974 when Wills got sick and had to cancel. He died before the meeting occurred. The play is based on how that conversation might have gone.
“There’s 39 or 40 people, including musicians, technicians, lighting, costumes,” says Benson, who stars in the musical along with the other band members. “We’ve played San Francisco. We’ve done Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Oklahoma,” he adds, noting that “we’re probably going to film it in the fall. I’ve got some marquee actors who are going to come in and do cameo roles.”
A Ride With Bob” has been performed the past two years at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston, a 1,040-seat venue that’s the official opera house of Texas. “We brought it in as part of our season, then brought it in again because it was so popular,” Grand executive director Maureen Patton says. “Then this year we opted to just bring in Asleep at the Wheel’s concert.” (The band will perform April 16.)
The premise of “A Ride With Bob” piques curiosity, Patton says. “Whenever we hear a story about a chance meeting or a missed opportunity, it just pulls us in,” she says. “We want to find out more. We want to know the rest of the story. And Ray is so engaging, he connects with the audience on every level.”
At 6 feet, 7 inches, Benson has always been a commanding presence onstage, and through the years, he’s attracted a talented troupe of musicians. “I think my greatest talent has been the ability to convince people to come join this crazy thing,” Benson says.
The current lineup features fiddler Jason Roberts, pianist Dan Walton, steel guitarist Eddie Rivers, drummer David Sanger, vocalist/rhythm guitarist Elizabeth McQueen and bassist David Miller.
After 40 years, Benson can’t imagine doing anything but making music. “I’m a lousy fisherman and a mediocre golfer, so I like to do something I’m good at,” he says with a laugh.
“There were some lean times, but I always felt like there was so much more to give and the real determinant was the fans. People would come up to me and say, ‘Don’t quit, Ray! You guys are the last vestige of not only western swing, but of a touring band that plays roots Americana music, brings something new to it and keeps the tradition growing.’
“I could have quit a hundred times and probably done OK, but the burden of responsibility is what kept me in it. The burden of responsibility for the music that was passed on to me by the generations before really weighed on me. It’s a real honor to have that ability, that potential and the chance to do that.”