Asleep at the Wheel has seen miles and miles of Texas. They got their kicks on Route 66. And, in 2010, the band clicked another milestone on the odometer – their 40th anniversary. Now in their 41st year, the band continues to introduce the western swing genre to a new generation on tour and takes audiences on the ride of a lifetime with their play, “A Ride with Bob.”
“It’s been an amazing ride. From Paw Paw to San Francisco to Austin, we’ve seen it all,” says Wheel front man Ray Benson. “But, rest assured, there are still so many exciting projects in the works. The Wheel keeps rolling!”
The Wheel Gets Rolling
“there’s some relatively unknown group around that I really dig.
Asleep at the Wheel plays great country music.”
Van Morrison Rolling Stone Interview (1973)
It all started when Ray Benson, Floyd Domino, and Lucky Oceans, along with a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O’Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. They began with a simple goal: to play and help revive American roots music.
Asleep at the Wheel landed a gig opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in Washington, DC in 1970. At the height of Vietnam, many Americans were using their choice of music to express their stance on the conflict in southeast Asia. “We wanted to break that mold,” said Benson. “We were concerned more with this amazing roots music, which we felt was being lost amid the politics. We were too country for the rock folks and we were too long-haired for the country folks. But everybody got over it once the music started playing.”
A year later, they were coaxed into moving to California by Commander Cody, leader of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. But, the band’s big break came when Van Morrison mentioned them in an interview with Rolling Stone. The record offers started coming in and The Wheel got rolling.
80+ But Who’s Counting?
“We’re a dance band. That’s what we’re about. And that’s plenty.”
The musicianship of Asleep at the Wheel has become the stuff of legends. Reuter’s pegged The Wheel as “one of the best live acts in the business.” Taking a page from Bob Wills’ book, the band has constantly toured at a national level throughout its history; with anywhere from 7-15 of the finest players Ray Benson could talk into jumping in the bus to play a string of dates. The alumni roster is well over 80+ members, and includes an impressive list of musicians who have gone on to perform with artists such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, and many more. A quick scan of awards, such as “Touring Band of the Year” (CMAs, 1976) and “Lifetime Achievement in Performance” (Americana Music Awards 2009), not to mention near dominance of the GRAMMY “Country Instrumental” category over the years, reflects the reputation of the band’s musicianship. Ray Benson fell in love with western swing because of its unique combination of elements of American blues, swing and traditional fiddling but also for its demanding musical chops. Western swing is what Benson calls “jazz with a cowboy hat,” is a thrill to hear live, and thanks in large part to the Wheel’s 40 years of promotion, is a living and creative genre of music today.
On the Records
“Everything this act has ever released is simply spectacular.”
Billboard Magazine (2010)
Over their history, Asleep at The Wheel has garnered nine GRAMMY Awards and released more than 25 studio and live albums, and there is no sign of slowing down any time soon. Just last year they earned a Grammy nomination in the newly minted Best Americana Album category for their critically acclaimed Willie & The Wheel, on Bismeaux Records. Most recently, another collaborative project paired the band with the legendary lead from Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, Leon Rausch. The distinguished velvety vocals that voiced the King of western swing partnered with “post-modern kings of Texas Swing” on It’s A Good Day, which USA Today called, “swing from the heavens.” It was Leon who first suggested to Ray in the 1970’s that The Wheel record Get Your Kicks (on Route 66). The Wheel has now recorded the hit 4 times in 4 different decades, with this latest version featuring Leon.
The Play is The Thing
“The most entertaining night in Texas.”
The Broadway-scale musical that started as a commemoration of Bob Will’s 100th birthday in 2005 now marks its own milestone in 2010; 5 years. Ray Benson and Ann Rapp co-wrote the first-ever musical drama about Benson’s idol, entitled “A Ride with Bob: The Bob Wills Musical.” At the core of the story is the conversation Ray intended to have when he was invited to meet with Wills in 1974, fresh off the Wheel’s release of “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Unfortunately, that meeting never happened as Mr. Wills took ill and never recovered. For the last five years, the play has presented an inspired look into the life, loves and music of the colorful Bob Wills in performances across Texas and from San Francisco to Washington DC. Immediately embraced by western swing fans, this unique presentation has achieved cult-status amongst fans who can’t get enough. This year “A Ride with Bob” continued its tour with performances in Abilene, Richardson and in Austin, September 17 and 18 at the Long Center.
True to Asleep at the Wheel’s original vision, the play isn’t just appealing to core fans. A 2007 interview with The New York Times noted, “the play had another advantage. ‘We were reaching a completely new audience,’ Mr. Benson said — theatergoers who might never set foot in a beer joint, or even in a cowboy boot.”
From Dance Halls to Concert Halls
“A Swinging Symphony”
-Fort Worth Star Telegram
Any band that spends upwards of 250 days on the road each year is more than likely to have seen its fair share of dives, gin joints, biker bars, clubs, auditoriums, dance halls and the like. The Wheel is no exception. Another place Wheel fans have more recently discovered the music has been in symphony halls. Originally debuted in collaboration with the Austin Symphony, the Wheel has since gone on to present their pops program in select performances across the country, and even released a CD in 2006 of their performance with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Throughout their four decades the Wheel has driven the genre to the edge, explored new territories, picked up new passengers along the way and crisscrossed the country to the delight of fans and critics alike. And, even though they’re doing “forty,” there’s no chance of slowing down now.
Asleep at the Wheel History
1951 Bandleader Ray Benson born in Philadelphia, PA. (March 16)
1970 Band forms in Paw Paw, WV. Play first “big show” opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna.
1971 Band moves to California at the invitation of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
Van Morrison helps the band to get first record deal by mentioning them in an interview in Rolling Stone Magazine – ‘there’s some relatively unknown group around that I really dig. Asleep at the Wheel plays great country music. They’re really good musicians.’
1973 Debut album Comin’ Right At Ya released by United Artists (includes single “Take Me Back to Tulsa”)
At invitation of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, band moves to Austin, Texas
1974 “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” from their second album Asleep at the Wheel is their first chart single
1975 The release of Texas Gold on Capitol Records elevates the band to one of the most popular country acts of the decade, with “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” becoming a top-ten country hit.
Band stars on the premier episode of “Austin City Limits” television show (and has performed 11 times since then).
1977 Voted Best Country & Western Band by Rolling Stone
The Wheel awarded “Touring Band of the Year” by Academy of Country Music.
Tours Europe with Emmylou Harris
1978 Their sixth nomination turns out to be their first GRAMMY™ win for the country instrumental “One O’Clock Jump.” The Wheel will go on to eight more to date.
Band appears in the film Roadie with Meatloaf, Blondie and Art Carney.
1979 Their first live album Served Live is recorded at the Austin Opera House
1987 The album 10 scores big with the GRAMMY™-winning single “String of Pars”
1989 Against the advice of most music insiders, Ray establishes Bismeaux Studio and Bismeaux Records where he’ll go on to produce projects for Willie Nelson, Pam Tillis, Carolyn Wonderland, Aaron Watson, James Hand, Suzy Bogguss, Don Walser, Dale Watson and many others.
1991 Ray directs the music and co-stars in the film Wild Texas Wind with Dolly Parton and Gary Busey
1992 Band featured on Route 66 Tour (66th Anniversary of Route 66)
1993 Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills for Liberty Records, including guest artists Garth Brooks, George Strait and Vince Gill amongst many others, is an instant hit, earning two GRAMMYS™ and a live performance on the Country Music Awards telecast with Lyle Lovett.
1997 Old Silver Eagle tour bus retired with over 3 million miles.
1999 Ride With Bob CD is released by Dreamworks and includes guest performances by the Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Manhattan Transfer and others. The ensuing long form documentary The Making of Ride with Bob earns a regional Emmy Award. The album wins two GRAMMY™ Awards.
2000 Tour with Bob Dylan & George Strait Stadium Tours begin (2000-2001)
2002 Ray hosts the CMT special Stars Over Texas in Austin, going toe-to- toe with Dolly Parton and Vince Gill.
2003 Ray releases his first solo record Beyond Time while at the same time managing to make two records with the band (Live at Billy Bob’s Texas and Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo)
2004 Ray is named the official 2004 Texas State Musician
Asleep at the Wheel launches its Pops program in performances with Austin and Dallas Symphonies
2005 “A Ride with Bob: The Bob Wills Musical,” co-written by Ray Benson and starring Ray and members of Asleep at the Wheel, debuts in Austin to coincide with Wills’ 100th birthday. Through the year, further performances in 4 cities sell out and garner critical acclaim.
Band chosen for opening performance at inaugural Austin City Limits Festival and carry on the tradition annually.
2006 “A Ride with Bob” sells out the Kennedy Center, with President and Mrs. George W. Bush in attendance. (The play is still performed around the country today and has introduced many to Bob Wills.)
2007 Band releases Reinventing the Wheel, their first feature CD in several years.
Band hits the road for “Last of the Breed” Tour, featuring Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price. Performance filmed for broadcast on PBS.
Ray serves as a judge on the ABC’s “Six Degrees of Martina McBride.”
2008 Ray Benson awarded the TEC – Les Paul Award honoring individuals or institutions that have set the highest standards of excellence in the creative application of recording technology.
Ray joins Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts for a musical tribute to Bob Wills on the 50th Annual GRAMMY™ Awards telecast on CBS.
Then Presidential candidate Barrack Obama joins Ray Benson on stage for a performance of “Boogie Back to Texas” at an Austin Fundraiser.
2009 Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel release “Willie & The Wheel” and earn a GRAMMY™ nomination for Best Americana Album – the first time this category has ever appeared.
Americana Music Association honors Asleep at the Wheel with Lifetime Achievement Award.
2010 The band releases “It’s a Good Day” with Texas Playboy Leon Rausch.
2011 Ray Benson receives the Texas Medal of the Arts.
Ray Benson named Texan of the Year.
Ray Benson – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar
David Sanger – Drums
David Miller – Vocals, Bass
Eddie Rivers – Saxophone, Pedal Steel
Jason Roberts – Vocals, mandolin, Fiddle
Elizabeth McQueen – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Dan Walton – Piano