Standing 6 feet and a zillion inches tall, Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, all by himself, could cast a six-piece band in total shadow if the lights were set right.
Yet, as he proved for the zillionth time in a recent performance at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Benson is always eager to pull worthy music out of any shadow into which it may have receded.
Swinging inside the Hall’s intimate Ford Theater, Benson and the rest of the Wheel threw the spotlight on Bob Wills ’ music, as they do so well, but also on two former members of Wills’ band — vocalist and guitarist Leon Rausch and steel guitarist Herb Remington.
Following a brief but endearing guest appearance by Suzy Bogguss , the two ol’ boys from Texas took the stage about a third of the way into the concert. For the rest of the night, the interplay between the Wheel and the ex-Texas Playboys could only be described as sweet delight.
Remington — a Texas Playboy for four years beginning in 1946 and the writer of “Boot Heel Drag” — traded licks and slides with the Wheel’s steel man, Jim Murphy.
Rausch and Benson traded lines like two old friends who’ve just decided, what the heck, let’s go out and sing a few. Known as “the voice” of the Playboys, Rausch worked with the Wills band from 1958 to 1964.
With so much history walking the stage, the night did not lack for stories either. At one point, Benson noted it was Rausch who, over 25 years ago, suggested the Wheel cover Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.”
“We’ve been playing it every night ever since,” Benson said, as the band kicked in to keep that record intact.
At another point, by way of introducing the Wills staple “Blues for Dixie,” Benson commented on his long-held curiosity as to how Wills manager O. W. Mayo wound up with writer’s credit on such a musically sophisticated tune.
When he posed the question one time to Texas songwriter Cindy Walker, she told him, “Oh, I wrote that.” Turns out, she said, she gave the song to Mayo as a gift of thanks for having introduced her to Wills, who went on to immortalize such Walker tunes as “Cherokee Maiden” and “Bubbles in My Beer.”
The boys played so many of Walker’s standards at the Hall of Fame, she could have been billed as a special guest-in-spirit. It was all in keeping with the casual swing of the evening, which had less to do with reviving old tunes than recalling their timelessness.
Closing the night with “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” — laughing and ad-libbing through the song — the musicians showed how close one could get to filling the big Hall in Nashville with the good cheer of a dancehall in Texas.
The special performance was part of a year-long series of Texas-themed cultural events in conjunction with a special exhibit, Nashville Salutes Texas! Country From the Lone Star State. Featuring artifacts from artists such as Wills, Junior Brown , Roy Orbison, Flaco Jimenez and the Dixie Chicks , the exhibit runs through spring 2002.