Still Swinging

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel Connect with Western Swing's Roots

LOS ANGELES – The historic Santa Monica Pier here holds special significance for Ray Benson and his Grammy-nominated Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel.

During the ’40s and ’50s, Benson’s forbearers, including the great Bob Wills and Spade Cooley, appeared frequently at clubs on the pier, playing dance music for transplanted Oklahomans and Texans who had come to California in the ’30s to escape Dust Bowl devastation, and later, to work in the defense industry during World War II.

The pier also is the nexus of America’s most famous highway, Route 66. Benson and his band celebrated the highway’s anniversary eight years ago, traveling its length and singing its praises along the way. They concluded their tribute to the highway with their first appearance on the Pier.

Saturday night (Feb. 19), Benson and his band returned, playing the intimate Arcadia club, as part of a swirl of activity in Southern California surrounding their six Grammy nominations. Grammy awards will be handed out Wednesday night (Feb. 23) at the Staples Center here, during a ceremony to be telecast by CBS (8 p.m. ET).

Backstage at the Arcadia, before the band’s set, Benson received well wishers, including one who joked, “What’s the deal Ray? Only six nominations? Couldn’t you do better than that?” Benson dropped his chin and shook his head in mock resignation.

In truth, Benson and his pals can win only five awards, all related to their fine Bob Wills tribute album, Ride with Bob. They compete against themselves in one category, best country collaboration with vocals. “Going Away Party,” a Cindy Walker tune, features the Wheel with Willie Nelson and The Manhattan Transfer. It’s up against “Roly Poly,” written by Fred Rose and performed by Benson and band with the Dixie Chicks.

Other nominations include best country album, best country instrumental performance (for “Bob’s Breakdowns,” a fiddle showcase which features Vince Gill and Steve Wariner), best recording package and best long form music video.

In their appearance on the Santa Monica Pier, music — not music industry awards — held first priority for long, tall Benson and his six band mates. Tim Hauser of The Manhattan Transfer joined them on stage but not for “Going Away Party.” Benson handled that one himself, instead teaming with Hauser for “Java Jive.”

This year marks Asleep at the Wheel’s 30th anniversary as a performing unit. Playing his white Fender Telecaster guitar, Benson has the relaxed control of a veteran touring musician. He tipped his Stetson to Tinsel Town’s singing cowboys with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Before “Roly Poly,” Benson joked about the absence of his now-famous collaborators, the Dixie Chicks. “The Chicks are out surfing tonight,” he said. “I heard there was a sighting on the third wave down.” But the band turned the song into its own showcase, alternating tasty solos between Benson and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, fiddler Jason Roberts, saxophonist Michael Francis and 21-year-old pianist John Michael.

Benson’s allegiance to the Wills legacy comes through most powerfully in his eclectic approach to delivering a song. Like Wills and the Texas Playboys, Asleep at the Wheel incorporates elements of blues, jazz, pop, country, swing, even rock. “Red River Valley,” for instance, underwent a nifty transformation, becoming a relaxed, Willie Nelson-style blues before ending with a little of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “This Ol’ Cowboy.”

At one point during the evening, Benson showed off his boots, size 16 EEE blue suede numbers, given to him by Dwight Yoakam. Whether or not Benson and his band mates win a Grammy this week, Asleep at the Wheel continue to take giant steps, filling the shoes of their main inspiration, Bob Wills.