It’s been six years since the last one, and the timing couldn’t be better. With the surge in interest in swing music as of late, Asleep at the Wheel has recently released Ride with Bob, their second tribute to the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills. Their first, aptly titled Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, was released in 1993 and garnered critical accolades as well as a Grammy award.
Ray Benson, founder of AATW, takes the current swing phenomenon with a grain of salt. “I don’t believe in fads, fads come and go and this is our 30th year. We try not to worry too much about trends.”
He didn’t really intend to do a second album, but felt the first one didn’t wholly fulfill his vision. “Well, we never quite finished it the first time. It was like, between the material selection, the record companies won’t let you put 40 cuts on an album,” he explains with a droll laugh. “That’s what happened, so really it made a half of what I wanted to do. The first album we did was wonderful, but we didn’t cover the entire area, the genre. For one, his hits, we didn’t even do on the first album. We didn’t do ‘San Antonio Rose,’ ‘Faded Love,’ ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ ‘Stay All Night.’ These are the, quote, hits of Bob Wills.”
Benson is knowledgeable on this point. He cofounded AATW, in 1969, with Leroy Preston and Lucky Oceans in Paw Paw, W.V., and played locally. They were inspired musically not only by Bob Wills-styled Western swing but honky-tonk, jazz, blues and big band music as well. In the early years they moved around, first to Washington, D.C., then to Berkeley, Calif., and finally landed in Austin, Texas, where the band resides currently. Benson is the only original member left, and through the years over 80 musicians have been part of the ever-rolling Wheel’s lineup. The current lineup includes Benson (guitar/vocals), Cindy Cashdollar (steel guitar/Dobro), Michael Francis (saxophone), Jason Roberts (fiddle/vocals), Chris Booher (piano/fiddle), David Miller (bass) and David Sanger (drums).
All sorts of artists lined up to be on this album; some, like Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett, were part of the first tribute. Haggard has a soulful defining moment with his version of “St. Louis Blues,” the W.C. Handy classic. Gill and Steve Wariner trade hot guitar licks on “Bob’s Breakdowns,” Nelson does a starry rendition of “Going Away Party” backed by the Manhatten Transfer and Lyle Lovett duets with pop songstress Shawn Colvin on “Faded Love.” Established stars like Reba McEntire, Dwight Yoakam and Tim McGraw also contributed tracks. There’s lots of fresh blood, too – The Dixie Chicks give a sassy reading of the cutesy “Roly Poly,” Lee Ann Womack lends an aching vocal to “Heart to Heart Talk” and Clay Walker reprises the spirited “Take Me Back to Tulsa” with Benson in tow. Benson himself contributed vocals on five tracks, including the lead on “Cherokee Maiden.” All told, three generations of artists came together to honor Wills, as Benson sees it, with a few close encounters of the fateful kind along the way.
The collaboration with Walker came about quite by accident. They were both in transit on the same airplane, and Benson told him about the Wills project, which he had just finished. “Clay said, ‘Man, I gotta sing on it! Bob Wills means so much to me, you guys mean so much to me’” Benson remembers. “And I said, OK, let me go to the record company and see if they give me enough money to do two more cuts. And they did.”
Sonically speaking, the album captures the immediacy of the old Wills recordings without sounding too polished, a feat lacking in a lot of contemporary recordings. Benson puts a lot of emphasis on the studio environment. “We build a lot of our own gear. And it’s old tube gear, so basically we recreate the old tube sound. Although it’s recorded on a digital format, it fattens everything up and makes it sound warm and beautiful,” he says enthusiastically. “We wanted to be technically great. Bob Wills and them never even thought about that. [They used] one microphone, and when you wanted to be louder you stepped closer to the microphone. And not only that, they really didn’t see the recording medium as anything special, it was just set it up and we’ll play what we play every night anyway.
“I listen to those old recordings and I think, we’d never get away with that these days! On the other hand, the spirit is so important and the feel is so important, that’s what we tried to capture and then combine it with some of the finer points of technology to give us better sonics.”
The album was recorded over the period of a year and a few weeks, to accommodate all the various artists’ schedules. The hardest part, Benson says, was the attorneys and the record companies, although they were able to deal with it. “The worst part, again, was the people I couldn’t include on the album that I really wished I could. I just ran out of time, money and space.”
Another milestone in the Bob Wills legacy was his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, along with Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, an honor Benson says is well deserved. “I think he was one of the pioneers of rock ‘n roll, period. I think a case could be made. The line I always read about rock ‘n roll was that it was a cross between country music, R&B and bluegrass. And I say, yeah, but no,” he punctuates. “If you look at the real history of it, Bill Haley and the Comets were the original rock `n roll band, which is pretty arguably accurate – “Rock Around the Clock” ushered in rock ‘n roll. And Bill Haley and the Comets were Bill Haley and the Westernaires. They were a Western swing band. They took off from Bob Wills, so that’s what they were.
“I can go back a little further. Tommy Allsup, who played on this record, was Buddy Holly’s lead guitar player. When Buddy hired him, he was playing in a Western swing band, Billy Graham’s Big Western Swing Band. I said, ‘Tommy, what’d you do differently?’ He said, ‘Nothin’, I turned the treble up on my guitar.’ Western swing incorporated blues, jazz and country music. Rock ‘n roll did the same thing – they just left out the jazz.”
At the beginning of his career with AATW, Benson and his bandmates had a momentary encounter with Wills, who was working on what would be his final album, For the Last Time, in 1973. Benson remembers the eerie incident quite clearly. “I was a kid, I was a young man, 22. There we were, we’d help put the session together because we were on this label and Tommy Allsup (our producer) put it together. We went down and walked in and they were wheeling him out of the control room with Mrs. Wills and a couple of other people. And they said, ‘Bob, this is Asleep at the Wheel’ and they introduced us.
“He was kind of slumped over and he just kind of grunted. Mrs. Wills said, ‘He’s very tired, I’m going to take him back to the room so he can get some rest.’ That night, he had a stroke and never regained consciousness. So, I thought this was like the passing of the torch.
“I asked Tommy if he was aware of who we were, and that our first record was one of his, that we were doing Western swing. He was very interested, but I don’t really know what he thought,” he recalls. “It was more than inspiring, cause the music inspired us plenty more. Gosh, we have a legacy that we’ve sort of been entrusted with, that’s something that I never took lightly.”
Benson is definitely in it for the long haul. The various incarnations of Asleep at the Wheel have had 22 albums to date, with no intentions of altering their style, even after the present rage over swing goes into remission. “Every night I get to play I can find something interesting to myself to do within the context, because it involves improvisation,” he explains. “That’s what I get my kicks doin’, that’s what I love doin’. And that’s what I think people like about what we do. It’s spontaneous – they can see we’re having fun, we’re inspired, and they can hear it.
“I think what we did, which has in the long run served us well, is we did not just learn from Bob Wills. We were lucky enough to have met and learned from and played with all the old Texas Playboys. Instead of just learning what they did – this was 20 to 25 years ago – we would say to them, ‘Hey who were you listening to when your were 21 years old?’ Then we’d go back and check those guys out.
“There were plenty of Western swing bands, but Bob Wills had a personality and a spirit that was charismatic, fun and a bit outrageous. He was an iconoclast, he was an individualist.”