New Play Spotlights Bob Wills on 100th Birthday

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel Take to Stage in Austin

The music and legend of Bob Wills will come to the stage of the State Theater in Austin, Texas, this week in the production A Ride With Bob: From Austin to Tulsa. It co-stars Ray Benson and his band, Asleep at the Wheel. Opening Thursday (March 3), the event runs through Sunday (March 6), the 100th anniversary of Wills birth. The Western swing pioneer died in 1975.

Benson says it occurred to him last summer that Wills’ centenary was approaching. This spurred him to team with screenwriter Anne Rapp to write the play. She has written screenplays for Robert Altman.

“We’re a little behind the eight ball [on our deadline], but we got it done,” he tells CMT.com from his office at Bismeaux Productions in Austin.

Costs for mounting the two-act, two and a-half hour production are being underwritten primarily by the H-E-B grocery chain, which is also celebrating its 100th anniversary.

A Ride With Bob employs a cast of around 25, Benson says, including 10 musicians, some of whom have speaking roles. Asleep at the Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts plays the young Bob Wills, while actor Marco Perella has the role of Wills’ ghost. Also featured is Jody Nix, one of the few surviving musicians to have played in Wills’ Texas Playboys bands.

“It starts out with Asleep at the Wheel playing ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’” Benson explains. “Then I get on the bus, and the bus driver, through the magic of theater, turns into Bob Wills. He and I talk about things, and then, basically, it reflects back onto the stage and we dramatize events in Bob’s life and career.

“I begin by telling the [real life] story of how I went to meet Bob Wills. … When I got there, he was so sick they took him back to his room and said, ‘You can see him tomorrow.’ He had a stroke that night, went into a coma and died two years later. So I never got to talk to him. The conversation I never had with Bob Wills is what the play is based on. Throughout the play, we highlight his career, from the early days in the cotton fields to the recording sessions, radio shows [and] Hollywood. In the course of doing that, we play about 15 of his songs.”

Whether the play will have a life on CD, DVD or in a touring company after its opening run is something Benson still hasn’t determined.

“We’re going to do it and see how it holds up, see who salutes and go from there.” He acknowledges that it would be an expensive production to take on the road, but adds, “Definitely, we hope to film it.”

Much of Asleep at the Wheel’s identity has been tied to Wills and the Western swing sound — an amalgam of country, pop and jazz — that he perfected. Recalling how he became fascinated with Wills’ music, Benson says, “I was a record hound. In the late ’60s, I started searching out what I called ‘roots music’ — everything from country blues and rhythm & blues to hillbilly music — stuff that seemed to have disappeared from the landscape. I’d always loved fiddle music. I played in square dance bands when I was young. And here was this guy who had played fiddle music and jazz, my two favorites.”

Central to Wills’ appeal, Benson says, was his effervescent stage personality: “It was all-important. There were dozens of Western swing bands, all great. But there was only one Bob Wills. He was the Elvis Presley of his day, down here in the Southwest and in California. His charisma was unmatched. Those who haven’t seen the transcriptions and the videos of Bob Wills can only guess at his incredible stage presence. He was a force unto himself. He was also able to keep the music real, funky and down to earth. Yet it was really complex.”

Even though he’s been an avid student and exponent of Wills’ music for most of his career, Benson says the play has brought him even closer to his idol.

“Hell, I dream about him now,” he says with a chuckle. “Life is funny. You never know where some paths will lead you. I’ve been given a gift, I always felt, of being able to play this music and be one of the people identified with him. It’s been very interesting how it’s taken over a lot of what I do. But the other thing is that whether or not we play the music of Bob Wills … his attitude about music is so relevant to today that I’ve taken that more than anything else — the way that he incorporated music into entertainment. If I never played another Bob Wills tune, the philosophy of what he did is just ingrained in me. It’s what I live by.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.