When it comes to membership, country music group Asleep at the Wheel is like a revolving door.
“I’ve had a hundred people through this band,” said leader and founding member Ray Benson. “It’s been 42 years.”
Playing Sunday at the Blackout Block Party fundraiser at Grady's 66 Pub in Yukon, the Texas outfit has been a driving force in country music since 1970.
Inspired by Bob Wills, Asleep at the Wheel is one of the few remaining popular acts in Western swing, a genre that had Benson hooked from first listen.
“It’s everything I really like, melded into one. You take West Texas fiddle music and combine it with big band swing and Mississippi Delta blues and New Orleans jazz and country songwriting,” he said. “It’s about as American as it gets. It’s good-time music.”
Benson touted the jazz element — and the improvisation involved — to keeping the act fresh after all these years. That’s important, with Asleep at the Wheel still spending half the year touring nationwide and abroad. Benson has turned his focus to enticing younger audiences to give Western swing a listen; Asleep has appeared at every Austin City Limits Music Festival and worked with music megastars, most famously collaborating with Willie Nelson for an album in 2009.
Currently, Benson and company have projects with Pat Green, Randy Rogers, Reckless Kelly, Huey Lewis and hometown favorite Cody Canada lined up for the near future. The bulk of the Wheel’s creative energy, however, is centered on finishing a career-retrospective documentary that the group will take on the road.
“After 40 years, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got a lot of stuff here,’” Benson said. “It shows the evolution of the band. I open my mouth and go ‘wow’ a lot. It’s so interesting to have your life on film. It was eye-opening, to say the least.”
As the 61-year-old musician has sifted through four decades of footage, he sees no reason why Asleep at the Wheel will stop turning anytime soon.
“Part of it is realizing that while trends will change in music, certain things never go away. This music has survived almost a century. People identify with it as a part of American culture,” Benson said. “We’ve stayed relatively the same, and if you want to hear it, you’ve kind of got to come to us.”
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• Bob Wills archives in OK Pop Museum
• Cody Canada interview
• Randy Rogers interview
• Reckless Kelly interview