Asleep at the Wheel - Biography
By J Poet
Asleep at the Wheel kept western swing from going out of style and is one of the few swing bands still packing clubs in the New Millennium. They’ve won eight Grammys, notched up a few gold records and lasted 30 years longer than anyone ever expected when they started out. The Wheel is singer/guitarist Ray Benson’s invention, and, like Bob Wills, he’s a great leader capable of bringing new talent into the fold whenever the need arises. There have been more than 80 band members since 1973, but as their many Grammys prove, the quality of the music and performance remains constant.
Ray Benson was raised in Philadelphia, PA in the 1950s, and played in his family band in high school. He went to Antioch College and between classes took guitar lessons from John Fahey and Stephan Grossman. He quit school and with his friends Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel player and drummer LeRoy Preston, started woodshedding in a farmhouse in West Virginia. Benson’s high school pal, singer/guitarist Chris O'Connell joined next and the new band moved to Washington, D.C., where the thriving country scene featured a young Emmylou Harris. When Commander Cody came through town on a tour, he suggested a move to Berkeley, CA, and the band followed him west.
In the Bay Area Floyd Domino joined on keyboards and they landed a residency at the Longbranch Saloon in Berkeley, where they honed their music and stage presentation. Van Morrison mentioned them in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine and United Artists signed them. Although it was as good as anything they ever cut, with all the elements that made them stars already in place, Comin' Right at Ya (1973 United Artists) flopped. The band moved to Austin, where the town’s wide-open scene felt like home and made Asleep at the Wheel (1974 Epic) another great album that bombed.
After signing with Capitol they released Texas Gold (1975), which made it to #7 on the country charts with "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” becoming a mid-sized country single. Wheelin' & Dealin' (1976 Capitol), The Wheel (1977 Capitol), and Collision Course (1978 Capitol) saw the band going from strength to strength. Their cover of Count Bassie’s “One O’clock Jump” on Collision Course won them their first Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy.
The band seemed to be on its way, but the next nine years were tumultuous with frequent personnel changes. Despite their constant touring, they were almost broke. Asleep at the Wheel (1985 MCA, 1995 Uni) featured guest shots by Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson, but things didn’t settle down until the stripped down band that made 10 (1987 Epic, 1990 Columbia.) It won a Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for their own “String of Pars” and included the hit single “House of Blue Lights,” a long time staple of their repertoire. The Wheel took home another Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for Western Standard Time (1988 Epic.) The band’s next big score was the double Grammy winning A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys (1993 Liberty) cut with an all star cast including Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, George Strait, Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart and Suzy Bogguss, Chet Atkins, Lyle Lovett, and Merle Haggard. It took Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Red Wing” and Best Duo or Group Performance for the Benson/Lovett duet “Blues for Dixie.”
The Wheel Keeps on Rollin' (1995 Capitol) scored another Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for “Hightower.” After Back to the Future Now - Live at Arizona Charlie’s (1997 Epic), an album featuring past and present members of the band, they made another double Grammy winning Wills tribute Ride with Bob (1999 DreamWorks) with Dwight Yoakam, the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin. It earned a Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammy for “Bob’s Breakdown” and a Best Duo or Group Vocal Performance for “Cherokee Maiden.”
The Wheel concentrated on touring for the next few years, but came back with guns blazing with four new albums in one year. Take Me Back to Tulsa (2003 Evangeline), Wide Awake!: Live in Oklahoma (2003 Evangeline), Live at Billy Bob's Texas (2003 Smith Music Group), Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo (2003 Shout! Factory), a studio effort with folk and modern songs about the seminal Texas event, and Beyond Time (2003 Koch/Audium), Benson’s first solo album. Santa’s Boogie (2006 Bismeaux) was their second Christmas album and Reinventing the Wheel (2006 Bismeaux) showed the band’s chops and spirit still in top shape. They surprised everyone with Asleep at the Wheel with The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (2007 Bismeaux), a set that combined the Wheel’s greatest hits with some swinging classical charts.