Asleep at the Wheel has pushed through hardships to remain one of the most well respected Texas swing groups in the game.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Towering 6’7” Ray Benson doesn’t really know why his band Asleep at the Wheel has lasted more than 40 years.
“We’ve had about a hundred folks come in and out of this band over the years,” he says from the group’s Austin, Texas office. “I think the secret is: Don’t quit and just push through the bad times.”
In 1977, the Texas swing outfit – performing Saturday afternoon at Galante Vineyards – was voted Best Country Western Band by Rolling Stone and awarded the Touring Band of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. Since its inception in 1970, the band has earned eight Grammy awards, released more than 20 studio albums and, in 1975, their tune “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” placed No. 10 on the Billboard charts. The sultry drunkard song is an intoxicating melting pot of country western, mariachi and Tex-Mex goodness navigated by Benson’s bass voice.
But amid all the accolades, praise and great tunes, Asleep at the Wheel almost didn’t survive the 1980s.
“I had to mortgage my house and play wherever I could,” Benson says. “I did a lot of commercials and did what I had to do. Hell, I produced k.d. lang in a Budweiser commercial.”
Benson likens Asleep at the Wheel’s fate during this time to the alcoholic mantra “one day at a time.”
“We’d say, ‘Let’s get through this week and see what happens next week,’” he says. “Show business careers are like a roller coaster and you just have to know that and push through.”
The band spent a majority of the decade playing everything from small rooms to roadside honky tonks, and were happy if they made just enough money to cover their hotel rooms, food and gas. Perseverance paid off: By the late 80s, Epic Records agreed to take them back and Asleep at the Wheel recorded 10, which earned them a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental.
In addition to a tour with Bob Dylan and more Grammys, Asleep at the Wheel released a couple widely popular tribute albums to Benson’s number one source of inspiration, Bob Wills. On Ride with Bob, they brought on a versatile selection of guests including everyone from the Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam to the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Tim McGraw.
Most recently, Benson collaborated with Willie Nelson on Willie and the Wheel – a concept originally conceived by famed producer Jerry Wexler years ago – an album that garnered another Grammy with the help of tunes like the truck driving anthem, “Truck Driver’s Blues.”
Benson says they started recording Willie and the Wheel 2 and it’s more than halfway done but Nelson hasn’t been able to find the time just yet to finish it.
“For us timing is everything,” Benson says. “You can’t second guess anything. You just go with it. It’s an honor and a pleasure to continue to play this kind of music.”
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL and RED BEANS & RICE perform at 2pm Saturday, July 21, at Galante Vineyards, 18181 Cachagua Road, Carmel Valley. $55; $75 reserved table seats. 624-3800, www.galantevineyards.com