They’ve been a band for 48 years. Not an on-again, off-again outfit that has broken up numerous times amidst tabloid-worthy squabbles and an overdose or two, only to reform to play underwhelming sets at an overwhelming price, but an outfit that writes the songs, releases a record every couple of years, and is consistent when they hit the road.
There are not many bands of that nature, but Asleep at the Wheel is one of them. Sure, there have been member changes – many, in fact – but perhaps having some new and young musicians to play alongside Ray Benson, who has led the band since day one, has been a contributing factor to the longevity.
The celebrated Western swing band will return to Durango on Sunday, August 12, with a show at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College. Opening the show is local bluegrass band Stillhouse Junkies.
Benson’s musical taste, and therefore Asleep at the Wheel’s sound, was greatly influenced by radio of the 1950s and ’60s. Commercial radio was cool then, as you didn’t have to live around the left of the dial to find musical variety or things that were hot. It was in the suburbs of Philadelphia where Benson found such radio.
“We had the most diverse radio stations around. I heard everything. There’s a jazz station; I learned jazz. There was the gospel station and I learned great gospel music. There was rock and roll. I heard Patsy Cline and country music,” said Benson. “So it was the diverse musical landscape that was around in the ’50s and ’60s that really formed us. I wanted my band to be as eclectic as my record collection.”
After playing everything from folk to fiddle music at square dances, Benson found himself in West Virginia, with the plan to make a record and play around for 10 years before returning to farming. Soon after forming, though, the promise of shows from members of Commander Cody’s band led them to California. Further encouragement from Willie Nelson landed them in Austin in 1973, where they’ve been ever since.
Western swing is the perfect sound for a country musician, or for country music fans who also may have an affinity for Miles Davis or Benny Goodman. There are some serious chops to this style of music, a world where twang brushes up against the swinging rhythms of big-band jazz, where pedal steel lives comfortably next to a horn or two.
It remains one of the hipper and more diverse sub-styles of country music, encompassing jazz and blues. It’s a style that lets the band bounce around different musical scenes, and made them as comfortable opening for Alice Cooper or Hot Tuna as they were for George Jones or Johnny Cash. At one point, they were even asked to open for The Sex Pistols, which Benson turned down, knowing that opening acts for the punk band in the 1970s would likely mean getting spit on, or worse.
Recent tours launched them onto bills with The Avett Brothers, George Straight, and Old Crow Medicine Show. Their music is timeless and celebrates the American music canon, a big band led by the well over 6-foot tall Benson, who charges through 48 years worth of material.
“Our goal was to be the most eclectic band there is, and we also wanted to have a country-western career,” said Benson. “Back in 1970, 1972, or 1973, we put our record out, but baby boomer, long-haired hippie kids playing country music did not get on the country-western charts. But we did, and we toured with all those people. And yeah, that’s great; that’s who we are, but we’re also going to play boogie-woogie, country music, rhythm and blues, and country blues. Western swing let us do all that.”
The band’s next record, “New Routes,” will drop in September.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]