Asleep at the Wheel gonna wake us up

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Mid-winter doldrums will disappear in a couple of weeks as western swing legends Asleep at the Wheel roll into town for a show at the historic Auditorium. For almost 50 years, AATW has thrilled audiences with their mixture of country, swing, jazz and roadhouse boogie similar to the music made popular mid-century by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Reviewer Jerry Wofford of The Tulsa World wrote, “If Bob Wills is still the king, then Asleep at the Wheel is the crown prince.”

AATW has won nine Grammies and numerous other accolades through the years, and recorded more than 30 albums. Musicians who performed with AATW include Johnny Gimble of the Texas Playboys, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Shawn Colvin, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Vince Gill. They have also toured with Emmy Lou Harris, George Strait and Bob Dylan.

The current incarnation of AATW features eight musicians mixing it up on guitar, fiddles, steel guitar, piano, mandolin, saxophones, clarinet, bass and drums.

The one constant during their run has been deep-voiced singer, guitarist and co-founder Ray Benson. At 6’10” without his cowboy hat, he is indeed a larger than life character who has won songwriting awards and was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2002. The National Academy of Recording Arts acknowledged him as an Outstanding Producer in 1988. Benson also played himself in the movie musical A Ride with Bob in which he’s taken on a tour bus driven by the spirit of Bob Wills.

Last week Benson took a moment during a recording session to answer a few questions for the Independent.

How was the band formed?

Lucky Oceans, Leroy Preston and myself formed the band in Paw Paw, West Virginia, in early 1970. The idea was to play old style American roots music, drawing influences from country, blues, swing, jazz and doing it our own way with original songs, as well. We moved to the Bay Area soon thereafter, following Commander Cody, and scored our first record deal. We moved to Austin in 1973 per advice from Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm.

What has changed in the touring and recording business since 1970s?

Everything. Touring now with cell phones, Internet and email instead of fax machines, pay phones and road maps. Used to be no rules for drivers, but now we have to follow strict travel laws. Recording business-wise, AM radio was the main place for country music when we started, then in the eighties we moved to the FM dial. Now it’s satellite, Pandora, iTunes, Amazon etc. Being in a band and the music business now for 48 years, it’s been incredible to see the changes and we’re happy to have survived them all.

How do you stay fresh and vibrant with so much traveling?

Staying fresh on the road is tough, but eating healthy, getting enough sleep and refraining from drinking too much alcohol usually does the trick.

Who have been your favorites to tour with?

Willie, George Strait and Dale Watson. We did a tour with Bob Dylan awhile back, which was extremely special for us.

New faces in the band – how did they get your attention?

We have four new members, Katie Shore, Dennis Ludiker, Connor Forsyth and Josh Hoag. They’re young, and have a great knowledge of the kind of music we like to play.

Any new projects or directions?

We’re recording a new CD as we speak. Should be out in summer around August. It will be our first record with this new lineup so we we’re excited.

AATW’s 2-hour show starts at the Auditorium Saturday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m. Special guest Caitlin Canty will also perform. Tickets range from $20-$40 and are available at theaud.org.

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