Still Swingin'

For the second time this decade, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel pay tribute to Bob Wills

The cynic might argue that Benson trades too heavily on his hero's past glories, that he's retracing the same footsteps over and over until they become craters. But Benson would dispute that, as well he should: Ride With Bob differs in so many ways from its predecessor. The first homage overflowed with lesser-known hits ("Bring It on Down to My House," "Red Wing," "Corine, Corina," and "All Night Long") and obscurities ("Yearning [Just for You]," "Hubbin' It," and "My Kid Today"). Moreover, it creaked ever so slightly, as though it were the respectful product of nearsighted historians. No doubt that also had to do with the fact that so many original Playboys appeared on the disc, making sure it all sounded just so.

But the new album is a joyous, grin-wearing little blast that contains every single Texas Playboys hit. Indeed, it reads like a Wills best-of, a compendium for the uninitiated looking to get turned on without having to plow through so much static. Hence, Dwight Yoakam moans "New San Antonio Rose" like a Saturday-matinee idol; yodel king Don Walser bends and breaks "I Ain't Got Nobody" in half; the Chicks' Natalie Maines raves up "Roly Poly" until it sounds like a Wanda Jackson vault discovery; Colvin, an ex-Western-swinger from way back, and Lovett tag-team "Faded Love" for the Young Country and public-radio crowd; and Reba McEntire croons "Right or Wrong" so wonderfully, you remember why she used to be famous.

"The reason I did this record was, I never really finished the first one," Benson says of the 1993 tribute. "We didn't do 'San Antonio Rose'; we didn't do 'Faded Love'; we didn't do 'Maiden's Prayer' -- all of Bob's really big songs. I mean, I looked at the album and went, 'Wow, this is cool, because these songs are really obscure,' but God, I didn't do any of those other songs."

The king is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
Brenda Ladd
The king is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
"Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done," says Benson.
"Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done," says Benson.

The result is one of those records that comes along every now and then and sounds as though it were rescued from a time capsule without a scratch, without so much as a speck of dust. Ride With Bob is neither revivalist dilettantism or revisionist tinkering. Instead, it's the sound made when young history buffs round up old-timers and children and ask them to re-create tomorrow. Some of the cuts sound so much like their predecessors, it's eerie; listen only to the intros to "New San Antonio Rose" or "Right or Wrong" and hear the way the strings and horns slice though history's buzz. Still other tracks, most notably the Dixie Chicks' "Roly Poly," are thoroughly modern updates -- the sound kids make when they want to put their mark on history. Then there's the Willie Nelson-Manhattan Transfer version of "Going Away Party," which sits somewhere on the middle of the time line: Bob Wills wrote the liner notes for Nelson's 1960 RCA Records debut, but the Transfer will forever sound like a New York dinner club's sterile version of a well-to-do yesterday.

Perhaps the most inspired cut on the record is the Squirrel Nut Zippers' take on "Maiden's Prayer," which sounds somehow older than the original. That's because Zippers vocalist Katherine Whalen brings a distinctively non-country vocal to the party; imagine Billie Holiday tiptoeing over broken bottles at a barn dance. Yet until Benson asked the band to appear on the record -- he even sent them Asleep at the Wheel's tour bus to bring them from North Carolina to Austin -- Whalen had never even heard Wills' music. She'd only heard of the man, and even then, her education was secondhand, through Duncan McLean's Lone Star Swing -- the Scottish novelist's 1997 book about his "odyssey in search of the true meaning of Texas Swing."

The Zippers were not Benson's first choice to represent the "modern swing" scene, as he calls it. He wanted Brian Setzer, but says the former Stray Cat was too busy turning yesterday's swing into today's green. But Benson had seen the Zippers on MTV and was impressed with how much they reminded him of an old-time band -- they just felt so authentic. "They have a fun, goofy, great spirit," Benson says of the band. "It's about feel with them, not technique -- that loose, drunken feel."

When the band agreed, Zippers bassist Stuart Cole made Whalen a tape of songs to choose from. The one she wanted was "Maiden's Prayer," perhaps the most female-centric track in the Wills repertoire. "When I heard it," Whalen says, "I instantly saw this beautiful scene with cactus and a beautiful Indian maiden in buckskin singing this song. It's such a beautiful melody." It's not a little ironic that when Benson asked the Zippers to participate, he had no idea the band even had a female singer.

Ride With Bob is not only the second Wills tribute Asleep at the Wheel's made this decade; it's also the second Wills homage released in as many years, following 1998's The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills. That record, released through the Chicago-based indie Bloodshot, is the antithesis of Ride With Bob; it's a tribute made by people who came to Wills years after he died, who knew him only through digital echoes. The Mekons' Jon Langford, who assembled the band and guest vocalists, explained in the liner notes that the disc existed simply because Bob Wills "ran the whole race."

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