The king is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
The king is dead -- long live the prince, Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson.
Brenda Ladd

Still Swingin'

Once, during the early 1980s, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel tried to escape from the enormous shadow that had blanketed the Western swing band since its 1973 debut album, which featured the immortal Bob Wills cut "Take Me Back to Tulsa." The Austin-based band had run into a brick wall: Money was drying up; album sales were way down; and audiences were shrinking. The band was $200,000 in debt in 1980, and Asleep couldn't get a record in stores between 1980's Framed and 1985's Asleep at the Wheel. They lost more labels than old luggage, and to cover the rent, the band started doing beer commercials and some soundtrack work -- anything with a paycheck attached to it.

Asleep's members had decided it didn't pay to play music no one wanted to hear, music that had gone out of fashion around the time Eisenhower was in office. So they eradicated Bob Wills' songs from the playlist; no more "New San Antonio Rose," no more "Faded Love" or "Take Me Back to Tulsa" or any other venerable treasure from Wills' catalogue. Asleep at the Wheel erased the hints of country music from its repertoire and plowed through night after night, set after set, of straightahead jazz. No twang, no steel-guitar slide, nothing that could remotely link these young men to a moribund music dead and buried somewhere between the towns of Turkey, Texas, and Hollywood, California, decades earlier.

By doing so, Asleep at the Wheel nearly killed what was left of its career. It began alienating audiences -- what audience it had left, anyway. The word "betrayal" kept coming to mind. Benson recalls a night in Waco, Texas, during the early 1980s, when he realized he had made a mistake; even now, the memory of it doesn't make him laugh. After a show, an elderly woman came up to Benson and chastised him for not playing any Bob Wills. "You sound terrible," she told Benson. Soon after that, Asleep at the Wheel fell back on the wagon. It was Bob Wills or bust: Take me back to Tulsa, and quick.

Since then, Benson has served as keeper of the Western swing flame, for better or worse. He is perhaps the most recognizable practitioner of the country-jazz hybrid -- and not simply because he is, as country jokester turned novelist Kinky Friedman likes to call him, the tallest Jew in Texas. Three decades, give or take that little time off, of playing Western swing will do that to a man: make him the torch-bearer, even if it's a mantle he never much craved.

"It's a very strange little deal with Asleep at the Wheel, Bob Wills and Ray Benson," Benson says. "Not that I don't love the music and work on it and research it and am very proud of our helping to revive it, but it's sort of one of those things that has dogged us -- and I don't mean that in a negative way -- from the first time we did some Bob Wills stuff on our first album. It was like, boom -- people just gravitated toward the Bob Wills cuts. And they did so because of the power of the music and Wills. Western swing would have been a footnote without Wills. He was the Elvis Presley of country music. And Bob Wills is still the king in Texas."

That's why Asleep at the Wheel released its second Bob Wills tribute album of the 1990s this month -- though, in truth, every Asleep album is a Bob Wills tribute. Ride With Bob -- featuring the likes of Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, Shawn Colvin, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, Clint Black, Tracy Byrd and Reba McEntire -- arrives six years after Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. According to Benson, this was always the plan: to release two Wills tributes, then follow those up with an homage to jump-'n'-jiver Louis Jordan, the second half of the equation (as in: Bob Wills + Louis Jordan = Asleep at the Wheel).

Benson had proposed the trilogy to Capitol Records in 1992, and the label scoffed. But they wanted a Wills tribute, if only because they figured an album like that could sell -- especially with the performers Benson was looking to invite, among them Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, George Strait and Vince Gill. There was no way a record like that could be a money-loser, even if the songs, most of them more obscure selections from the songbook, were written by and originally performed by men who were, for the most part, a long time in the ground. The label even gave Benson and the band money to debut the record in Dallas' Longhorn Ballroom, once known as the Bob Wills Ranch House. The November 1993 performance, which featured several original Texas Playboys onstage with Benson and his band, was among the last times Eldon Shamblin, the Playboys' lead guitarist since 1937, played his magical instrument in front of an audience.

For any other artist, that should have been enough: Benson had made a record honoring his hero and shared Wills' old stage with so many of the man's old comrades. But Ray Benson looked back at the Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and thought only of doing it over -- this time with a group of younger musicians, and with a roster of songs counting among their lot some of Wills' best-known tunes. Hence, Ride With Bob, which is being released on DreamWorks Records, a label not known for its country success (it released Randy Travis' latest right to the cutout bin).

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 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."

The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute . . . isn't a bad disc; it's simply a bit more sparse than Benson's splashy, opulent releases, which feature dozens of musicians on single tracks. Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Trouble in Mind" would sound at home on one of Benson's discs, and Kelly Hogan's "Drunkard's Blues" staggers like the real thing. But Benson isn't a tremendous fan of Langford's small-star assemblage -- he respects it for what it is (an indie-rocker's primer), but rejects it for what it ain't (fun). "They approached it like Bob was a songwriter, and that's not what it's about," he says. "They threw away the style. I didn't hear anything I liked. It's not like those lyrics are that great. Most of them are of the moon-June-spoon variety. I didn't get it. But I sure did appreciate it."

Perhaps no one has more of a right to criticize a Bob Wills tribute than Ray Benson, the unwitting heir to the throne long ago left vacant by Wills -- a fact he's been reminded of for decades. Benson tells the story of the first and only time he met Wills, during the recording sessions for 1974's For the Last Time. On December 3, 1973, Benson arrived at the Sumet-Burnet studios in Dallas just in time to greet Wills, who was being wheeled out of the studio and back to his hotel. The man was old, nearly 70, and in poor health, and when Benson introduced himself, Wills merely nodded and grunted.

Wills never returned to the sessions at Sumet-Burnet: He suffered a stroke during the making of his final album with the Texas Playboys and died two years later, on May 13, 1975, of pneumonia in his Fort Worth home. That very same day, Asleep at the Wheel rolled into town for a gig at the Longhorn Ballroom. Benson did not know of Wills' death until he stepped out of the tour bus and was greeted by reporters from the Associated Press, UPI and the local papers. They all wanted to get Benson's reaction to the news. The King was dead; how did the prince feel about it?

"All those coincidences," says Benson -- who dreams of doing another Wills record with lesser-known swing bands, among them Cowboys and Indians and the Hot Club of Cowtown -- "It was spooky. It was this mantle, and I've tried to accept it. I've always felt this is what I am supposed to do. That's why I do these albums. Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done."


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