Asleep at the Wheel to roll back to Durango

Elizabeth Reed provides most of the vocals and plays guitar with her Asleep at the Wheel band mates. Founder Ray Benson is third from left. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Fort Lewis College

Elizabeth Reed provides most of the vocals and plays guitar with her Asleep at the Wheel band mates. Founder Ray Benson is third from left.

Asleep at the Wheel will appear tomorrow night at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and you shouldn’t pass up the serotonin fix you’re sure to leave the concert with.

Asleep at the Wheel has been playing Western swing music for 42 years, earned nine Grammy awards, recorded 25 albums and spends upward of 250 days a year on the road crisscrossing the country. In addition to playing nearly every juke joint, biker bar, auditorium and VFW hall from California to the Eastern seaboard, they’ve played to a sold-out Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in front of the Austin and Dallas symphony orchestras, created and toured with a fully-staged musical that was filmed by Dreamworks and won an Emmy, and they frequently back Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Manhattan Transfer, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris ... there’s just not enough space here to list all their credits. In 1997, they retired their first tour bus after 3 million miles.

So how come this Western swing band lionized by every musician in the free world isn’t better known? Ray Benson, the founder and driving force behind Asleep at the Wheel, may just have the answer: “We’re a dance band. That’s what we’re about. And that’s plenty.”

“Wheel,” as the band members refer to their group, came into being during the Vietnam war, when popular music closely followed the protest mood begun first on college campuses then spread throughout America.

“We wanted to break that mold,” Benson said. “We were concerned more with roots music, which we felt was being lost amid the politics.”

Benson, Floyd Domino, Lucky Owens, Leroy Preston and fellow Antioch College classmates Chris O’Connell and Gene Dobkin glommed onto the music of Bob Wills to reinvigorate the mood of American music and they never looked back.

“We were too country for rock folks and we were too long-haired for the country folks,” said Benson about 10,000 performances later. “But everybody got over it once the music started playing. It’s jazz with a cowboy hat.”

And jazz is exactly what Bob Wills introduced to Western music beginning in 1933 with the formation of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He broke the mold of localized country and western music by introducing the steel guitar, horns, reed instruments, pianos and amplification, and, perhaps most importantly, playing off the beat. Wills’ music was not foot-stomping music; it was big band swing as much as Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie and Stan Kenton.

The difference is that Western swing leads with the fiddle instead of horns. The orchestration was introduced by the partnership of Bob Wills and Milton Brown in the early 1930s with the band the Light Crust Doughboys and has been kept alive and juiced most prominently by Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.

Just as Bob Wills influenced Ray Benson, Benson has shaped Western swing to nearly the same degree. During four decades, 80 musicians have circulated through the Wheel, most going on to play in the big bands of Lyle Lovett, Van Morrison, Ryan Adams and others.

Western swing has perhaps been kept alive and contemporary by Benson and 80 talented musicians dedicated to what Bob Wills invented almost that many years ago.

And the reason Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel are not household names is because they were always too far out in front, rolling from town to town, playing the jazz of the West, too busy and too focused to pose for the tabloids.

Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author. Reach him at JeffMannix.com.