Ray Benson has thousands of 78 RPM records. Not “33 1/3,” which is your standard, 12-inch, long play record, otherwise known as “LP,” which it could be safe to say he has thousands of those, too. Not the “45,” or “7-inch” as the hip kids call them these days. We’re talking “78,” the original type of record, the medium that housed most early recorded music.
The acquisition of these records was one of the ways the founding member, guitar player and vocalist of the Austin, Texas-based Western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel taught himself to play early country music, that bit of record collecting turned into a lifetime of learning and playing honky-tonk country and western-swing tunes, taking loads of music fans and musicians on for a swinging, musical ride.
Asleep at the Wheel returns to Durango this evening, performing at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Opening the show is Midnight Backhand out of Bayfield.
“When I had to go try to find out how to play this kind of music, I had to go to obscure places and meet wonderful old guys who passed it on in an oral tradition with 78 RPM records, of which I’ve got around 10,000 of them now. We’d be in attics and back alleys trying to find this music. Now you just have your iPhone and punch up the internet and you can get hundreds of years of recorded music at your fingertips and it’s all there,” Benson said. “Think about the people who have played this kind of music, from Willie Nelson to George Strait to Ricky Skaggs and numerous others. They heard it and had to learn how to play those songs.”
WHAT: Asleep at the Wheel plays Western swing, opening the show is Bayfield’s Midnight Backhand.
WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Friday (Aug. 12).
WHERE: La Plata County Fairgrounds, 2500 Main Ave.
MORE INFORMATION: Vist www.durangoconcerts.com or call 247-7657.
Benson and Asleep at the Wheel celebrated 50 years as a band in 2020. Wind the clock back 52 years to their beginnings and you’ve got a young, long-haired Benson who formed a country band and was playing around parts of Western Maryland and West Virginia – Benson was thinking they’d last a decade.
“Ten years, I was thinking. Ten years,” he said. “I was 19 years old, and I figured I’ll do this and when I’m 30 I’ll start teaching guitar at the local music store. Thankfully, that never panned out. We just hit the road and I’ve been on it ever since ... literally.”
Asleep at the Wheel plays dance music. Early on, Benson was influenced by the likes of Bob Wills, realizing you can play something that swings that’s also loaded with twang.
It wasn’t without controversy – the “Summer of Love” and Woodstock were fresh memories when the band formed, and here you had a load of longhairs playing a style of music that was then dominated by the conservative crowd. They, however, were a smoking group, pleasing the country music lovers while also being booked on bills that featured the likes of Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper. That presentation of country music to rock audiences paved the way for what is now roots music; they were laying an important foundation.
“That’s what they now call Americana,” Benson said. “We just knew the roots of popular music were viable forever as far as we’re concerned. In other words, its bluegrass, Western swing, honky-tonk, Cajun music, these are now forms that are gonna stick around and be reinterpreted by different generations. That was the idea.”
Along the way they’ve grown into an Americana institution. In that half a century since forming, they’ve played thousands of shows. There have also been hundreds of musicians who at one point were members of Asleep at the Wheel, with Benson there all along leading the charge.
“We tour with seven or eight people depending on the day, and I think we’ll have alumni join the band for a while, then jump back off. And of course, a lot of people have aged out of wanting to tour that much you know, so we have younger people. But yeah, we have a cast of characters, let’s just put it that way,” Benson said. “It’s Ray Benson, a bus, and come on and join us.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.