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Tuesday, August 15 | 7:00 p.m.
Tuesday, August 15 | 9:00 p.m.
Asleep at the Wheel
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Over the last forty-seven years, nine-time GRAMMY-winning group Asleep at the Wheel has boldly defied the lures of the mainstream by sticking to its cause of keeping Western swing alive and kicking. In reviving the freewheeling, electric sensibility of Western swing godfather Bob Wills, the Wheel has earned enthusiastic critical praise throughout its lengthy career. It has not only preserved classic sounds, which had all but disappeared from country music, but has also been able to update the music, keeping it a living, breathing art form.
“No band has done more to keep alive the legend of Texas swing than Asleep at the Wheel.”—NPR
“We’re a dance band. That’s what we’re about. And that’s plenty.”—Ray Benson
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Asleep At The Wheel:
Can a wheel reinvent itself while it’s still rolling?
Sounds like an impossible task -- but you never want to say “impossible” to Asleep at the Wheel, the famed western-swing, boogie, and roots-music outfit that’s, amazingly, still on the upswing. That’s saying something, too, considering the group’s been around for more than 37 years, turning out an incredible 25+ albums while playing an unrelenting schedule of one-nighters that would make a vaudevillian dizzy.
“In terms of how many people we played for, what we accomplished, and how much money we made – well, we didn’t make any money, but we grossed a lot – ‘06 was absolutely our best year ever,” says Wheel founder and front man Ray Benson with a chuckle.
And even as the Wheel rolled on, the reinvention had begun. You could see and hear it in their live shows, where new vocalist Elizabeth McQueen invited comparison with the classic female vocalists of the band’s earlier era, and fiddler-singer Jason Roberts gave the band a second male lead voice to complement Benson’s immediately identifiable baritone.
These days, the reinvented Wheel is also rolling down a couple of new avenues. One involves to the critically acclaimed musical play, A Ride With Bob, which stars Benson as himself -- encountering the ghost of Bob Wills on a tour bus – Roberts as the young Wills, and McQueen as Minnie Pearl and other famed entertainment figures, with the rest of the band members featured as well. Originally designed as a one-off celebration of Wills’ 100th birthday in ’05, A Ride With Bob quickly took on a life of its own and, notes Benson, “it’s absolutely a part of what we do now.” Another success has been the adaptation of the Wheel’s repertoire for pops symphony. Performances with Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth & Amarillo symphonies have drawn record crowds.
The Wheel’s new look is also spotlighted in a new disc – called, appropriately enough, Reinventing the Wheel. The 12-cut celebration of American – particularly Southwestern – music features guest appearances by gospel’s Blind Boys of Alabama (with a splendid reworking of the old Wills tune “The Devil Ain’t Lazy”) and banjoist Rolf Sieker, along with lead vocals by McQueen and Roberts as well as Benson, whose voice has been synonymous with Asleep at the Wheel for decades.
“I carried the load for many, many years, but I just wanted to have a band, as opposed to Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel,” Benson explains. “That’s what we had in the ‘70s – a band, a revue kind of deal, which was the whole concept. But trying to replace a Chris O’Connell was very difficult. And then Elizabeth walks up, and boom – here’s my girl singer. And then I kept pushing Jason, both through the play and through the band, saying, `Man, you’ve got talent. You can sing. You’ve got the golden ear – just apply it to your singing and songwriting.’”
Roberts, who’s been the Wheel’s full-time fiddler since early ’96, welcomed the opportunity to be a part of the revamped, revue-style Wheel. He even landed one of his own compositions on the new disc. Called “Am I Right (or Amarillo),” it is, he says, “kind of a little tip of the hat to Loretta Lynn.”
“I think everybody got a chance to put their two cents in, and bring to the table what they had, ” he adds, referring to the process that led to Reinventing the Wheel. “God bless Ray Benson for allowing us to do that. We all know that it’s his band, and he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do.”
Adds McQueen, “One of the things about Asleep at the Wheel is that they always have great musicians. That’s what they’re known for. So for them to ask me to join and then to keep me in the band, and to let me step out a little more and stand in the shoes of Chris O’Connell and Maryann Price, who were amazing singers – that’s an incredible honor. It’s above and beyond my greatest expectations.”
So, whether your next encounter with Asleep at the Wheel is at a dance or concert, via the new disc, or at a live production of A Ride with Bob, you’ll be witnessing something very special -- a band that’s not only been entertaining audiences with its own genre-busting music for nearly four decades, but also a group that’s never been afraid to try something new -- including a reinvention, inspired by the past, that rolls joyously toward a long and shining future. –John Wooley