Testament to Wills

Asleep at the Wheel pays tribute too old-time country great Bob Wills and still can't get any respect.

The George Strait Country Music Festival featuring George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Lace, Lee Ann Womack, Jerry Kilgore, Mark Chesnutt, Martina McBride, Clay Davidson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Tim McGraw. 1 p.m., Saturday, May 20, Cleveland Browns Stadium, $39.50-$69.50, 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400.1 p.m., Saturday, May 20, Cleveland Browns Stadium, $39.50-$69.50, 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400.
Asleep at the Wheel started with the hippies and joined - the rednecks.
Asleep at the Wheel started with the hippies and joined the rednecks.
It seemed so natural. A no-brainer. A slam dunk. When Bob Wills, the late, great pioneer of western swing music, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year as an early influence, Asleep at the Wheel should've been an obvious choice to be included in the festivities.

"I got this call from a guy in New York," says Ray Benson, the founder and only original member left in the Austin-based country-rock-swing combo. "He said, "So who is this [Wills] anyway?' After I told him who he was and what his importance was to the development of rock and roll, I offered to put a package together for the induction ceremony -- with Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, us, and others familiar with Bob Wills."

The folks in New York, however, decided to use Chris Isaak for the induction ceremony.

"I'm not putting him down," Benson says. "I like Chris's music. But he hasn't a damned thing to do with Bob Wills."

Asleep at the Wheel has had a lot to do with Wills -- more, in fact, than any band in any genre. Benson was, naturally, thrilled to hear the Rock Hall saw fit to honor his musical hero.

"It's about time," he says. "It's absolutely appropriate. I made that case years ago. Rock and roll is the marriage of white and black music, and Bob Wills's music was that."

The Rock Hall oversight isn't the last time that Asleep at the Wheel has gotten short shrift. The band, which will be opening the George Strait Country Music Festival on May 20 at Cleveland Browns Stadium (one of 10 dates at a football stadium near you) isn't getting the prime slot on the bill, which features Kenny Chesney, Lace, Lee Ann Womack, Jerry Kilgore, Mark Chesnutt, Martina McBride, Clay Davidson, and Tim McGraw.

"We go on for a half-hour, at one o'clock," Benson says.

No doubt that 30 minutes will include some Wills material. The Wheel's latest album, Ride With Bob, is their second tribute to Wills featuring celebrity guest appearances. Three of the performers at the George Strait Festival -- McGraw, Womack, and Chesnutt -- have lent vocal talents to the record. Other guests on the record include Nelson, Haggard, Reba McEntire, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Shawn Colvin, Don Walser, and the Manhattan Transfer.

Ride With Bob comes six years after A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. That album had Nelson, Haggard, Strait, Lovett, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Huey Lewis, Johnny Rodriguez, Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Brooks & Dunn, Chet Atkins, and Riders in the Sky. So why do another?

"Because there was so much we didn't cover on the first one," Benson says. "That first tribute was great, but I thought it wasn't finished. I had proposed it be a four-record set. We didn't get into Bob's big band material or his New Orleans ragtime things."

Asleep at the Wheel has been covering Wills since "Take Me Back to Tulsa" appeared on its 1973 debut Comin' Right at Ya. It was right up the alley of a band that, from the get-go, wanted to bridge the gap between country and rock audiences.

Benson, a native of suburban Philadelphia, formed AATW with Reuben "Lucky Oceans" Gosfield and LeRoy Preston in 1969. They first played in the Washington., D.C. area until moving to a farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia. Following in the footsteps of another band doing an eclectic mix of old-time musical styles, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, AATW relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. It was there that Austin musical icons Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm discovered the band.

"They said, "You guys sound like you're from Austin,'" Benson says. "I told them we weren't, and they said we should move there."

They've become Austin icons themselves in the 28 years they've called the capital of Texas home. They've made 21 albums and snagged six Grammy awards to date.

"Willie told me he started with the rednecks and joined the hippies. I started with the hippies and joined the rednecks," Benson says. "We were a bunch of long-haired anti-Vietnam-war hippies playing country music. People would ask us why we played country music, because it wasn't political enough. Hell, it was just music, not politics."

Yet it's always political when disparate groups come together on common ground. Asleep at the Wheel is no different from Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and even Hank Williams on that score.

"Bob Wills was incorporating black music into country music, which was really incredible when you think he did it in a state as bigoted as Texas was back in those days," Benson says. "But that's what American music is all about -- cross-pollination of different styles.

"His was the first country band to use a rhythm section and electric guitars, like the big bands of his day. Others followed him. Bill Haley & the Comets were a western swing band, until he stripped it down to just guitars and rhythm. Early rock and roll swung, but it had an edge to it."

Some year, Bob Wills will be the subject of one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's annual American Music Masters series, in which one of rock music's early influences is honored and studied for a week in September. Guess who should be there.

"It would be great," Benson says. "I hope they give us a call next time."

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