It’s an old saying that Ray Benson most certainly would agree with: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Asleep at the Wheel has undergone many lineup changes since it was formed in 1970 by Benson, Lucky Oceans, and Leroy Preston. They were joined shortly thereafter by Chris O’Connell, a female singer. They started out as a country band, but their sound was forever changed by Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Bob Wills. Since hearing that seminal album, they’ve been devoted to both the preservation and development of Western Swing.
Their debut album was released in 1973 by United Artists, but the band laid down roots in 1974 when they moved to Austin, Texas. They recorded for a variety of major labels in the seventies and eighties, and had significant commercial success with four albums for Capitol. The band became widely known for their outstanding live performances, and scored a few hits at country radio, too.
Early on in the band’s run, the lineup began to change, which has become a trademark of the band that has aided its incredible longevity. The one constant has always been frontman Ray Benson, who has kept the band relevant through bringing in new talent regularly and through creative collaborations with other artists. They’ve won a remarkable eight Grammy awards, including six for Best Country Instrumental Performance.
Their commitment to preserving the legacy of Bob Wills resulted in two widely hailed and warmly embraced tribute albums: 1993’s A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and 1999’s Ride with Bob. The former earned a CMA nomination for Album of the Year, and the latter brought the band back to the country singles chart, thanks to unsolicited airplay for “Roly Poly”, a duet with the Dixie Chicks.
To celebrate Wills’ centennial, Benson starred in a touring musical called A Ride with Bob, where he played himself touring the life of Wills as his band plays along. The show received rave reviews, and one show was even attended by President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
In 2009, almost three decades after the band first formed, they had the highest-charting album of their career with Willie and the Wheel, a collaboration with fellow Austin icon Willie Nelson.
- Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, 1973
- The Letter that Johnny Walker Read, 1975
- Route 66, 1976
- House of Blue Lights, 1987
- Red Wing, 1993
- Comin’ Right at Ya, 1973
- Texas Gold, 1975
- Asleep at the Wheel, 1985
- Ten, 1987
- A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, 1993
- Willie and the Wheel (with Willie Nelson), 2009
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