Austin, Texas, may be the epitome of 21st-century hipster cool, but back in the 1970s, the sleepy Texas capital was also a hotbed of divergent strains of country music. Outlaw musicians like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings rebelled against the Nashville establishment, while Commander Cody updated traditional country and Western with the psychedelic rock of the late ’60s.
But Asleep at the Wheel went farther back, mining the Western swing of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys while mixing jazz, rhythm and blues, and conjunto tejano into an irresistible blend. With countless Grammy Awards, Americana Music Association achievements, and Billboard chart appearances since Asleep at the Wheel formed in 1970, you’d think Ray Benson and his ever-rotating crew of skillful musicians would have packed it in by now. Not a chance, Benson tells Folio Weekly, as the band nears its 50th anniversary with a new record in tow and a slew of tour dates.
Folio Weekly: Asleep at the Wheel is back in Ponte Vedra a year after your last show. Guess that means we made a good impression on you?
Ray Benson: It’s a wonderful place and an area where we have a lot of fans. And we want to keep ’em happy.
What’s different this time around?
The new album came out a couple months ago, and we’ll do about a half-hour of Christmas songs, too, since it is December. We’ve done three Christmas albums over the last 20 years, so the band loves it. Everybody has fun with it.
Tell us more about New Routes, the first original Asleep at the Wheel album in a decade. What did you want to accomplish, especially with a name that points so firmly to the future?
Well, it’s actually pronounced “New Roots.” Most of what Asleep at the Wheel has done is play American roots music but interpreted it our own way. So the conceptual idea was, “We’re capable of doing our own thing but combining it with the old.” It took us about a year, but this band has really gelled, so we figured we needed to go into the studio while we had that energy.
You co-wrote several songs with new fiddle player Katie Shore—a responsibility you haven’t shared since the 1980s. What did you learn from the process?
Well, the way we did it. In the past, I’d sit in a room with somebody and wait for the ideas to flow. Sometimes that’d work great; sometimes you’d hit a stone wall. This time, I was fooling around one night around 11 p.m. and got an idea, so I texted it to Katie on her phone. She liked it, texted me some ideas back, and we ran with it. That’s what was different—and so cool.
The album ends with “Willie Got There First,” an ode to country legend Willie Nelson and his pioneering work to make Austin a mecca of alternative country. Are you two close?
We’re just good pals—really, the best of friends. I texted him just yesterday and I’ll see him next week. I introduced him to [2018 U.S. Senate candidate] Beto O’Rourke. Willie’s still as creative and amazing at 85 years old as he was 50 years ago. I wouldn’t be here without Willie Nelson. I’d be working a job, I guess.
So even after nearly 50 years of leading the band, you still don’t consider Asleep at the Wheel a “job”?
I enjoy it too much [to consider it a job]. This music is unique. It’s American, it’s Texan, it’s appealing stylistically. It gets either your foot tapping or your eyes smiling. It can help you forget about the bad stuff and get happy, as they say about the blues. But Asleep at the Wheel encompasses the whole American experience, from Texas swing to country music to New Orleans jazz to blues. It’s all the things that America has been for the last 100 years.
Music might be the last refuge of non-partisan happiness—a world where politics don’t matter and joy is the thing. Do you see that on the ground level?
Playing music shows the goodness of people in your community. Here in Austin, there really is that feeling—we’re all in this together, so let’s make it fun for each other.
Is Austin better now than it was in the ’70s?
Change is inevitable—that’s all I can say. I liked Austin better in the ’70s for some reasons, but there are some things I like better now. The kind of person who thinks that everything is going to stay the same is delusional. You can’t go home again, as Thomas Wolfe said.
Which speaks to the ever-changing lineup of Asleep at the Wheel. Some players come and some players go, but everyone seems better for their time in the band.
Absolutely. I’m just recruiting a circus, you know? “C’mon, jump on the bus and play this music.” Bob Wills had a thousand people in his band over the years. And half my band now is 35 or younger. That helps to preserve the music and pass it on to the next generation.