A semi-centennial is a long time coming, but Ray Benson had to wait a bit longer to start celebrating.
Asleep at the Wheel — the Western swing band that Benson formed back in 1970 — turned 50 last year, but the Covid-19 pandemic put the world on hold. And so, Benson and his band will be making up for lost time when they perform at the Payomet Performing Arts Center this Friday.
For Benson, who came down with Covid in March last year, isolation was more than just a forced vacation. “I had what would be considered a mild case,” he says. “It wasn’t any fun, but I wasn’t in any danger of dying.” The down time had its upside: it gave Asleep at the Wheel a chance to get into the studio and record its three-song EP Better Times.
What Benson and the band play is dance music with a twang: a blend of pop, jazz, blues, and folk that came out of the American Southwest in the ’30s and ’40s. Groups such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys combined big band brass, country fiddle, and steel guitar, singing songs about San Antonio and Tulsa. It’s music that Benson developed a fondness for at an early age.
“I played in a square dance band, and I really loved fiddle music,” Benson says. “Through high school, I played in a jazz band — a bossa nova band. I played tuba in a Dixieland band and marching bands. I just liked playing music, so when I discovered Western swing when I was about 15, it was like, ‘Oh, cool.’ That was all of those things.”
In the late ’60s, when psychedelia and flower power were in full bloom, Benson and his childhood buddy Reuben Gosfield (who became known as Lucky Oceans) decided to go against the grain. “We wanted to do roots American music,” says Benson. “This was 1969. For us, roots American music was stuff from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.”
A trip to Boston to visit Benson’s sister brought them in contact with a kindred spirit, Leroy Preston, and a country band was born. At the invitation of a friend, they moved to a farm in Paw Paw, W.Va., woodshedding and playing their first gigs. “We were at these funky little honky tonks, playing for 50 dollars a night for the whole band,” Benson says.
While Benson and his buddies were still getting their act together in Paw Paw, out on the West Coast a group called Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen had already gained a national reputation, playing Western swing and hillbilly boogie for Berkeley hippies. Benson, who first met Cody back in ’69, cites the band as a major influence. “They were the prototype for Asleep at the Wheel,” Benson says.
Cody invited Benson and his band to come out to California, which they did in 1971. With a new audience and new manager, the move gave them greater exposure. They also caught the ear of Van Morrison, who praised the group in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine and reached out to them. “I was living in a chicken coop in Oakland, Calif.,” says Benson, “and he called our manager down here and said, ‘I really like your band. You want to open some shows?’ ”
The band started getting recognition and results. In ’73, Asleep at the Wheel released its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, a mix of country weepers and up-tempo swing. Shortly after that release, the band was on the move again. This time to Texas, the wellspring of Western swing.
Benson says that Willie Nelson got the band to Texas. “When we met Willie, he suggested that we open shows for him,” says Benson. “That was a hundred bucks a night that we were happy to get.”
Relocating to Austin, the band began to see Western swing in a new light. “We realized how great the music was, but we didn’t realize that it was still revered here in Texas, and Oklahoma, and Louisiana,” Benson says. “So, the first record came out, and we had a song, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ and it was a small hit down in Texas and Oklahoma. We were living in California. We came down here and, wow, Bob Wills was like Elvis Presley for that generation.”
Prior to that epiphany, Western swing had just been part of the band’s mix, but from that point on, it became Asleep at the Wheel’s thing.
“We were picking up old 78 rpm records to learn the music, and meeting the old guys that were still around,” Benson says. “That was part of our musical journey — to meet these guys who we listened to on these old records.”
Not long after the group’s Texas transplant, they found themselves on the country charts, first with their cover of Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” then with a top 10 hit, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” co-written by Benson, Preston, and Chris Frayne.
Six decades, 10 Grammys, and 25-plus albums later, Asleep at the Wheel is still swinging, and Benson still calls Austin home. It’s where he holed up during the pandemic, where he recovered from his bout with Covid, and where Asleep at the Wheel recorded Better Times. The title cut was written by Benson in anticipation of the day when the band and the nation would come out of semi-isolation.
“I’d been watching a lot of these ’40s black and white movies, and it seemed the same thing as after World War II,” says Benson. “We’ll be together again after this thing is over.”
And so we are. Let the better times begin.
Reinventing the Wheel
The event: Asleep at the Wheel in concert
The time: Friday, July 23 at 7 p.m.
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Road, Truro
The cost: $48 at payomet.org