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Long drive to stardom: Asleep at the Wheel returns to Anchorage

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 13, 2016

Over the course of his more than 45-year career, Ray Benson has gone from a country renegade to the genre's ultimate ambassador -- with his own smiling 10-gallon size cutout greeting passengers as they arrive at the Austin, Texas, airport.

"My kids call it Flat Dad," joked Benson, a Philadelphia native.

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel as a "bunch of longhaired kids playing redneck music," but the band become a staple of the Texas music scene by developing its own infectious brand of western swing.

The road that brought the band to Austin success is spotted with stars of the music world who nudged Benson and friends into the Lone Star State.

Van Morrison namedropped the group during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1971, about the same time the band moved to California at the behest of 1970s rocker Commander Cody.

The mention by Morrison got the band on the radar of record companies, after which the legendary Willie Nelson and fellow Texas musician Doug Sahm recruited the band south.

"They were both heroes of mine," Benson said.

Asleep at the Wheel started out as more of a roots band with a heavy dose of country and western. Then Benson came across the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who essentially founded western swing in the 1930s and '40s. Wills and the band mixed elements of blues, jazz and country, complete with horns, steel guitar and twin fiddles for a dance-friendly offering.

The sensibility was a perfect fit for the eclectic Benson, who grew up singing folk music and played with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 10.

"There was rock 'n' roll, big band and square dance music, Chicago blues, so I took it with Bob Wills' philosophy," Benson said. "I could do all that and wear a cowboy hat."

From the point, the Wheel was in cruise control, garnering nine Grammys in a number of country music categories.

The band has become almost the de facto house band of the state of Texas, performing with and hosting some of music's biggest names from their Austin headquarters.

Over the years, the band has seen regular lineup changes with over 80 past members. Benson has been the only constant.

"It's pretty simple," Benson said. "When you join the band, you have to learn what the person before you played. Listen to that and learn it, then add your own personality to it. It's wonderful to see people learn a language they're not familiar with. It makes it unique and it's worked so far."

In recent years, the band has expanded its audience base, playing in front of more people who don't fit the group's 10-gallon hat mold.

"It's pretty cool," Benson said. "The Internet has caused the destruction of the record industry, but the upside is people can go back and listen to everything you've ever done."

Asleep at the Wheel has earned a reputation as a hardworking band that tours almost constantly to venues big and small. Benson said the band hasn't played in Alaska in eight years.

"We just played two sold-out shows in Enterprise, Oregon," he said. "I don't know. It's just great to get off the bus in these small towns. As far as the music goes, you can't do this without doing it. Your ability disappears. It's all muscle memory."

Despite some perceived philosophical differences, Benson became good friends with the recently deceased Merle Haggard, whose first hit, "Okie from Muskogee," took a stance against Vietnam protesters.

"I was against the war in Vietnam," Benson said. "We smoked pot. We were what I called post-hippie, counterculture kids."

But while they at time differed politically, they connected musically. Haggard recorded a Wills tribute album in 1970, and Asleep at the Wheel counts three Wills tributes among their more than 30 records.

Benson said the band is definitely planning on giving a nod to Haggard on Saturday by playing a few of the late artist's songs.

Asleep at the Wheel

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16

Where: Atwood Concert Hall

Tickets: $32.50-$66 at centertix.net

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