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HSBG Preview: Asleep at the Wheel 

Wednesday, Sep 30 2015

Asleep at the Wheel moved from Paw Paw, West Virginia, to Berkeley in the early '70s, looking to make a splash in the thriving Bay Area club scene. Bandleader Ray Benson and his cohort combined rock with swing and country music, an unlikely recipe for success in those post-psychedelic days, but the group's solid musicianship and Benson's winning personality soon made the act headliners. Asleep at the Wheel played different subgenres of country music, but it was the band's take on Texas swing — in particular, the music of Bob Wills, dubbed the "King of Western Swing" — that made the deepest impression. Asleep at the Wheel sparked the Wills revival of the late '70s and has used the music of the Texas Playboys, Wills' backing band, as its template ever since.

After recording a couple of great but unappreciated albums — Comin' Right at Ya (1973, United Artists) and Asleep at the Wheel (1974, Epic) — the band moved to Austin, Texas and signed with Capitol Records. Its cover of Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" on Collision Course, its third Capitol album, won the band a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1978. Since then, it has taken home eight more Grammys, released a handful of gold records, and become the best Texas swing band since the heyday of Wills and his Texas Playboys.

More than 80 musicians have passed through the ranks since Benson started the band, but the quality of the music and performance remains consistently high. Still the King, released earlier this year on the band's own Bismeaux label, is another star-studded tribute to Wills and the Texas Playboys. The album features several generations of Wills fans, including Willie Nelson, The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett and The Devil Makes Three. The current line-up also includes singer and pianist Emily Gimble, granddaughter of Johnny Gimble, the Playboys' best-known fiddler and a frequent Asleep at the Wheel collaborator.

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J. Poet


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