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(Not) Asleep at the Wheel

Story and photos by Paul Moffett

When I was very young, sometime back in the Jurassic, a beige Philco AM radio sat on top of my family's refrigerator. Most of the time it was tuned to KRLD in Dallas and on the morning show, between the Earl Hayes ads ("Come out our way, trade your way"), they played Country and Western music, with an emphasis on the 'Western,' as in Bob Wills.

"Faded Love" and "San Antonio Rose" often were served up along with the two fried eggs, blind-folded, two pieces of bacon and toast.

Ray Benson

My diet has changed considerably since those days, but the music of Bob Wills is just as potent now as then and is as satisfying, as Asleep at the Wheel amply demonstrated at Coyote's on October 11.

The Ray Benson-led Asleep at the Wheel is celebrating twenty-five years of purveying that Texas swing, complete with a new album. The supporting tour has taken them all over the country and gained them a level of public awareness that has eluded them up to now.

For the Coyote's show, they reeled off C&W standards with the casual certainty of a Texas roadhouse band playing its third set of the night. "Route 66" and "Miles and Miles of Texas" laid out the road map. then Benson took them on a brief detour into nineties.

"When we cut this tune," he announced, "I said 'This is a hit song" and it was." He paused for dramatic effect.

Cindy Cashdollar handled the steel guitar chores for Alseep At The Wheel

"For somebody else. But we cut it first." Benson then kicked off a swing version of the Brooks and Dunn mega-hit "Boot Scootin' Boogie."

Truth to tell, it was kind of a chuckle to see the line dancers and faux cowboys and cowgirls trying to feel that swing beat in a tune they were used to hearing with a solid rock backbeat. The same thing was true when Asleep at the Wheel played some Texas two-step tunes at real two-step speed: only the quick and the brave ventured out on the floor for that.

The Wheel, founded in 1970 in West Virginia, has rolled from West Virginia to San Francisco to Austin, Texas and, as its fame and success grew, around the world. Albums released by the band have been nominated time and again for Grammys, including its most recent Asleep at the Wheel Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, which has been nominated for Best Country Album, Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and Best Recording Package.

The Wheel did "In My Dream" from the new album, but the songlist for the night was really a hit list of tunes from the late forties and fifties. Included were "Misery," "Rose of San Antone," "Faded Love," "Ida Red," "Hot-Rod Lincoln," "House of Blue Lights" and "Cotton-Eye Joe."

Benson challenged the jitterbuggers with "Choo-Choo Ch' Boogie," and nodded to the latter half of the century with a smooth cover of the Clapton hit "Lay Down Sally." He stretched his vocal ability on "When Somebody Breaks Your Heart."

I nterestingly, the Wheel didn't do its biggest hit, "What Johnny Walker Read," which reached the No. 10 spot on the country chart in 1975. Still, with twenty-five years of material to draw from and a desire to continue to put records on the charts, the Wheel might yet have a higher-climbing hit than that.

I wouldn't bet the family Philco against that.