Asleep at the Wheel
Asleep at the Wheel
Asleep at the Wheel
Since the early-1970s, Asleep at the Wheel has been the standard bearer for western swing music. Country music’s counterpart to big band music, western swing, like swing in general, experienced a revival in the late 1990s. While the Wheel benefited from this sudden upsurge in interest, it didn’t impress their front man and founder Ray Benson. He told Michelle Nikolai of Country.com, “I don’t believe in fads, fads come and go and this is our 30th year. We try not to worry too much about trends.” By not following the latest fads, the band had to survive lean times of low sales and no recording contracts. Their persistence paid off, though, in the form of Grammy awards and the widespread respect of music critics and fellow musicians. The Wheel’s authenticity became so highly regarded that in the 1990s, when the Wheel decided to record two albums consisting entirely of the music of western swing legend and pioneer Bob Wills, they were able to recruit some of the biggest names in country music to collaborate with them.
Throughout their long history, Asleep at the Wheel’s driving force has been Benson, the only member to remain through all the years. Leading the band through changes that have seen more than 80 members,
Members include Ray Benson (born Ray Benson Seifert on March 16, 1951, in Philadelphia, PA; original member), guitar, vocals; Chris Booher, piano; Cindy Cashdollar, dobro; Floyd Domino (born Jim Haber; joined group 1972; left group 1978), piano; Michael Francis, saxophone; Danny Levin (born 1949, in Philadelphia, PA; joined group 1974; left group early 1980s), fiddle, mandolin; Bill Mabry (joined group 1975; left group late 1970s), fiddle; David Miller, bass; Lucky Oceans (born Reuben Gosfield on April 22, 1951, in Philadelphia, PA; original member, left group c. 1980), steel guitar, drums; Chris O’Connell (original member, left group in late 1980s), guitar, vocals; Leroy Preston (original member, left group c. 1978), guitar, drums, vocals; Jason Roberts, fiddle, mandolin; Pat “Taco” Ryan (born July 14, 1953, in Texas; joined group 1976; left group in early 1980s), saxophone, clarinet; David Sanger, drums.
Group formed in West Virginia, 1969-70; moved to San Francisco Bay area, 1971; signed with United Artists and released first album, Comin’ Right at Ya’, 1971; group moved to Austin, TX, 1974; had first single on the country charts, “The Letter Johnny Walker Read,” 1975; started doing television commercial and movie soundtracks to pay off debts, 1980; released first studio album in five years, Asleep at the Wheel, 1985; released A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Liberty, 1993; nominated for album of the year by the Country Music Association, 1993; celebrated twenty-fifth anniversary with special performance for the PBS television series Austin City Limits, 1995; released second Bob Wills tribute album, Ride With Bob, 1999.
Awards: Grammy Awards for “One O’Clock Jump,” 1978; “String of Pars,” 1987; “Sugarfoot Rag,” 1988; “Red Wing,” 1993; “Blues for Dixie,” 1994; “Hightower,” 1995; “Bob’s Breakdowns,” 1999; Academy of Country Music Award for Best Touring Band, 1977.
Addresses: Record company —DreamWorks Records, 9268 W. 3rd St., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Website— www.asleepatthewheel.com E-mail—[email protected]
Benson has kept true to the sound of the band that he started far from the land of western swing. Benson grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where he was friends with Lucky Oceans, who played steel guitar. The band formed when Benson met drummer LeRoy Preston and moved with him and Oceans to a farm in West Virginia to live rent-free and play music. Benson brought in another high school friend, singer and guitarist Chris O’Connell, giving birth to the first incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel. While they performed traditional country songs and early rock and roll, they had not yet developed the blend of American pop music genres that would mark their mature work.
This quartet played the area bar scene and then moved onto the Washington, D.C. circuit, where rising country rock talents such as Emmylou Harris were getting their start. But the Wheel soon moved to the San Francisco Bay area, persuaded by the manager of fellow country rocker Commander Cody during a tour through the D.C. area. Of course, the Wheel wasn’t the only band trying to make it in San Francisco in 1971, and the crowded music scene forced them to play just for their food sometimes. Their sound was still taking shape, and with the addition of Floyd Domino on keyboards, they brought in a jazz element that they had previously lacked. Persistence paid off, and the band landed a regular gig at the Longbranch Saloon in Berkeley. But their biggest break, though, came when Van Morrison saw them and then praised them in an interview in Rolling Stone. This brought the attention of record companies, and late in 1972 the band signed with United Artists.
The Wheel’s first album, Comin’Right at Ya, came out in March of 1973 and received almost no attention from the public. For Benson, though, the most significant event of that year may have been his first and only encounter with his idol, Bob Wills. Wills, in ill health, had finished a recording session for what would be his last album. Benson introduced himself in the hallway at the studio, but Wills was so exhausted that he could only grunt in acknowledgment. According to Benson, that night Wills fell into a coma from which he never recovered. The next year, on the evening Wills died, the Wheel had a gig at the legendary Cain’s ballroom in Tulsa, which Wills had founded. In tribute they played nothing but his songs that night. Describing the event, Benson told Jeffrey B. Remz of Country Standard Time, “Somehow this mantle has been lovingly handed to us, and it’s a real honor.”
In the meantime, the band had relocated again, moving to Austin, Texas, having found appreciative audiences, a supportive environment, and plenty of places to perform. This period also saw the group adding members, giving them more flexibility in their arrangements.
Stand-up bassist Tony Gamier, drummer Scott Hennige, and fiddler and mandolin player Danny Levin, who had played briefly with the band back in West Virginia, all joined. With this expanded lineup, they released Asleep at the Wheel, now on the Epic label. The lack of sales led them to try yet another label, Capitol, for their third album, Texas Gold. In these lean times, Benson showed his skill at keeping the band going. Domino told Cartwright how Benson kept.finding contracts for the band: “A record label would drop us and Ray would pull out his little book and flip to the phone numbers of two or three other labels.”
This time the Wheel reached a larger audience, with the album making the top ten on the country charts. They also released three singles from the album, including “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read.” The commercial success did not translate into complacency, though, as Benson continued to expand the band and its sound. They brought in fiddler Bill Mabry, which gave them two fiddles, just like the Texas Playboys, and Link Davis, playing both saxophone and fiddle, bringing a Cajun influence and adding horns for a sound that could cover both strains of swing, western and jazz.
As the band became better known, their reputation as the preservers of western swing tradition also grew. Their success earned them an appearance on the PBS television series Austin City Limits in 1976, for which they invited members of Wills’ band, the Texas Playboys, to perform with them. This collaboration with their musical idols did more for the Playboys than merely honor them. Several of them received new recording contracts on the basis of this performance. The Wheel themselves received a unique recording opportunity the next year because of their faithfulness to their musical roots, recording for the Smithsonian Institution’s Americana series, which is dedicated to preserving the musical heritage of the American people.
The band continued to expand its range, though, by increasing their membership. Pat “Taco” Ryan joined on clarinet and saxophone, giving the band the leeway to perform big band arrangements. Even with eleven members, the Wheel continued their collaboration with the Texas Playboys on their 1976 album, Wheelin’and Dealin’. The album’s cover of the classic “Route 66” showcased their ability to blend big band and western swing and garnered a Grammy nomination. Their stage performances also began to earn honors from the music industry, and the Wheel was named the Best Touring Band by the Academy of Country Music in 1977.
Even while receiving all this recognition for their work, relations were not always smooth within the band. In 1978 Benson and Domino had a falling out, and Domino became the first early member to leave, a complicated matter because his wife managed the band at that time and also had disputes with Benson. Instead of replacing Domino, Benson trimmed the size of the band, with two new members—John Nicholas on guitar, piano, harmonica, mandolin, and vocals; and Fran Christina on drums—joining Benson, O’Connell, Oceans, Ryan, and Levin. These changes did not slow the Wheel’s rising reputation, and their version of “One O’Clock Jump,” from the album Collision Course, earned the band their first Grammy award.
Awards and success did not translate into financial success, though, and the next few years would be difficult ones for the Wheel. Although 1980 saw the release of their seventh studio album, Framed, a five-year drought would follow. Membership changes continued, as Oceans left. A more serious problem surfaced when the band discovered that they had more then $200,000 worth of debt. Without a recording contract, the group turned to providing the music for beer commercials and movie soundtracks, even appearing occasionally on film. Benson also turned his hand to producing, working with Willie Nelson, Aaron Neville, and Bruce Hornsby.
The band eventually returned to the studio, releasing Asleep at the Wheel in 1985. In many ways, they picked up right where they left off, releasing a top 20 country single in “House of Blue Light” and receiving an award as Band of the Year from the National Association of Campus Activities. With their next album, 10, the Wheel entered a period when they consistently earned recognition for their unique work with nominations and awards. In 1988 and 1989, they took home Grammy awards for Best Country Instrumental Performance. By this time Benson was the only remaining original member, although O’Connell had rejoined them after a maternity leave. The rest of the band consisted of fiddler Larry Franklin, fiddler Johnny Gimble, bass player Jon Mitchell, pianist/accordionist Tim Alexander, steel guitarist John Ely, saxophonist Mike Francis, and drummer David Sanger.
The band continued their pace, touring extensively and releasing new material every year or two. They also continued the pattern of changing record companies after an album or two, and Benson continued to change the lineup for the band. He told Cartwright that he modeled his band leadership after the likes of Duke Ellington: “They used books so that they could change personnel without losing that consistency. My book’s up here—in my head.” Benson used that book not only to find musicians for the band, but also to enlist guest performers from the elite of country music. Following 1990’s Keepin’ Me Up Nights and 1992’s Route 66, Benson brought together a wide variety of talent for 1993’s A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
This album, consisting entirely of covers of Wills’ songs, not only honored Benson and the Wheel’s main musical inspiration; it also acknowledged the high regard that the country music world held for the band. The musicians on the album included Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Garth Brooks, and Lyle Lovett. The Wheel’s collaboration with Lovett on “Blues for Dixie” earned a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo. But perhaps the most important guests on the album were former band members Oceans, Domino, and O’Connell, reuniting with Benson for this special project. Otherwise, the lineup was much different than it had been even six years earlier. Only Benson and Francis remained. The newer members included Tim Alexander on piano, accordion, and vocals; Cindy Cashdollar on Hawaiian steel guitar; Ricky Turpin on fiddle, electric mandolin, vocals; David Earl Miller on bass; and Tommy Beavers on drums.
In spite of all the personnel changes, Asleep at the Wheel as an entity celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1995. To mark the occasion, former members and a gallery of country stars joined the band on stage for a special episode of Austin City Limits. The band continued their extensive touring, releasing the live album Back to the Future Now. They didn’t return to the studio until they put together another Bob Wills tribute, this time entitled Ride With Bob, released in 1999. Again a wide range of guests appeared with the band, ranging across the spectrum of musical styles, including a collaboration between country legend Merle Haggard and swing revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers. The motivation for doing another Wills tribute came from not having room for as many songs as Benson wanted the first time around. The first time they never got around to Wills’ greatest hits, but this time they did.
The Wheel’s lineup for this outing saw a few changes, with Jason Roberts and Chris Booher taking over as fiddlers and David Sanger taking the drums. A bigger change for the band was that they recorded the album in the studio they built in Austin. They especially designed their equipment to evoke the sounds of recordings from Wills’ heyday while maintaining the sharpness of the digital age. Benson described the process to Michelle Nikolai of Country.com: “We build a lot of our own gear. And it’s old tube gear, so basically we recreate the old tube sound. Although it’s recorded on a digital format, it fattens everything up and makes it sound warm and beautiful.” As before, the project received wide praise and recognition, earning five Grammy nominations, including one for a video documenting the recording sessions, which Benson directed.
The two albums of Bob Wills material show Benson just as firmly rooted as when Asleep at the Wheel started almost 30 years earlier. Benson explained why western swing still has such a strong hold on him, telling Jeffrey B. Remz of Country Standard Time, “The reason we were drawn to western swing is you can do a huge variety of music. You can play from big bands to ballads.” Through all the years and changes, Benson and his band have thoroughly explored that variety. Their creativity in showing their respect for this traditional country music style has earned them respect throughout the music world.
Comin’ Right at Ya, EMI America, 1973.
Asleep at the Wheel, Epic, 1974.
Texas Gold, Capitol, 1975.
Wheelin’ & Dealin’, Capitol, 1976.
The Wheel, Capitol, 1977.
Collision Course, Capitol, 1978.
Served Live, Capitol, 1979.
Framed, MCA, 1980.
Asleep at the Wheel, Dot/MCA, 1985.
10, Epic, 1987.
Western Standard Time, Epic, 1988.
Keepin’ Me Up Nights, Arista, 1990.
A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Liberty, 1993.
The Wheel Keeps on Rollin’, Capitol Nashville, 1995.
Back to the Future Now—Live at Arizona Charlie’s, Sony, 1997.
Ride with Bob, DreamWorks, 1999.
Comprehensive Country Music Encyclopedia, Time Books, 1994.
Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren, editors, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Stambler, Irwin, Country Music: the Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s, 1997.
Billboard, February 5, 2000, p. 56.
Texas Monthly, November 1995, p. 78.
“Asleep at the Wheel,” All-Music Guide, http://allmusic.com (April 10, 2000).
“Asleep at the Wheel,” Country.com, http://www.country.com (April 10, 2000).
“Second Time’s a Charm: Asleep at the Wheel Takes Care of Unfinished Business,” Country.com, September 14, 1999, http://www.country.com (April 10, 2000).
“With Bob Wills Along, Asleep at the Wheel Keeps Rolling,” Country Standard Time, July 1999, http://www.countrystandardtime.com (April 10, 2000).
Asleep at the Wheel
Asleep at the Wheel
The sounds of old-time Texas swing bands live on today in the work of Asleep at the Wheel, a group that marked its twentieth anniversary in 1990. Asleep at the Wheel has earned considerable critical reputation—and a devoted following—by wandering over a wide spectrum of America’s musical roots. The group plays traditional Texas swing jazzed up with big band overtones, standard country fare, zydeco-Cajun, blues, rock, and boogie, all in a high-spirited style that one critic described as “sweatily entertaining.”
Akron Beacon Journal correspondent Jack’Hurst wrote: “There arguably is no more musically wide-ranging band in the whole country field than Asleep at the Wheel, yet its maintenance of country identity—albeit non-mainstream—tends to be pretty unswerving.” For many years an ever-changing group of musicians made a modest living working with Asleep at the Wheel, mostly in live appearances across the United States and Canada. Today the band has become the latest rage on radio; its 1990 album, Keepin’ Me Up Nights, has sold better than any of its previous work.
Band formed in 1970 in Philadelphia, PA; original members included Ray Benson (vocals, horn, guitar), Chris O’Connell (vocals, guitar), and Lucky Oceans. More than seventy-five musicians have played with Asleep at the Wheel on instruments ranging from fiddle and steel guitar to saxophone and accordion. Current membership includes Benson, John Ely, Mike Francis, David Sanger, Tim Alexander, John Mitchell, and Larry Franklin.
Group signed with United Artists, 1971, and produced first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, 1971. Currently recording with Arista Records.
Awards: Grammy awards, 1978, for “One O’Clock Jump,” and 1988, for “String of Pars”; named best touring band by the Academy of Country Music, 1977; nine nominations for outstanding work from the Country Music Association, 1973-89.
Addresses: Record company —Arista Records, 6 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
Odd as it may sound, Asleep at the Wheel had its origins in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where founding member Ray Benson grew up. Benson left Philadelphia in 1970, at the age of seventeen, with two pals, Chris O’Connell and Lucky Oceans. While performing in West Virginia, Oceans coined the name Asleep at the Wheel—a brainstorm he received in an outhouse near Paw Paw. After playing several months in West Virginia, the group moved to Marin County, California, where they signed with United Artists. Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was released in 1973.
Benson told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he had strong convictions about the kind of music he wanted to make professionally. “I wanted to return to the roots of American country music,” he said. “I wanted to reinterpret country music. In 1969, country music entertainers and musicians were ashamed of their hillbilly and bluesy roots. They were watering down country music and making it like pop and middle-of-the-road music. This disturbed me. They called it ‘countrypolitan,’ and I didn’t like it.”
Benson and his associates began to re-create the style and sound of traditional western swing at a time when it seemed distinctly out of vogue. In down beat magazine Dave Helland wrote: “AATW has been the prime, if not sole, musical example of the juncture of hillbilly and dixieland music; a juncture which took place just about 50 miles east of the ‘x’ in Texas, and came to be known as western or Texas swing, with Bob Wills as its bandleader exemplar…. What the audience gets is a brew of country-swing instrumentation (fiddle, steel guitar, as well as saxophone); big band jazz standards, and cowboy songs. The albums as well as the gigs mix hoedowns and big band swing, reels, fox trots, and blues.”
To quote Hurst, Asleep at the Wheel gradually evolved into a “seven-piece aggregation of hot-time crowd-pleasers. “The group performed an average of 250 live concerts per year for more than a decade, traveling literally millions of miles on a series of custom-made buses. Mainstream success may have eluded them, but the musicians found enthusiastic crowds wherever they played, especially in their home base of Austin, Texas. Benson—who is the only original member still associated with the group—surrounded himself with a cadre of talented sidemen (and women), who played everything from steel guitar and fiddle to saxophone, trumpet, and accordion. All told, more than seventy-five people have played with Asleep at the Wheel over its twenty-year run.
The band has always been a favorite with music critics. Two singles, “One O’Clock Jump” and “String of Pars” have won Grammy Awards, and the Academy of Country Music named the group best touring band of 1977. Still, before 1990 Asleep at the Wheel had never earned a gold album. Benson told down beat that his act works best in live appearances with a crowd that wants to dance. “Country-western, big band jazz; both those titles will fit us,” he said, “but we’re definitely a dance band. We’re happiest in a dance setting. And in a dance setting it makes a lot more sense musically. We bebop around so many different styles that are really not very consistent musically except that they are connected by the fact that people dance to them…. We don’t make set lists or nothing. We do an opening four numbers, assess situations, and then do whatever is called for…. If we’re not an opening act, we regularly play as long as two or three hours straight.”
Although a 1988 album, Western Standard Time, sold some 100, 000 copies and earned the group its second Grammy, CBS Records released the band in 1989. Undaunted, Benson took his act to the Arista label, a newcomer to Nashville circles. There he worked out a deal for an album that would be classic Asleep at the Wheel, but more “radio-friendly” than previous works. The result was Keepin’ Me Up Nights, a release Hurst called “a highly entertaining collection that, in contrast with so many other Nashville albums, is strongly uptempo and unabashedly joyous.”
Keepin’ Me Up Nights proved not only radio-friendly, but video-friendly as well; videos have gained Asleep at the Wheel a number of new fans. The band has been able to confirm its message on a bumper sticker handed out at concerts—“Western Swing Ain’t Dead, It’s Asleep at the Wheel.”
The hectic touring schedule continues, though Asleep at the Wheel now has the extra media coverage that keeps bands in business. Benson credits his group’s success to the new interest in traditional American music. “Who knows what country music is supposed to sound like anymore,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “I describe what we do as roots music. That’s what I always wanted to play to begin with. I experiment with things all the time, but after a few years you start to realize what you do best, and you just say, ‘Golly, this fits me.’”
Comin’ Right at Ya, United Artists, 1976.
Asleep at the Wheel, Epic, 1974.
Wheelin’ and Dealin’, Capitol, 1976.
Texas Country, United Artists, 1971.
The Wheel, Capitol, 1977.
Collision Course, Capitol, 1978.
Served Live, Capitol, 1979.
Fathers and Sons, Epic.
Framed, MCA, 1980.
Pasture Prime, MCA, 1985.
Asleep at the Wheel, MCA, 1985.
Asleep at the Wheel Ten, Epic, 1987.
Western Standard Time, Epic, 1988.
Keepin’ Me Up Nights, Arista, 1990.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Akron Beacon Journal, July 8, 1990.
down beat, May 1988.
Lexington Herald-Leader, October 13, 1985; January 15, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Asleep at the Wheel
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
formed: 1970, paw paw, west virginia
members: ray benson, guitar, vocals (born philadelphia, pennsylvania, 16 march 1951); david miller, bass guitar (born torrance, california); jim murphy, steel guitar, sax (born jefferson city, missouri); jason roberts, fiddle, vocals (born richmond, texas); dave sanger, drums (born coronado, california); john michael whitby, piano (born austin, texas). selected former members: chris booher, piano, fiddle; cyndi cashdollar, pedal steel, dobro; floyd domino, piano (born jim haber); michael francis, saxophone; danny levin, piano; lucky oceans, steel guitar (born reuben gosfield, 22 april 1951); christine o'connell, vocals (born williamsport, maryland, 21 march 1953); leroy preston, rhythm guitar, drums.
best-selling album since 1990: a tribute to the music of bob wills (1993)
hit songs since 1990: "keepin' me up nights," "roly poly"
Known to fans simply as "The Wheel," Asleep at the Wheel is one of country music's most durable bands, having survived numerous personnel changes since its inception in the early 1970s. Led by vocalist and guitarist Ray Benson, the band is a leader in the contemporary revival of "Western Swing," a style that combines traditional country fiddling with jazz and blues elements. The result is an exuberant, danceable sound that lends Asleep at the Wheel's records a pleasing consistency. Each of the band's albums provides a solid example of its appealing style: uptempo rhythms, accompanied by pounding piano, nimble fiddles, and Benson's unwavering bass-baritone vocals. Having come close to country stardom on major labels at various points during their career, the group by the early 2000s had signed with a small record company, thus freeing themselves from the pop-oriented dictates of modern country.
Although nearly eighty members have passed through the band's ranks since the early 1970s, "the Wheel" has held together through the endurance of Benson, its founder and sole original member. Raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Benson grew up a fan of big-band music, an orchestrated jazz style that peaked in popularity during the 1940s with bandleaders such as Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw. Playing bass in his high school band, Benson discovered the music of the great jazz bandleader Count Basie and further refined his musical education by listening to folk, blues, and country music. As a teenager, Benson met steel guitarist Ruben ("Lucky Oceans") Gosfield, and the pair began performing together. In 1970, after Benson's graduation from high school, they moved to a farm in West Virginia with pianist Danny Levin and drummer LeRoy Preston. The four musicians, forming the core of the original band, began to secure gigs in local clubs. With pianist Jim (Floyd Domino) Haber replacing Levin, the group in 1971 started performing in Washington, D.C., where the rock and country artist Commander Cody introduced them to their first manager.
After moving to the West Coast and adding more members, the band performed with African-American country artist Stoney Edwards before signing with United Artists Records in 1973. In 1974 the group moved to the music-rich city of Austin, Texas, where they have remained. By the end of the 1970s, the band had enjoyed a string of country hits, including "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" (1975), their only single to reach the top ten.
Asleep at the Wheel experienced a difficult period during the early 1980s, when their members discovered they were more than $200,000 in debt. By the middle of the decade, Benson had turned to producing records for others, working with the country singer Willie Nelson and smooth R&B/pop vocalist Aaron Neville. Well-suited to the tougher, "neotraditionalist" sound emerging in late 1980s country music, the band enjoyed a resurgence in 1987, signing with Epic Records and scoring hits such as "House of Blue Lights" (1987). In 1990 the group moved to Arista Records for Keepin' Me Up Nights, a rousing album that achieved minor hits with "Dance with Who Brung You," "That's the Way Love Is," and the title track. Produced by veteran R&B keyboardist Barry Beckett, Keepin' Me Up Nights pairs the band's celebratory style with a polished, assured sound.
After undergoing another lineup change, the band moved to Liberty Records in 1993 and released one of their most fulfilling projects, A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Featuring a roster of high-profile guest artists, including country stars Brooks & Dunn and Dolly Parton, the album celebrates the music of Benson's idol Bob Wills, often considered the founder of western swing. Famed for his onstage clowning and spoken interjections to band members within songs, Wills formed the Texas Playboys in 1933, finding a distinctive lead vocalist in Tommy Duncan. Duncan's smooth, crooning style—heavily influenced by that of legendary pop singer Bing Crosby—was a major influence upon Benson's own vocalizing. The connection is particularly evident on "Dusty Skies," one of Tribute 's most effective tracks. Detailing a western plains family forced from its home by a dust storm, the song is notable for its unflinching social realism. Benson and his fellow western swing revivalists Riders in the Sky sing the poetic lyrics with straightforwardness and restraint: "The blue skies have failed / We're on our last trail / Underneath these dusty skies." Elsewhere on the album, Parton's rendition of "Billy Dale" (recorded by Bob Wills as "Lily Dale") achieves a lilting purity, presaging the bluegrass style she pursued in the late 1990s.
Returning to Epic Records, Asleep at the Wheel released a live album, Back to the Future Now (1997), which reunites the band with past members such as Gosfield and Preston. On the free-spirited "House of Blue Lights," Benson performs with the McGuire Sisters, one of the most popular pop vocal groups of the 1950s. Moving to the Dream Works label, the band released a second Bob Wills tribute, Ride with Bob (1999), which features the talents of country stars such as Reba McEntire, the Dixie Chicks, and Dwight Yoakam. By the late 1990s, however, traditional-sounding bands such as Asleep at the Wheel no longer found acceptance within the pop-oriented world of mainstream country radio. Tellingly, the band's next album, Take Me Back to Tulsa (2003), was recorded for Evangeline, a small, independent label based in the U.K. In 2003 Benson released a solo album, Beyond Time, for another small label, Audium.
Overcoming countless personnel revisions, label changes, and shifts in public taste, Asleep at the Wheel have persevered largely through the efforts of Ray Benson, whose revival of western swing began a full decade before George Strait and other country neotraditionalists popularized the style. Having celebrated their thirtieth anniversary in 2000, "the Wheel" continue to perform their spirited brand of dance music for a loyal cadre of fans.
Comin' Right at Ya (United Artists, 1973); Asleep at the Wheel (Epic, 1974); Texas Gold (Capitol, 1975); 10 (Epic, 1987); Western Standard Time (Epic, 1988); Keepin' Me Up Nights (Arista, 1990); A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys (Liberty, 1993); Back to the Future Now—Live at Arizona Charlie's (Epic/Sony, 1997); Ride with Bob (Dream Works, 1999); Take Me Back to Tulsa (Evangeline, 2003).