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Asleep at the Wheel picture, image, poster
Asleep At The Wheel

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Paw Paw, West Virginia, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-04-06

Asleep at the Wheel is a American country music group. Altogether, they have won nine Grammy Awards since their 1970 inception. In their career, they have released more than twenty studio albums, and have charted more than twenty singles on the Billboard country charts. Their highest-charting single, "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read", peaked at No. 10 in 1975.

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, 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 Garnier, 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.

In February 2009, Ray Benson collaborated with Willie Nelson to release Willie and the Wheel. The long-overdue concept album, originally suggested by producer Jerry Wexler, teamed Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel on several well-known Western Swing selections. Paul Shaffer and Vince Gill also perform on the album. Willie and the Wheel was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been presented numerous awards throughout their career. Most recently, the 16th Annual Midsouth Regional Emmy Award for the making of "A Ride With Bob", recognition by Mayor Kirk Watson of Austin, Texas, and the Darrel K. Royal Music Patron Award by The Texas Heritage Songwriters' Association. In 2007, The Austin Chronicle recognized Asleep at the Wheel for Band of the Year, Best Country Band, and into their Hall of Fame. Benson was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2002, was given The Texas Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and recognized as an Outstanding Producer by the National Academy of Recording Arts in 1988. He has also been given numerous Citations of Achievement by Broadcast Music, Inc. for his work in the country music field. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been one of the strongest names in Country Music for the last forty years.


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