It’s not a reach to call Asleep at the Wheel an American musical institution. In a career spanning over 40 years, the Austin, Texas-based ensemble has released more than 20 albums while garnering nine Grammy awards.
But the band has done far more than just pile up albums and accolades along its path — Asleep at the Wheel has both preserved and introduced the sound of Western Swing.
Its latest release, Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, is the third installment in a series of albums honoring one of the genre’s most renowned figures. Speaking ahead of the band’s Aug. 7 show at WorkPlay, bandleader Ray Benson shared his own admiration for Wills.
Weld: Ray, thanks for your time. If you will, talk about the evolution of Still The King.
Ray Benson: Well, it was our third Bob Wills tribute. The last one was in 1999. My son Sam co-produced the record with me. He was the one that said, “You’ve got to do another one — it’s been 15 years. You have to keep re-educating generation after generation of this great music.” I said, “OK, let’s go for it.”
Weld: The guest artists on the album — Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley, The Avett Brothers, Jamey Johnson and Old Crow Medicine Show to name only a few — are a stellar list reminiscent of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken trilogy. How do you go about securing these musicians?
RB: Basically, we got in touch with these different people and said, “We’ve got this album — do you want to be a part of it? Is there any Bob Wills tune that you really want to do?” If they ask for ideas, we’ll send them three or four songs and I try to match the vocal quality to different kinds of songs.
Weld: Is there a typical audience makeup at your shows?
RB: We kinda get the gamut. [Laughs] We’ve got older folks that remember the music, baby-boomers who remember us, and we’ve got young folks who are just discovering the music for the first time. It’s pretty cool.
Weld: Your band has been around for more than 40 years — that’s quite an accomplishment in any field.
RB: I try not to look too far back, but it’s been pretty cool. I keep telling folks that when I started the band 46 years ago, we would search attics and old record stores for 78 RPM records to try to find this music.
We searched out the guys — the old Texas Playboys that played this music — and tried to learn from them. Now you can go to your computer and type it in and get all the great music of the last 100 years. It’s a lot different nowadays, so people can rediscover all this great history and build upon it.
Asleep at the Wheel will perform at WorkPlay on Friday, Aug. 7. Tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $22 in advance and $25 the day of the show. For more information, visit workplay.com.