On his title song Asleep at the Wheel, singer and co-founder Ray Benson sings, “I never thought I’d last half a hundred years,” later adding, “It’s one hell of a race.
It certainly has been. And so Asleep at the Wheel, the Texas-based band that helped revive western swing, hard country and other roots styles, celebrates with the new album, Half a hundred years, and a tour, both featuring alumni of the group. This tour arrives Thursday, October 21 at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, not far from where Benson grew up (As Ray Benson Seifert) in Wyndmoor, Montgomery County.
(The group’s 50th anniversary was actually reached in 2020, but the celebration was delayed by the pandemic.)
Along the way, Asleep at the Wheel has won nine Grammys and the respect and admiration of artists such as Willie Nelson, George Strait, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, all of whom appear on the new album.
It’s not that it’s always been a smooth ride. As he mentioned in his new song, there were plenty of times Benson thought about giving up. Like during the 70s disco craze.
“It was a very difficult time,” said the 70-year-old singer and guitarist from his home studio in Austin, Texas. “But I always liked what we did, and there were always people who wanted to see us. We were broke, but we were not helpless.
The group therefore essentially took the path of the Killer.
“I remember a reporter asking Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Where have you been for the past five years?’ because he had this scandal in Britain. And he said, ‘Where was I? I’ve been on the road 200 days a year playing honky-tonks you don’t go. “
Benson, who started out as a child performer – he remembers playing folk music at age 10 or 11 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Robin Hood Dell and appearing on the Pixanne children’s show on WCAU-TV – is the only original remaining member of the group he co-founded in 1970 with his Wyndmoor friend Reuben Gosfield (aka “Lucky Oceans”). Over the years, Asleep at the Wheel – Gosfield came up with the name – has had over 100 different members. Benson says the turnover has been positive, continually revitalizing the group.
“The band is not Ray Benson. The group is a conglomerate of fabulous players, ”he said. “So when they join the group, they learn what the person before them did. Then they add what they have to add, their personality, their style. …
“In the 70s it was incredibly difficult to find someone who could play [this music] – including ourselves. We practiced a lot seriously and got very good very quickly, but there are no other players of violin, steel, etc. Now every 10 years there is a group of young people who have learned our music, the music of George Strait, the music of Willie Nelson, Bob The music of Wills. So it was pretty consistent to find good players.
The new album is a collection of 19 tracks featuring new performances of new and old material. Among alumni who make strong contributions are singer-guitarists Leroy Preston and Chris O’Connell; Lucky Oceans on harmonica, accordion and vocals; pianist Floyd Domino; and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. All except Oceans, who lives in Australia and cannot leave because of the pandemic, are due to appear in Keswick.
Benson says he received his musical education in the 1950s and 1960s on Philadelphia Radio: “On the AM side, WIBG; on the FM side, WHAT; then there was the black radio – Jocko. … It was wonderful.”
As for his formal education (not counting what he says he learned from the South Street pawn shops), he attended Springfield High in Montgomery County until Grade 10, then moved to Penn Charter, where he graduated – but not before being expelled: “I was a bit of a rebel and that was in 1969 – there was the Vietnam War.”
This rebellious streak continued until the founding of Asleep at the Wheel, which was “a great sociological movement to bridge the generation gap”. So the band played music associated with older generations rather than the rock and roll that preoccupied their peers. (It was also around this time that he changed his name, taking inspiration from Ray Charles, whose full name was Ray Charles Robinson.)
Benson and his company immersed themselves in this music with unwavering dedication, tweaking their chops in a secluded cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va., before moving to Oakland, Calif., Then settling in Austin in the early 1970s. 1970s. Today, 51 years later, he remains determined to maintain the classic Western swing range – violins, steel guitar, guitar, bass, drums, piano and a horn or two. This “allows us to go into a pretty wide range of styles” – not just western swing and country, but also country rock, Cajun, big band jazz, and more.
Benson contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 but says he’s fine now and has no plans to stop the wheel from rolling.
“As long as my health stays where it is and as long as my voice stays as strong as it is, I’ll be there. And I’m good enough to get young people to hang on and get on the bus.
Asleep at the wheel, 8 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Keswick Theater, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. Tickets: $ 29 to $ 49 in advance; $ 34-54 day of show. keeswicktheatre.com