Wednesday, Aug 13 2014 04:12 PM

Reinventing the Wheel

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    By courtesy of Asleep at the Wheel

    Despite numerous lineup changes, Asleep at the Wheel has managed to stick to the roots founder Ray Benson, center, envisioned. The band plays Suck Owens' Crystal Palace on Aug. 27.

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BY SUSAN SCAFFIDI Contributing writer

In 1970, when most pop musicians were expanding the definition of rock music, Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Floyd Domino, Leroy Preston, Chris O'Connell and Gene Dobkin started a Texas Swing band modeled on that of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, whose heyday was decades before.

"We've always bucked the trend," said Benson who, over 44 years as the front man of Asleep at the Wheel has been able to both resurrect a jumping genre of country music and remain thoroughly original doing it.

Related Info

Asleep at the Wheel

Where: Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, 2800 Buck Owens' Blvd.

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 27

Tickets: $21 to $29; 328-7560.

"It's been quite a journey. I was 19 years old when I thought up this -- I never thought it would go on this long. But it's been important. I feel very privileged to do be able to do this," said Benson in a phone interview to discuss the band's Aug. 27 show at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.

Founded in Paw Paw, W. Va., the band tried to make the Bay Area its home, but eventually found Austin, Texas, the most welcoming environment for its music, focused on Texas Swing, or "jazz with a cowboy hat," as it has been called -- drawing from the Western Swing repertoire as well as jazz and blues tunes.

Over the decades, the group has earned nine Grammy Awards in addition to numerous other music industry awards and acclaim. The band's enduring reverence for Bob Wills yielded two albums, "A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys" in 1993, and "Ride with Bob" in 1999.

In 2005, Benson created the critically acclaimed "Ride with Bob: The Musical" in which he played himself riding on a tour bus to get to a performance. Instead, Benson is taken on a tour of Wills' life by the bus driver, who turns out to be Wills' ghost.

Benson had chosen to do the musical because he was unwilling to do a third tribute album -- he was quoted as saying that would be "cashing in on Bob's ghost." But Benson and the group are now working on a third tribute album, which Benson hopes to release in February. What changed his mind?

"Fifteen years," Benson said. "It had been 15 years since we'd done (the last album), and I thought it was time to do another."

Benson said the new release is a double album with such guests as Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others who have collaborated with the band on previous tributes.

"The whole idea of these albums is to bring this music to a new generation," Benson said. "Fifteen years --that's a generation and a half."

The accidental music educator has also collaborated on other Americana efforts, most notably a collaboration with Nelson called "Willie and the Wheel," a 2009 album that featured music from the 1920s and '30s and draws from country, blues and jazz.

"The concept of 'Americana' has been expanded to include a wide variety of music," Benson said. "When we use 'Americana,' we mean something that developed entirely in America."

That focus has helped Asleep at the Wheel stay together even though more than 100 musicians have played in that band over the decades -- Benson is the only remaining original member. But Benson, with his famous bass-baritone voice, is the musical heart of the band, and his talents as arranger and music director are just as important as those of singer and guitar player.

Nevertheless, Benson gives a lot of credit to all of the musicians who have been members of the band.

The current lineup features long-timers Dave Sanger on drums, Dave Miller on bass, Eddie Rivers on steel guitar and Jay Reynolds on saxophone. Two musicians will make their Bakersfield debut with the band -- newcomers Katie Holmes on fiddle and Emily Gimble (granddaughter of fiddler and Texas Playboys' alumnus Johnny Gimble) on piano.

"The concept is the new people learn what went before them and then they add who they are and what they can do and bring to the group," Benson said.

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