Asleep At the Wheel still breathing new life into American roots music after a half century

Ray Benson, bandleader for Asleep At the Wheel, has been creating and breathing new life into American roots music for almost 50 years. The nine-time Grammy award-winning group group from Austin is set to take the Mainstage at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this Saturday, July 27 with all of their history on display. 

“Asleep At the Wheel has always been a Western Swing band by instrumentation,” he says. “By that I mean we have piano, bass, drums, fiddle, steel guitar and sometimes a saxophone, trumpet or clarinet. If you listen to all of the music we’ve done, you’ll see a really wide variety of music. We’re a group that’s got room for people to play all kinds of roots music based on this — it’s pretty broad in the sense of what we can do. That’s what we are.”

It’s awe-inspiring to visualize the 90 different band members who have contributed over the course of Benson’s 50 years of work, and the variety of stories, sounds and talents that have come from so many artists. 

Katie Shore, the bands new co-lead vocalist and fiddler, was hired to join the group in advance of their record New Routes that debuted in 2018. Shore and Benson have a chemistry for collaboration that the group hasn’t seen in many years. 

Their song, Call It A Day Tonight, is the first that Benson has co-written with another band member since the ’80s.

“It’s somewhere in between a standard ballad from the ’30s to a Western Swing song,” he says. “Shore and I wrote that together and it worked very well. We’ll be doing a lot more of that.”

He says that while co-writing is completely based on personalities, the whole band defines how the recorded arrangements come together. “I am the band leader, but we all pitch in. It’s a collaborative thing. On New Routes, my son Sam also co-produced the record, so he’ll also pipe in and say, ‘No, that doesn’t sound right.’”

The hardest part about producing a new record after all this time is choosing what tracks to include and exclude according to Benson. “We cut 25 songs, finished 16 and then it was just cutting them out. There are about 10 cuts that are totally different than what makes it on the record. I’ve been going through our archives here, and I’ve found dozens and dozens of songs that we’ve done over the years that have never seen the light of day.”

Songs like Big River by Johnny Cash, and Seven Nights to Rock by Moon Mullican — a song Benson has been playing live for over 40 years — fill out the record, giving fans a nostalgic yet refreshed perspective on the classics, which is something the band has been doing all along.

One track, Willie Got There First, featuring Seth and Scott Avett (the Avett Brothers), offers up a beautiful tribute to Willie Nelson.

Benson and the band are excited to play Mainstage at Prince’s Island Park for the 2019 festival, although festivals certainly have their challenges. 

“A friend of mine once said, ‘It’s the difference between trying to catch a trout and catching a whale.’ You’ve got a big audience and it’s different. Small gestures are lost and dynamics are really important. If you’re on a big outdoor stage, the sun’s still up and you just followed a band that boogied and everything, you’ve got to adjust sometimes.”

Benson is no stranger to an atmosphere like folk fest. In addition to their MainStage concert, the band, albeit an edited down version, will participate in the Mountain Standard Time workshop alongside Tami Neilson, Della Mae and The Devil Makes Three.

“We’re going to have a lot of fiddling,” he says as he reveals the many awards the folks in the workshop, from his group and the others, have collectively earned for the instrument. The workshop promises to be quite the showstopper. “They’re all great musicians and fun to play with, so that’s the easy part.”

Keep your eyes peeled for a new documentary on country music by filmmaker Ken Burns where Asleep At the Wheel is featured — Benson and the group are excited for its release in September. 

Asleep At the Wheel perform Saturday, July 27 at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. For tickets and more information please go to calgaryfolkfest.com.

Sarah Allen is a recent graduate of Mount Royal University’s Journalism program. She is an arts advocate and has taken a recent interest into Calgary’s blooming circus community. A self-proclaimed storyteller, her work focuses around photography, videography and written content.