by John Adamian

Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel continue to honor Bob Wills

Ray Benson has been on a proselytizing mission for nearly half a century. Benson, the leader of the Western swing outfit Asleep At The Wheel, isn’t exactly trying to spread the gospel of any particular religion. He’s been working “” gigging, entertaining, travelling thousands and thousands of miles “” in some measure to win over converts to the glories of Bob Wills, the King of Western swing.

Benson, 64, and his band are legends in their own rights, having played with practically every living figure of note in country and Americana, and having served as an incubation lab for players who go on to back giants like Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others. This year, 2015, marked a couple of big milestones for Benson and Asleep at the Wheel. Benson and the band will wrap 2015 up and kick off 2016 in suitably snazzy-suited style opening for the Avett Brothers at the Greensboro Coliseum on Dec. 31, New Year’s Eve.

The band marked its 45th anniversary in 2015. And Benson also published his memoir, Comin’ At Ya: How A Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel, in the fall. The band’s 2015 release, “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,” featured a series collaborations, with everyone from Brad Paisley, Amos Lee, Old Crow Medicine Show, and others. That album is the band’s third Bob Wills tribute. And Benson also co-wrote and starred in “A Ride With Bob,” a musical about Bob Wills. So you can see that Benson is certifiably obsessed with Wills, whose recording career was at its height in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s possible that you, on the other hand, might find yourself saying “Who’s Bob Wills?” “Bob Wills was like the Elvis of his era,” says Benson. Waylon Jennings had a song called “Bob Wills Is Still The King,” the lyrics to which include the qualifying phrase “As long as you’re in Texas” before the title line. Merle Haggard recorded a tribute album to Wills. Buck Owens said Wills was a big influence. Willie Nelson has said as much, too. So Wills left a huge influence on country music. One that some have compared to that of Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. Jimi Hendrix even once said he dug the Texas Playboys in an interview.

American vernacular music of the 20th century changed the world “” we’re known for jazz, blues, gospel, rock and country. And if there’s a reason that the music of Bob Wills, who died in 1975 at the age of 70, is less well known than, say, Bing Crosby’s or Count Basie’s, it might be that Wills and Western swing represented a confusing kind of hybridized polyglot mash-up of America’s already mongrel musical mix, pulling together jazz, cowboy music, elements of Mexican folk music, the jittery rhythms of proto rock and more.

It was hugely popular, especially west of the Mississippi River. But it was sophisticated, too. It didn’t conform to the cartoon-ish notion of hick music.

“Asleep at the Wheel has always been a roots Americana band “” this is music of America, it was born out of the fabric of America,” says Benson. The band isn’t a Bob Wills cover band, but the ethos of how Wills synthesized the different strains of American music still resonates with Benson. That expansive view of America as a country made great by its multi-ethnic inclusionary vibe and a music made great by the same feverish cross-pollination and openness is what Benson shares with Wills.

Part of what drew Benson, who grew up in Philadelphia, to Western swing and the music of Bob Wills as a teenager was that it was complex, and he couldn’t quite master it when he first tried to, despite his experience playing jazz and classical music.

“I loved the lyrics and storytelling and subject matter of country music. I started playing square dance fiddle music when I was 14. I played in jazz bands “” swing and dixieland. And here was this Western swing music that had all of that in it,” says Benson. “At age 16 or 17 I discovered this music and really wasn’t capable of playing it. It took a couple of years and practice and study.”

When Asleep at the Wheel got started, in the early ’70s, the country’s political lines were as fraught as they are now, but musical genres were more enmeshed in the ideological struggles of the age. Long-haired hippie characters were skeptical about country music. And the country crowd was suspicious of long-haired hippies playing retro Western swing. So Asleep at the Wheel’s first couple of records weren’t spun on country radio because station managers would routinely say “We can’t play this: it sounds like it’s from the 1940s.” Sounding like the 1940s is maybe a little cooler now than it was in the Watergate Era.

The eclecticism of Bob Wills’ music might be the thing that makes it difficult for some people to wrap their minds around it.

“This is a cultural tapestry,” says Benson. In ways similar to how blues and gospel moved from the rural South to the cities of the North with the Great Migration of African Americans that started in the 1910s and ’20s, the Dust Bowl forced many families from Texas and Oklahoma to head West, bringing a strain of southern and prairie music culture to California, creating what would eventually be known as the Bakersfield sound. Wills was from Texas, but he moved to Hollywood in the ’40s and appeared in several cowboy films. He was perhaps most popular in California.

As Benson points out “” many people think of Jefferson Airplane and other Summer of Love artists as defining the California sound, but Wills was among the first to make the music of the Golden State. Benson’s tributes to Wills aren’t over. The Asleep at the Wheel frontman says he’d like to bring the Wills story to the big screen.

“My ultimate goal, which may never happen, is to make a movie about Bob Wills, a picture exploring the entire breadth of what he did in the context of the times,” says Benson.

“I’m interested in how this guy changed music “” America – and what an unusual character he was. He was a very complicated and conflicted guy.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.