When Asleep at the Wheel burst onto the scene about 46 years ago, the band thrilled audiences from coast to coast who came to listen and dance to its rhythmic, rock-n-roll-tinged, western swing, feel-good music.
Today, although most of the original members are gone, the group sounds much like it did in the beginning, and it draws enthusiastic crowds composed of old and new fans.
Asleep at the Wheel is set to perform at 8 p.m. Monday, May 21, at the Rogue Theater, 143 SE H St., Grants Pass. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $38, $48 or $58, and can be purchased at roguetheatre.com, by calling 541-471-1316, or at the door, depending on availability. The show is open to ages 21 and older.
Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia. Soon after, they enlisted female vocalist and guitarist Chris O’Connell, who was fresh out of high school. The group played straight-up, country music in its local venues for a few months then switched to western swing — the music Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made famous in the 1930s and ’40s. The band moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in late 1971, added keyboardist Floyd Domino to the crew, and released its first album, “Comin Right at Ya,” in 1972. In its long history, the group has won nine Grammy Awards and released more than 20 albums and 20 hit singles.
Benson, who says western swing is “jazz with a cowboy hat,” unabashedly admits that Wills strongly influenced and inspired him, but Asleep at the Wheel did not just try to imitate the music of the ’30s and ’40s. The band infused Wills’ unrestrained, wide-ranging style with big-band movements, easy country melodies, and the intense energy of blues, rock, zydeco-Cajun and boogie to create a sound that appealed to hippies and rednecks alike. In fact, in the early and mid-1970s, when America was probably as divided as it is today, large numbers of fans from opposite sides of the political wall danced together at Asleep at the Wheel concerts.
Benson says that sort of thing still happens, and he’s glad it does.
“Our shows are about playing music, letting loose and having a good time,” he says.
As the band’s frontman, he assiduously avoids making any political statements during performances.
“I like to tell jokes, but I try to keep the talking at a minimum to be able to play as many songs as possible,” he adds. “We just want to make sure everybody in the audience has fun.”
Benson, who plays guitar and sings lead vocals, is the only original member of the band. Other members include Katie Shore on fiddle and vocals, David Sanger on drums, Eddie Rivers on steel guitar and saxophone, Dennis Ludiker on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Josh Hoag on bass, Connor Forsyth on piano and vocals, and Jay Reynolds on sax and clarinet.
Benson says the band’s concerts sound very much like the performances of the early days.
“We make sure to play the songs that people identify as classic Asleep at the Wheel tunes,” he emphasizes. “We still love to play the tunes that got us to this point. We play the songs we have written, as well as music from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”
Some of the classic Asleep at the Wheel tunes include “Route 66,” “Hot Rod Lincoln,” “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!,” “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” “Blues for Dixie,” “Miles and Miles of Texas,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” and “Bump Bounce Boogie.”
“We play songs from our very first record in 1972,” Benson says. “We feel it’s important to keep playing the catalog, but with our current lineup everyone does their own thing and adds a special twist to the original recording.”
Those twists include hot piano licks, unpredictable fiddle trills and slides, sometimes sultry, sometimes soulful, sometimes raucous saxophone melodies, soft clarinet sounds, and the ethereal, plaintive cries of the steel guitar — all of them woven together to create a magical, musical tapestry.
Asleep at the Wheel, now based in Austin, Texas, tours the U.S. and plays about 150 shows a year.
“We’ve been coming to Grants Pass since the early ’70s, and we have played at the Rogue Theatre several times,” Benson says. “In our first road trip ever, we played in Ashland and Grants Pass. We love both towns, and we love coming to Oregon.”