Not many bands make it to 50 years (we won’t get into the Rolling Stones, those great outliers). That’s what the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel has achieved as of 2021, so of course they made a record to celebrate. And what a record Half A Hundred Years is! Tons of guests including some original members from way back in 1971, all doing their best to get you swooping or shuffling or waltzing around the dance floor. Because that’s what this music is, it’s swing music with a country western flare.
The album has 19 tracks of both new and classic songs, and a guest list as long as the Brazos River, including original members Lucky Oceans and LeRoy Preston, plus longtime vocalist Chris O’Connell. The last time leader Ray Benson pulled together such a crew it was in 1993 for the stellar Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Lo and behold, several of the same folks are along for this ride, including of course Willie Nelson, who’s been a longtime champion of the Wheel and one of the guys who persuaded Benson to move the outfit to Austin in about 1974. George Strait was also on that tribute, and Willie and George join with Ray on “Take Me Back To Tulsa,” one of Bob Wills’ signature songs (which was the first Wills song the Wheel recorded and is now one of their signature songs). I’ll just let you listen to that one right now.
This version is heavy on the fiddles (Jason Roberts has a sweet solo, as does Larry Franklin) and pedal steel guitar, which resembles the lineup they started with in the ’70s. That kind of arrangement features prominently here on songs like “Miles And Miles Of Texas” with Benson on solo vocals, the Cajun style shuffle “My Little Baby” with O’Connell singing and Lucky Oceans on accordion; the band’s one charting single “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a vocal duet between Benson and Lee Ann Womack; and the quickstep shuffle of “Marie” with Willie and Ray swapping vocals from verse to verse. If you couldn’t get enough of Willie and The Wheel, this is for you. A special treat is “Word To The Wise,” featuring the great Bill Kirchen who goes back a long way with Asleep at the Wheel. Better known for his Telecaster licks, here he sings and swaps acoustic licks with Benson, so listen up!
As good as those are, it’s the big band tracks that really get my feet tapping and heart beating. The album starts off with quite a string of them: the title track, a boogie bounce with tons of horns, a Telecaster solo and lots of pedal steel and fiddle accents; “It’s The Same Old South,” sung by O’Connell with a steel guitar playing lead licks; “I Do What I Must,” with Leroy Preston singing and some smart unison licks on pedal steel and Telecaster; and finally the mid-tempo bounce of “There You Go Again,” with Lyle Lovett backing Ray on vocals and some prominent piano. This one’s an amusing song poking fun at some modern folks who may be a bit pretentious about the way they toss money around on platforms like Venmo.
They trot out the full horn section for some others, too, including another signature song “Get Your Kicks On Route 66,” a rocking boogie featuring Benson, Leroy Preston, and Johnny Nicholas, on the vocals; and the absolutely scorching “I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here)” belted out by Lucky Oceans, with some great alternating solos on baritone sax, fiddle and electric guitar. Don’t miss “Bump Bounce Boogie” featuring the full band, and leads by vocalists Chris O’Connell, Elizabeth McQueen, and Katie Shore.
Of course there are a couple of instrumental tunes. “The Wheel Boogie,” makes me very happy with its boogie-woogie piano, full horn section, and electric and pedal steel guitars featured prominently. And it wouldn’t be a special Asleep at the Wheel album without a full-on tribute to Bob Wills such as the classic “Spanish Two Step.” This one, featuring the dual fiddles of Johnny Gimble and Jesse Ashlock, has a real old-time sound to it like it’s recorded around a single microphone.
There are a few syrupy ballads sprinkled in – you have to have a slow dance number or two mid-set, right? And a waltz that’s also a big production number in tribute to all the musicians who make their lives on the road, “The Road Will Hold Me Tonight,” with contributions from Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson one more time.
We’re lucky to have a band like Asleep at the Wheel still playing this kind of classic American music. Let’s hope we can all get out and see them when they’re able to get back on the road again. Until then, put on Half a Hundred Years and dance around the living room!
(Home Records/Thirty Tigers, 2021)