In 2020, Ray Benson was set to celebrate Asleep at the Wheel’s 50th anniversary of the country group’s origins. As members from different part of the world—Italy, Australia, Vermont, California and Nashville and a film crew to document the golden milestone—everyone was turned around when the pandemic hit. As everything locked, Benson, the sole founding member of the group originally formed in 1970, caught COVID.
Sick and quarantined at home, Benson began writing, and working on Asleep at the Wheel’s next album, first releasing a three-song EP, Better Times (Bismeaux Records).
Watching old black and white movies centered around World War II on Turner Classic Movies, and living in the moment, hoping for better days ahead, Benson wanted to write a song about the sentiment of “we’ll be together in better times.”
A double album release set for Oct. 15 in tow, Benson wanted to share “Better Times” in a time when it resonated most. “I said ‘It’s so germane to the time that we’re going through, so let’s not waste this opportunity, because this will be less relevant when we are back in,'” shares Benson.
All in different parts of the world with singer Chris O’Connell in Berkeley, Califorina, Leroy Preston in Vermont, and Larry Franklin in Nashville laying down their respective tracks, guests like Willie Nelson were recorded prior to the pandemic with George Strait most recently tracking in Texas for the forthcoming release. In the meantime, Better Times is a glimpse into where Asleep at the Wheel have arrived now.
On “Better Times,” Benson sings the title track, written during the pandemic, with Katie Shore taking on “All I’m Asking,” a song written by Band of Heathens’ Ed Jurdi and Gordi Quist that calling for a reconciliation of love. Benson and Shore duet on the final track “Columbus Stockade Blues,” sticking to the 1960s arrangement by Willie Nelson and Shirley Collie, originally written by Thomas Darby in 1927.
Better Times is also a message for unity and communication, lessons Benson hopes were learned during the thick of the pandemic. “I think people really need to just chill out from the animosities that have been created,” he says.
Thinking back on the five decades of Asleep at the Wheel, Benson says the band’s formula hasn’t changed. “We use everything with Asleep at the Wheel—the fiddles, the guitars, the voices,” says Benson. ‘That’s the formula that is Asleep at the Wheel. It’s a conscious effort to be this kind of band.”
Having done jazz, classic, and rock, Benson always wanted Asleep at the Wheel to be more of a Western swing band with a rotation fiddles and guitars, trumpet and sax, and a Western theme. “It’s confused a lot of people over the years but I’ve done alright,” jokes Benson.
Remembering a stop in Sweden during a European tour with Emmylou Harris in 1977, someone called Asleep at the Wheel “a jazz band trying to cash in on the new craze of country,” says Benson. “They just didn’t have the history of Western music.
“Essentially where we’re a band that does something that is native only to America, and North America,” he says. “We’re a touring band with real instruments that goes around playing music of America and plays songs on improvisation. That’s the thing that distinguishes us from other bands.”
Benson adds, “Every night that we play, each instrumentalist has to play a solo, much in the tradition of jazz, bluegrass, and blues bands, as opposed to the same notes every night on every song. That tradition starts back in the 1800s and continues today, and that’s the legacy of Asleep at the Wheel.”
Now 50 years later, Asleep at the Wheel has had more than 100 members over the past five decades. “I am the bandleader and I am the one constant,” says Benson, “but I am basically herding a bunch of people in the right direction.”
Being on the road for 120 to 150 dates a year, and 180 days of traveling, Benson says it’s hard to write around a constant schedule of showering, dressing, interviewing, and sound checks, when on the road. “I just didn’t have that time where you can write because it’s those moments where you have the idea that you can just dedicate to that, that idea,” he says.
The past year gave Benson time back to settle into his root, and write again.
“I did 48 years straight of touring and when the pandemic hit I was forced to view life from a different perspective,” says Benson. “It’s been really wonderful, and it’s given a better perspective to how we’re going to tour the future.”