By Lynne Margolis
It would be impossible to count how many times western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel has covered Route 66 — both the road and the song — in its 50-year existence.
The Austin-based band, still led by co-founder Ray Benson, has carried its lively hybrid of jazz, blues, country and choo-choo ch’boogie to dancehalls, theaters and festivals from Oklahoma City to Amarillo — and Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino and plenty of other places in the world — helping generations of fans get their kicks to its fiddle-driven sound (and that trademark song). And tonight, Austin City Limits is celebrating the band’s anniversary with ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel, a retrospective of the band’s five decades as seen in performances culled from ACL’s archives. The PBS show airs at 8 p.m. CT/9 p.m. ET, with three more airings throughout the week. (Check local listings.)
Since forming the band in Paw Paw, West Virginia, with former members Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston, Benson has kept Asleep at the Wheel’s engine humming on more than two dozen albums, including several tributes to his inspiration, Bob Wills, and Wills’ Lone Star-born, Tulsa-fed Texas Playboys.
Along the way, the band has amassed an orchestra’s worth of alumni and 10 Grammys, not to mention a spot in TV history for performing on the first nationally televised episode of Austin City Limits in 1976. Including their 2015 induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, the band has appeared 12 times on the iconic PBS show, now the longest-running music series in TV history.
Like a cultural time capsule, the hour-long show captures the 6-foot-7 Benson and his large band in their element in clips from five decades, including their 2009 appearance with Willie Nelson after releasing their Willie and the Wheel album.
“The great thing about as many times as the Wheel has been on, every show they’ve ever done Is different,” says ACL producer Terry Lickona. “They don’t keep coming back and doing the same Bob Wills classics that they’ve always done; they always mix it up, either with special guests or some sort of special twist that they hadn’t done before.”
Those guests also include Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, the Avett Brothers and Johnny Gimble, along with a parade of some of the area’s finest musicians who have performed as members of Asleep at the Wheel, seen in segments edited together by Benson’s son Aaron, who coproduced the special with his brother, Sam.
As much as Austin and Austin City Limits have evolved over the years, says Lickona, “We keep coming back to Asleep at the Wheel. They’re sort of a mainstay or linchpin for the show, down through the years and the decades. It’s great to have that continuity and that connection.”
He regards the 2009 Willie and Wheel performance of “Hesitation Blues” as a highlight.
“Everybody was inspired,” Lickona says. “There was something about the show that night with Asleep at the Wheel as his band, in effect, that just seemed to really bring out the best in Willie — and likewise, Asleep at the Wheel.”
The program is among several special events Benson has planned for the anniversary, including an early 2021 release of a new album, Halfway to a Hundred Years. The title song was inspired by singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson’s response after Benson mentioned the 50th anniversary was coming up.
Benson, who once served on the show’s board of directors, says the COVID-19-induced break from touring has allowed him to concentrate even more on songwriting. (That is, once he recovered from his own mild case of the virus.)
“On the road, you’re just trying to get fed, sleep, showered, ready for the gig. Boom. Get on the bus, go. And the ideas go by,” he says. Now he can write whenever he wants, then step into his studio and cut demos.
“It’s been a lifetime of learning … so I’m not just writing one-four-five blues; it took a lifetime of practicing to become a songwriter so I can write in all different genres,” Benson notes. “It’s the same thing developing singing too, so that I can tackle stuff that I want to do.”
As for how a Jewish kid from Philadelphia has managed to carry the torch for western swing for five decades, Benson says, “It’s pretty simple. Don’t quit.
“I always tell people, if you’re in it for the money or the fame, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re in it for the experience, you’ll never quit, and you’ll enjoy it.”
ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel setlist:
(dates note years the song was performed on ACL)
“The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” – 1976
“Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens” – 1978
“Get Your Kicks on Route 66” – 1996
“Roly Poly” featuring the Texas Playboys – 1993
“Hesitation Blues” featuring Willie Nelson – 2009
“Nothing Takes the Place of You” – 1976
“Blues for Dixie” featuring Lyle Lovett – ACL Hall of Fame 2015
“Let Me Go Home Whiskey” – 1976
“After You’ve Gone” featuring Willie Nelson, Freddy Powers & Johnny Gimble – 1981
“I Can’t Give You Anything but Love ” – 2015
“Boogie Back to Texas” – 1988
“Milk Cow Blues” – 2015
“Miles and Miles of Texas” – 1996, 2002, 1980
“Choo Choo Boogie” – 1978, 1988, 1996
“Pancho and Lefty” featuring Willie Nelson – 2009
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” featuring the Avett Brothers & Vince Gill – 1996, 2015, 1978, 1976
“Cotton Eye Joe” – 1980
Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel. Photo by Scott Newton courtesy of Austin City Limits