When PBS mainstay Austin City Limits premiered nationally in 1976, the first band viewers saw was western-swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel. Now launching its 46th season, Austin City Limits has become the longest-running music show in American TV history, and Asleep at the Wheel, ending its fifth decade, has even eclipsed inspiration Bob Wills’ 44-year career. Austin City Limits will officially kick off the band’s 50th-anniversary celebration with a retrospective titled “ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel,” airing nationally on Oct. 31.
Still led by cofounder Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel has appeared on the show 11 times, including its 2015 induction into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. The retrospective features clips from each decade of the band’s and show’s existence, including performances with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill and the Avett Brothers. The setlist starts with a rendition of AATW’s first and biggest hit, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a top-10 country single — one of more than 20 that made their way onto Billboard’s country singles chart. Benson and the band have also released 31 albums, earning 30 Grammy nominations and nine awards.
Among countless other accolades, Benson became the second Texas State Musician in 2004. AATW earned the 2009 Americana Honors & Awards Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance, and Benson earned the 2011 Texas Medal of the Arts award in music. When 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, the night’s emcee, introduced Benson, he cracked, “Although he was born in Philadelphia, and therefore highly suspect, there is no denying that Ray Benson is a true Texas icon.”
One of the band’s ACL appearances featured the Texas Playboys, the band that backed Texas native Wills when he became known as the king of western swing. That eclectic uptempo hybrid of jazz, blues, country and boogie-woogie music inspired Benson to form Asleep at the Wheel with Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston in Paw Paw, West Virginia. After the band gained attention in the Washington, D.C., area, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen encouraged Asleep at the Wheel to move to California. Then Van Morrison praised them in Rolling Stone, which led to a recording contract and meeting Willie Nelson, who talked them into moving to Austin.
They fit right into Austin’s cosmic-cowboy scene, where artists who mingled various musical styles drew diverse fans who also mingled happily, sharing joints and bonding over music. Over the years, the 6-foot-7 Benson has become a towering presence in Austin’s and America’s music scene, cofounding the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, hosting annual birthday fundraisers and emceeing countless others, as well as building what might be country music’s largest musical alumni association; over 100 players have performed in the band. Some appeared in the stage production, Ride With Bob, a historical-fiction musical in which Benson imagines meeting his inspiration. He also recorded two Grammy-winning tributes to Wills, including one with that title. AATW also has presented the opening performance at every Austin City Limits Festival.
In an interview aired during the Americana Music Association Foundation’s virtual Thriving Roots conference last week, Benson said the ACL retrospective is the first of many special events planned to mark the band’s golden anniversary, including a new album coming in early 2021. Benson, who has survived both COVID-19 and Hepatitis C (leading to his role as an awareness-raising spokesman), is undoubtedly itchy to return to the stage with his band, where he’s likely to drop witticisms such as his favorite career observation, which he repeated to Pelley: “Being Yankee and Jewish is not the way most country singers make 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
Photo: Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson (center), with (from left) ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill and Billy F Gibbons. Credit: Lynne Margolis