Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel

Visit the Asleep at the Wheel website.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 20, 2015
Where: The Rio Theater, 1205 Soquel Avenue, Santa Cruz, California
Tickets: $30. Call 831-423-8209 or visit

When: 7:30 p.m. May 21, 2015
Where: SLO Brew, 1119 Garden Street, San Luis Obispo, California
Tickets: $25-$30. Visit

When: 10:30 a.m. May 23, 2015
Where: Bakersfield Rock and Country Music Festival, Kern County Museum's Pioneer Village, Bakersfield, California
Tickets: $125-@195. Visit

When: 7 p.m. May 2, 2015
Where: Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
Tickets: Sold out.

Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Buy at

Asleep at the Wheel
Wyatt McSpadden photo
Ray Benson, center on the couch, and Asleep at the Wheel.
A talk with Ray Benson
of Asleep at the Wheel
From Paw Paw, West Virginia, to all around the world,
this band's been rocking that Western Swing
May 19, 2015

Tony Lacy-Thompson: How many albums has Asleep at the Wheel recorded in the past 40 years? The Wikipedia entry says 31.

Ray Benson: Somewhere between 26 and 30 I think, probably 26. We've been slacking.

TLT: In some years the Wikipedia entry has multiple record releases.

RB: Yeah, but they're re-releases.

TLT: You've mined the rich seam of Bob Wills music for a couple of albums, and many songs. Bob was certainly the king of swing, but what other artists have influenced Western swing?

RB: Oh lots of people. Moon Mullican, Milton Brown, Smokey Woods, Louis Jordan of course, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. But the next album we're going to write most of it ourselves.

TLT: You've toured and/or recorded with an all-star cast over the years: Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam. Who's your favorite, who have you had the most fun with?

RB: Well, Lyle Lovett has a very dry sense of humor. But Willie for sure is the most fun. We're best friends, we play golf together and write music together.

TLT: Do you have any good stories about Willie?

RB: Oh sure. We were booked to do a big show in Texas for CBS or someone, with Willie and Kris Kristofferson. We'd rehearsed, even done a sound check. Then the producer comes to me and says "We've got to pull you, Nancy Reagan is in town and we have to cover her." So I go back to the bus and start packing up, telling Willie we were going home. Willie says "Well if you're not playing I'm not playing." And Kristofferson joins in with "If they're not playing I'm not playing." Suffice it to say we all played that night. Willie is just the nicest guy.

TLT: Tell me about Western swing. Where did it start, how did it evolve?

RB: It started in the '20s and '30s with people like Bob Wills, and the Light Crust Doughboys. They were just playing dance music like the Charleston and the Jitterbug. Then they added the sound of a Texas country fiddler — which is different than a Carolina fiddler — and started playing country music using this new thing called a Hawaiian guitar. They were taking big band songs and playing them with fiddles and a country feel, and just trying to get enough songs together to fill an evening of dance music.

— Advertising —

It was pretty raw and country-oriented. But then in the '50s the PA was invented, and all of a sudden they could play to bigger audiences and use electric guitars and electric steel guitars, because their voices could be heard over them. Until then people like Bob Wills were just all acoustic.

TLT: Are there any minor chords in Western swing?

RB: Well yes, but they are usually used as substitute and transition chords. Most of the music is pretty upbeat for dancing.

TLT: Tell me about Asleep At The Wheel. The band has been around for 40 years, you must have gone through a few players in that time.

RB: There have been over 100 people that have been in the band over the years. I'm the only original member, but some of the current members have been in the band for 20 years. The great thing is we are now getting younger players. Emily Gimble is the granddaughter of Johnny Gimble (Texas Playboys), and we also have Katie Shore. There are lots of young fiddlers all over the place — Canada, even Belgium.

TLT: How popular is Western swing around the U.S.? Are there any states where it doesn't work?

RB: It works in most places in the U.S., and we've played most states. It's especially popular in the East, South and West. Southern Florida like Miami is not too good for us, but northern Florida works well.

TLT: What about internationally?

RB: It's very popular in Britain, Ireland and Scotland, though England has a different tradition of country music, with people like Boxcar Willie and the rockabilly folks. Of course they have Albert Lee, one of the greatest guitarists in the world. But we've also played Norway and France.

TLT: Tell me about the current tour.

RB: It isn't really a current tour, we're always touring! In the Bay Area we're playing San Francisco, Marin, Napa, Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo. We recently had an appearance on Letterman, and we're getting inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame in June.

Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at