Over the course of 41 years, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have spent as much time backing other musicians as they have playing on their own.
The western swing group has collaborated, on record and live, with Ray Price, Lyle Lovett, The Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Squirrel Nut Zippers, to name a few. Lately, the band has been focusing in on this backup role even more than usual. In 2009, the band released “Willie and the Wheel,” a full-album collaboration with country legend Willie Nelson that was a long time coming — producer Jerry Wexler first brought the idea to the two camps in the 1970s.
Asleep at the Wheel
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
How Much: $29.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
Last year, the band released another collaboration that seemed long overdue. “It’s a Good Day” features Asleep at the Wheel backing up former Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys frontman Leon Rausch on a number of classic western swing songs.
First full album
Benson, frontman of Asleep at the Wheel and the band’s only consistent member over the years, first met Rausch in the ’70s. The two musicians have collaborated live before, and Rausch contributed some vocals to the Wheel’s first Bob Wills tribute album in 1993, but this is the first time the two have made an entire album together.
“Leon was one that we really wanted to get done,” Benson said from his home in Austin, Texas. “He was 80 years old when we started [recording].”
The Wheel has long advocated for Wills’ music, recording two tribute albums over the last two decades. In 2005, to mark the 100th anniversary of Wills’ birth, the band created a musical, “A Ride With Bob,” which still occasionally tours, about a fictitious conversation between Benson and Wills. So the collaboration with Rausch, who still performs Wills’ music in a new version of The Playboys, made sense.
“Well, you know, we’re good friends, so it was just a lot of fun,” Benson said. “I think I just wanted to give Leon the backing, in the way that we do things — the way that I thought it should be done — that I don’t think he had done in his recording career.”
The band played a few shows with Rausch after the album’s release, but the singer’s age prevents him from going out on longer excursions. When the band hits The Egg on Friday night during its 10-day Northeast tour, they’ll do a few numbers from “It’s a Good Day,” including the title track, with Benson taking on the lead vocals.
Besides being returning Egg players, the band has another connection to the area. In 1970, a year after the band first formed in Paw Paw, W.Va., they hooked up with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and at their behest relocated to East Oakland, Calif., scoring their first big break with United Artists. George “Commander Cody” Frayne is a longtime Saratoga Springs resident, and Lost Planet Airmen guitarist John Tichy is a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“I talk to them occasionally, though we haven’t played together for about a couple of years,” Benson said.
However, the groups probably won’t be able to meet this time through. “We come and go from D.C. to Albany to Rhode Island to Maine, and then back to Texas — kind of a string of one-nighters.”
The Wheel just celebrated its 40th anniversary as a band last year — a history that encompasses more than 25 albums, nine Grammy awards and 30 musicians that have passed through the ranks. And the band is still going strong, with “Willie and the Wheel” earning them another Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
The band is planning more collaborative albums with its heroes and contemporaries, though anything on that front will be a few more years down the road.
“We have a bunch of them — there’s another one with Willie that we’re working on, but that won’t be for a long time, probably two years before we get that done,” Benson said. “It’s just what Asleep at the Wheel does — we’ve backed up dozens and dozens of American patriots.”
Their collaboration with Rausch included a number of Wills’ songs, such as “I Didn’t Realize” and “Cotton Patch Blues,” along with other standards in the western swing canon.
“[Rausch] picked a couple, I picked a few,” Benson said. “It was really just, knowing him for 35 years, a song that I always wanted him to do that he never had done. I picked most of the songs — ‘Basin Street Blues,’ ‘Alright,’ ‘Cotton Patch Blues,’ all of them really — classic songs that he had not done, that I was aware of.”
The band still maintains a busy touring schedule, and in between runs has found time to bring “A Ride With Bob” out on the road occasionally. In the musical, Benson plays himself, while current Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts takes on the role of Wills. Wills ends up taking Benson on a tour of his life — an idea that came to Benson as kind of a “what if” scenario.
“The premise of the play is — I met Wills, and then that night he had a stroke and went into a coma, so I got to meet him but I never got to talk to him,” Benson said. “When we were writing the play, my friend who was helping out asked, ‘Did you ever meet Bob Wills? What did y’all talk about?’ I said, ‘Nothing’ — they introduced us and took us to the hotel, he had the stroke and I never talked to him.”
Up next for the band is a documentary film spanning the group’s 41-year career. Benson is also planning a new solo album, showcasing original material that doesn’t quite fit the old-school country sound of the Wheel.
Persistence pays off
Despite various lineup changes and a career lull in the ’80s that nearly bankrupted the band, Benson has kept things going due mainly to persistence.
“I’ll give the same answer when they asked George Harrison’s wife about their marriage — ‘Don’t get divorced,’ ” Benson said.
“There’s gonna be tough times, there’s gonna be obstacles and people will tell you that you can’t. Just keep going. As many people that said to me, ‘Why are you still doing this?’, plenty more said, ‘Don’t ever stop doing this.’ ”
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