Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel and Last of The Breed

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Asleep at the Wheel is backing up country music legends Ray Price, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho on Sunday.

Usually Asleep at the Wheel performs in smaller venues, clubs and halls that accommodate 750 to 2,000 people, places like Albuquerque’s El Rey, which the group played in November.

“I see a real resurgence in Western swing,” said Benson, who turns 56 next week. “A lot of young people are playing fiddles, and our audience continues to grow every day here in the modern era. We’ve got older fans, in their 60s to their 80s; fans my age, in the boomer generation; and younger fans in their 20s and 30s, like some of our band members.”

But he’s jumped off enough garages to know where the ground is.

“You’re not going to see Justin Timberlake singing Bob Wills’ songs or hear Western swing on top 40 country radio,” he said. “Country radio is involved in trying to sell radio time, and what they want is (listeners) 18-35 who don’t know anything about country music.”

The thing Benson likes best about “The Last of the Breed Tour,” 15 cities in 17 days, is that Price, Nelson and Haggard are the heart and soul of country music and everyone of them connected to Wills, the king of Western swing.

“Ray Price was (country music icon) Hank William’s opening act,” Benson said. “And Ray’s music of the ’50s and ’60s, with its twin fiddles, was a direct link to Bob Wills. He was the next step from Hank Williams and Bob Wills.”

Early in his career, Nelson played guitar for Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band, and in 1973 Nelson took his version of Wills’ song “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)” into the top 40.

“And the first thing Merle Haggard did when he made it big (in 1970) with `Okie From Muskogee,’ when he could have done anything he wanted, he made tribute albums to (Blue Yodeler) Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills,” Benson said.

“Haggard is someone today’s country stars should look at,” Benson said. “He understands the importance of what came before.”

Of course, nobody understands that better than Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.

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