Willie and the Wheel


With unemployment soaring and President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan looking eerily like Depression-era jobs programs, the country-jazz sound of Western swing is a music whose time has come — again.

Born of the brilliant marriage of jazz, blues and country string band tunes, Western swing reached its greatest popularity in the 1930s with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills died in 1975, but Ray Benson and his Grammy-winning Asleep at the Wheel have kept Wills’ songs alive since forming in the early 1970s. Now they’ve teamed with Willie Nelson for the “Willie and the Wheel” album and concert that brings them to Durham’s Performing Arts Center tonight.

The idea for Nelson to lend his inimitable phrasing to Bob Wills songs originated with legendary R&B producer Jerry Wexler in the early ’70s. But Nelson changed record labels, and the project was shelved.

Last year, Wexler revived the idea and enlisted Benson and the Wheel as Nelson’s backing band. Western swing is a natural for Nelson who, like Wills, is a Texas native and who grew up on Wills’ music; Nelson even performed with Wills early in his career.

“A lot of people don’t know it, but for Willie’s first album the liner notes were written by Bob Wills,” Benson says. “And Bob used to have him come up and sing with him.”

The splendid CD version of “Willie and the Wheel” was released this month on Benson’s Bismeaux label.

With its flawless musicianship and brilliant arrangements, the album features a dozen Wills songs, including “Right or Wrong,” “Corrine Corrina” and “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.” It also features such bawdy blues numbers as Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon’s “Fan It” and jazz singer Bessie Smith’s “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of This Jelly Roll.”

“‘Fan It’ is one of the songs Jerry [Wexler] was really hot on, and me too,” says Benson. “When Bob Wills was still alive but in a coma, we went to visit Mrs. Wills, Betty Wills, and she started playing some of his 78s. She said, ‘This is my favorite one of Bob’s.’ She put on ‘Fan It.’

“Those songs of the ’20s were the songs that shaped Bob Wills and Western swing. They were listening to Bessie Smith, Emmett Miller, Frankie ‘Half Pint’ Jaxon — all the great black artists.”

Asleep at the Wheel began to roll in 1970 when Benson, a native of Philadelphia, started the band with Leroy Preston and Lucky Oceans after attending a concert by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen at Ohio’s Antioch College, where Benson was a student.

They relocated to rural Paw Paw, W.Va., and then San Francisco, before moving to Austin in 1974 at Nelson’s suggestion.

At the time, Austin was the center of country music’s “outlaw movement,” which was unofficially headquartered at the Armadillo World Headquarters; the fabled dance and beer hall served an unlikely clientele of cowboys, hippies and University of Texas students. UT football coach Darrell Royal was a regular.

Nelson lived in Austin and performed at the club, as did Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Murphy, Willis Alan Ramsey and other architects of “redneck rock.” Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody played the club’s last concert on New Year’s Eve 1980.

In music, timing is everything, and Asleep at the Wheel came along just as record labels were beginning to reissue 78 rpm recordings on LPs, and groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were seeking out old musicians to learn from. Benson followed suit.

“I felt like we were the first generation of musicians, starting in the late ’60s, that had a musical rearview mirror,” he says. “When we started the band, we hunted up old 78s and old music on LPs. We would dig around in attics. My role models were the people who researched the Delta Blues guys.


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