Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel in New Jersey (2/11/09)

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photo by Glen DiCrocco

www.wallstreetjournal.com
by John Jurgenson

On Wednesday afternoon at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., Willie Nelson had his first rehearsal with the 12-piece band he’d perform with that night and on a dozen tour dates to come. He kept an eye on the lyrics scrolling up a teleprompter at his feet, but the chugging tunes he led seemed as familiar to him as the splintered acoustic guitar strapped across his chest.

With titles like “Shame On You” and “Sweet Jennie Lee,” the songs came from the canon of Western Swing, a style born around the same time as Mr. Nelson in Texas — and one that, in uncertain times, may have a new relevance. “It was the first music I heard other than ‘Amazing Grace’ at church,” he says later, tucked into the kitchenette of his tour bus filled with family photos and other homey touches — including a Nintendo Wii.

At the peak of Western Swing’s popularity, fans would pay less than a dollar to dance all night to songs like these. The Great Depression was on, and listeners were eager to forget their troubles in the defiantly upbeat music. “Kind of like now,” says Mr. Nelson, with a laugh. “Timing is everything, but I’d hate to think it took a Depression for us to sell any records.”

At 75 years old Mr. Nelson is on a tear, releasing two or three albums a year and cycling through an eclectic mix of collaborators. Before arriving in New Jersey, he spent two nights in New York performing Ray Charles songs with Norah Jones and Wynton Marsalis. The latest project, however, marks a return to roots music that shaped the country star’s playing long before he broke out in the 1970s, or even wrote “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline made famous in 1961.

Supporting Mr. Nelson on tour and a new album is the group Asleep at the Wheel. Led by singer and guitarist Ray Benson, the Austin-based band has been a standard bearer for Western Swing for more than 30 years, injecting rock and other elements into the genre’s kitchen-sink mix of jazz, country and blues. The album “Willie and the Wheel,” which came out this week, features songs from acts who pioneered and popularized Western Swing, especially the fiddling bandleader Bob Wills.

Starting in the 1930s, his Texas Playboys rose to stardom via sponsored radio shows, appearances in Hollywood westerns and at teeming ballroom dances, where Wills experimented with amplification to make his instruments audible over the din of moving feet. Even casual listeners can identify his music by the falsetto cries — “aahh-haaa!” — he injected over the music.

“The reason the music has lasted so long is because it’s so incredible, but the reason it became popular in the first place was this guy hollering and strutting around,” says Mr. Benson, whose immersion in Bob Wills lore included co-writing a play called “A Ride With Bob.” Vintage-looking gas-station and motor-oil signs borrowed from the play hang on stage at the Count Basie Theatre. “Bob Wills was Elvis Presley to that generation, but musically there were dozens of them,” including star bandleaders such as Milton Brown, Spade Cooley and Moon Mullican.

Mr. Benson, a tall man who wears a ponytail and a gold pinky ring in the shape of a saddle, has known Mr. Nelson since the 1970s. (“That’s why we came to Texas — he was the only one that’d give us gigs,” he jokes.) But the catalyst for “Willie and the Wheel” was the reknowned music producer Jerry Wexler. As Mr. Wexler unloaded his collection of vinyl albums over the years, he sent Mr. Benson some Western Swing records, many with the initials “W.N.” written next to songs he wanted Mr. Nelson to record. The group completed about eight of the album’s 13 tracks before Mr. Wexler died last year at the age of 91.

In rehearsal, the various ingredients of Western Swing could be heard in songs like “Bring It On Down to My House” and “Hesitation Blues.” With the tip of a braided ponytail curling under his strumming arm, Mr. Nelson traded solos with the band, eliciting jazzy vamps by piano player Floyd Domino, weepy steel guitar lines from Eddie Rivers and throaty calls from Shamarr Allen, a New Orleans trumpeter who trained under Mr. Marsalis.

Tour stops include Albany, N.Y., and Greensboro, N.C. Despite Western Swing’s origins as “beer joint” music, as Mr. Nelson calls it, dancing in the aisles is unlikely at theaters like the Count Basie, where Willie and the Wheel tickets topped out at $150. But the band predicts a lively scene at the tour’s finale: a truck stop Mr. Nelson owns in Carl’s Corner, Texas, with an open dance-floor in front of the stage.

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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