'Still The King': A Tribute To An Icon Of Western Swing

Mar 20, 2015
Originally published on March 24, 2015 8:20 pm

"The essence of the Bob Wills sound, and the reason he picked and did what he did, is that it was dance music — period."

That's how Ray Benson distills the mission of the man who helped create western swing, the uptempo country style that ruled dance halls in the 1930s and '40s. Benson and his band Asleep at the Wheel have helped keep that music alive in the four decades since Bob Wills' death — and according to him, they're not alone.

"There are bands all over the United States — the world — playing western swing music," Benson says. "They're not on the radio, in terms of mainstream radio. They're not selling platinum records. But they're playing the music for people who want to hear it."

Asleep at the Wheel recently released Still the King, a tribute album to the music of Bob Wills featuring contributions from the musicians he helped inspire, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, The Avett Brothers, Elizabeth Cook and Pokey LaFarge. He joined NPR's Don Gonyea to talk about it; hear their conversation at the audio link.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

And this certainly sounds like radio from a bygone era.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL SONG)

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) All the Texas playboys...ha.

GONYEA: A little something from the late Bob Wills, the king of Western swing - except this recording is not Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. It's Ray Benson and his band, Asleep At The Wheel. For four decades, they've been the keepers of the Bob Wills flame, so to speak, as well as that signature (singing) ha.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL SONG)

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Ha.

GONYEA: Asleep At The Wheel has released a new tribute to the late Bob Wills. It's an album called "Still The King," and they've got some old friends with them - Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Plus some new ones - the Avett Brothers, Elizabeth Cook and Pokey LaFarge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH THE MILL")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Baby, give me a try. I'm like a cheddar (ph) field, I satisfy. What's the matter with the mill? What's the matter with the mill? What's the matter with the mill? It done broke down. Can't get no grinding. Tell me what's the matter with the mill?

GONYEA: Spend some time with this music, and you cannot help but feel good. Ray Benson says that's what Bob Wills was all about.

RAY BENSON: The essence of Bob Wills' sound and the reason that he picked and did what he did was, it was dance music - period. That's what Bob Wills was trying to do. That's from the horse's mouth. I had this interview with Bob and that's what he said - well, we were just trying to get enough songs together for people to dance to.

It's what created Western swing in that it was pop music of the day - fiddle tunes handed down from generations, Western tunes, cowboy tunes, songs on the radio. Whatever it was to get people dancing and keep them coming is what Western swing was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAN ANTONIO ROSE")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Deep within my heart lies a melody, a song of old San Antonio. Where in dreams I live...

GONYEA: So, when I hear original recordings of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, I don't just hear country or swing.

BENSON: No.

GONYEA: I hear Benny Goodman, I hear New Orleans jazz.

BENSON: Yeah.

GONYEA: Are these traces of what Wilson himself was listening to in his heyday, in the 1930s, 1940s?

BENSON: Absolutely. In the '20s, too. Bob Wills, he was the biggest fan of Bessie Smith. The story was, that he told, was that they were from Hall County, Texas in West Texas. They had a cotton farm out in Hall County, and he rode a mule 20 miles to see Bessie Smith. This is a time in Texas when, you know, racial conflict was horrible. Black people were being lynched, obviously segregated, obviously Jim Crow. And here was his white farm boy fiddler playing black music, you know, reinterpreting it for his audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) A good man now, so hard to find. You always get the other kind. Just when you think that he's your pal, you look for him and find him foolin' 'round with other gals. Oh, no. And then you pray...

GONYEA: There's a song on this new album - I hear a little Bessie Smith.

BENSON: "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

GONYEA: That's it.

BENSON: We have our newest member, Emily Gimble, singing that song with Carrie Rodriguez, a wonderful good friend of ours and a fiddler here and singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Kiss him every night. Ah, yes. Give him lots of love and treat him right. 'Cause a good man nowadays is hard to find. Oh, I'm right here playing the guitar.

GONYEA: I want you to talk about what it was like working with some of these - we'll call them younger artists, maybe it's better to just call them newer artists...

BENSON: There you go.

GONYEA: ...On this project. Let's start with the Avett Brothers. They're from North Carolina, they've had some big hits. On this record, they recorded a song called "The Girl I Left Behind."

BENSON: Very old song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Wrote her a letter when I known better and I asked her to be my wife. Along came a feller and he hit me on the smeller and it almost took my life. Oh, that girl, that pretty little girl, girl I left behind me. The rosy cheeks and the curly hair, the girl I left behind me.

BENSON: This is beautiful. I love this cut. It's joyous, it's - of course, these are two great singers, the brothers, you know, and that's their band and our band combined - but it's the joyousness. I mean, you can feel it. And people want to clap their hands and or dance. You know, that's what we're trying to get across.

GONYEA: You know, I'm sitting here behind the microphone and the engineer's looking at me because I'm moving. (Laughter).

BENSON: Yeah, yeah exactly. Exactly. Keep your mouth on the mic, but move your body.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: I also want to ask you about working with Amos Lee. He covers the song "I Hear You Talkin."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEAR YOU TALKIN")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) I hear you talkin', I hear you talkin', yes I do. But your talk, talk, talk don't ring true. I'm listening politely too, but I don't believe a word you say.

GONYEA: So, Ray Benson, is this a case of another Philadelphian - that's where Amos Lee is from - falling into the Bob Wills groove, just like you did all those decades ago?

BENSON: Oh, listen - what a singer. You know, what happened was, I was watching TV and this commercial came on and this voice - I heard his voice. I went, who is this guy? And I looked him up and said, dang. And yeah, he's from Philly, a Jersey Philly boy. And I have this theory, Don, about the geographical imperative, I call it. People say, well, how can you - you're a actually Jewish kid from the suburbs of Philadelphia. How come you're playing Texas music? I say, well, it's like asking Van Cliburn from Fort Worth why he's playing classical music. Hey, it's what's in your heart and what's in your ability to do it.

GONYEA: That's a fair point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEAR YOU TALKIN")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) You say I'm your honey love, that I'm all you're thinking of. Oh, I hear you talking but you ain't been foolin' me. I hear you talkin'. I hear you talkin'.

GONYEA: How do you think Bob Wills is holding up as an influence? Is his sound threading into the music of younger artists? I mean, you know, just like I mentioned I hear Benny Goodman in Bob Wills, are you hearing Bob Wills in other musicians today?

BENSON: Oh yeah. It's kind of like the resurgence of bluegrass back in the '60s and '70s. There are bands all over the United States, the world, playing Western swing music with string instruments and horns, et cetera. They're not on the radio, in terms of mainstream radio. They're not selling platinum records. But they're playing the music for people who want to hear it. And it's amazing. We had a little gal from Belgium come - Little Kim her name was - and she's a rockabilly Western swing singer with a band in Belgium. It's just fantastic. So, I think we're all over the world.

GONYEA: That's Ray Benson, leader of the Western swing band Asleep At The Wheel, talking about their new CD, "Still The King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys."

Ray, you get the final pick here. What song should we play to close the house down?

BENSON: Oh, I know. We should play George Strait doing "South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTH OF THE BORDER (DOWN MEXICO WAY)")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) South of the border I rode back one day. There in a veil of white by candlelight she knelt to pray. The mission bells told me that I mustn't stay. South of the border down Mexico way. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.