Asleep at the Wheel – Keeping The Swing Alive

It’s hard to imagine that one of the most popular bands in Texas didn’t get their start in the Lone Star State. In fact, they aren’t even from Texas; they got their start in tiny Paw Paw, West Virginia. Back in 1969, Ray Benson and pal Reuben Gosfield formed the band and began playing all around the Washington, D.C. area. Even though they were a country band they often opened for touring rock bands like Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper. In 1970 they were persuaded by George Frayne to move to Oakland, California. George, better known as Commander Cody, had a band called the Lost Planet Airmen and thought Benson’s band would do well in Oakland. After a few years in Oakland they were able to release their first album, Comin Right At Ya in 1973. A year later Willie Nelson happened to see the band while on a west coast tour and convinced the guys to move to Austin to be part of his outlaw movement.

Nelson was right, within a few months the band was playing all over Texas and taped their first appearance on the Austin City Limits TV show, a feat they would repeat another nine times. It was that same year they were booked to play Gruene Hall, making them the first national touring band to play the legendary venue. Within a few years they were winning Grammy Awards and touring all across America. Band leader Ray Benson has fond memories about coming to New Braunfels back in the 70’s, “Back then there wasn’t much in Gruene, just this wonderful old dancehall,” he recalled. “The original advertising signs were still on the walls above the stage. It was just what we were looking for, we were a perfect fit. That’s why we keep coming back every year.”

That perfect fit kept Asleep at the Wheel, under Benson’s leadership, on the road over 200 days a year touring with acts like Willie Nelson, George Strait and Bob Dylan. Fifty years later, Ray remains the only original member left. During the past five decades, over 100 musicians have passed through the band. It doesn’t mean Benson is a tough boss; he just has a clear vision of what he wants his band to be. They are one of the few bands that have played at every Willie Nelson picnic and every ACL Music Festival. The ACL Fest, founded in 2002, has built up the attendance to about 400,000 music fans each year. Though Benson and the band may now be considered elder statesmen on the Texas music scene, it’s a badge they wear with pride. “We’ve been kicking things off for 17 years,” explained Benson. “It’s a very cool thing to stand on that stage at noon every year. It’s become a tradition for us and I hope for the fans that come to see us.”

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