“I’ll tip my hat and raise a toast to half a hundred years” so sings band leader and founder Ray Benson on the album’s title track. And for this fabulous collection of western swing and honky tonk anyone interested in country music, whether newbies or Asleep at the Wheel fans for the past half century, should tip theirs in return. From beginning to end Half A Hundred Years is a joyful celebration of a genre of country music that Asleep at the Wheel have made their own over that same period.
Before getting into the music a dig into the roots of the band will give this glorious album greater perspective. In 1970 Philadelphia born Benson was living on a farm in Paw Paw, West Virginia when he wanted to form a band. Unusually for a 19 year old, his musical tastes leant heavily towards country, in particularly the western swing and Texas honky tonk popularised by Bob Wills. His aim was to bring these roots of American music up to the present. As his hippy looks and beliefs did not exactly fit the typical profile of a country music fan he and his embryonic band called Asleep at the Wheel headed for San Francisco to share a stage with country rock pioneers Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Asleep at the Wheel’s debut album in 1971 came to the attention of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm who enticed Benson and his band to Austin, Texas. From their adopted home began a career that would notch up 10 Grammy awards, 25 studio, 16 live and 21 compilation albums. The line-up changed frequently as the band’s initial popularity waned in the 1980s to recover a decade later and has continued ever since.
Two important themes run through Half A Hundred Years. First, the guest list is packed with giants of country music but, secondly, this is not purely a nostalgia fest. Benson has always striven to widen the appeal of western swing, in particular to a younger audience. The freshness with which every song come across is testament to that enduring spirit. This is live music in every sense of the word, to be performed down the generations.
The album splits into three; new songs from the current line-up, old favourites with guests and alumni and previously unreleased material. Much was recorded remotely during the pandemic but everyone gives the whole record an immediate, live feel.
A gentle acoustic picking, pedal steel and lively horn section open up for Benson’s rich baritone on the title and opening track. He gives thanks as he looks back at how he has managed to navigate that half a hundred years. Buck, Merle and Willie get a mention, times have been good and not so good but to that celebratory tempo who can resist his call “to start the jam, roll one up and ice another beer”?
‘It’s the Same Old South’ swings to Chris O’Connell’s lush vocals, while founder LeRoy Preston’s ‘I Do What I Must’ pits a duel between Tex-Mex horns and pedal steel, all kept up to beat by his disciplined drumming.
Fellow Texan Lyle Lovett guests on ‘There You Go Again’, his laid back smoothness the perfect complement to Benson and the jaunty arrangements. Bill Kirchen and Dan Hicks duet on ‘Word to the Wise’ opening with a warm spoken dialogue about how far they go back. That may be fifty years but there’s nothing old about the lightness of their touch and sharpness of melody.
The pace slows as O’Connell sings the gentle lament ‘That’s How I Remember It’. Next up it’s back to another founder, Lucky Ocean for his dazzling pedal steel on ‘I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here)’. Instrumental ‘The Wheel Boogie’ swings out the record’s first section.
Then it’s time to plunge into the back catalogue and where better to start than ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa’ with Willie Nelson and George Strait? These country giants nimbly skip to a relentless beat as the horns ebb and flow around the pedal steel. Lee Ann Womack guests on ‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’, a Country Top Ten in 1975 and still one of the finest ‘Dear John’s’ ever. Benson talks and sings John while Womack sings his wife’s letter imploring him to come home. Between them, the lonesome fiddle and weeping trumpet, the song is as intoxicating as the whisky itself. Barrelling keys and toe-tapping horns accompany Chris O’Connell, Elizabeth McQueen and Katie Shore on ‘Bump Bounce Boogie’. Holding on tight while maintaining that pace comes a powerful ‘Get Your Kicks On Route 66’ featuring Leroy Preston and another member of the band back in the 1970s, Johnny Nicholas.
Finally come three old but unreleased songs. Willie is back for ‘Marie’, his delicate vocals matched by Benson, the pedal steel and brass of the band. This is what they do so well, whether it is Texas or Irving Berlin they just add their own signature perfectly. The album closes with Nelson and Emmylou Harris on ‘The Road Will Hold Me Tonight’. Written by Benson this tribute to the road could be Asleep at the Wheel’s theme song, such are the miles and shows they have performed over their half century.
Performing has been at the heart of Asleep at the Wheel. That’s what keeps this amazing band going. As this fine tribute eloquently demonstrates through so many personnel changes they have remained faithful to their roots without ever getting stale. Bob Wills would have been proud so having started by quoting Benson he should have the last word. When asked “How do you keep this music going?” He replied, “well, you’ve got to have some young people. If young people aren’t doing this, then we’re just a museum – and I don’t want to be a museum.”