On his self-penned title song to Asleep at the Wheel’s new album, front man and cofounder Ray Benson sings, “I never thought I’d last half a hundred years,” later adding, “It’s quite a run.”
It certainly has been. And so Asleep at the Wheel, the Texas-based band that helped revive Western swing, hard country, and other roots styles, is celebrating with the new album, Half a Hundred Years, and a tour, both featuring some band alumni. That tour arrives Thursday, Oct. 21, at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, not far from where Benson grew up (As Ray Benson Seifert) in Wyndmoor, Montgomery County.
(The band’s 50th anniversary was actually reached in 2020, but the celebration was delayed by the pandemic.)
Along the way, Asleep at the Wheel has garnered nine Grammys and the respect and admiration of artists such as Willie Nelson, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, and Lyle Lovett, who all appear on the new album.
Not that it’s always been a smooth ride. As he alluded to in his new song, there were lots of times when Benson thought about giving it up. Like during the disco craze of the ‘70s.
“Those were very difficult times,” the 70-year-old singer and guitarist says from his home studio in Austin, Texas. “But I always enjoyed what we were doing, and there were always people who wanted to see us. We were broke, but we were not destitute.”
So the band basically took the path of the Killer.
“I remember a journalist asked Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Where have you been the last five years?’ because he had that scandal in Britain. And he said, ‘Where have I been? I’ve been on the road 200 days a year playing honky-tonks you just don’t go to.’ ”
Benson, who began as a child performer — he recalled playing folk music at 10 or 11 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Robin Hood Dell and appearing on the Pixanne children’s show on WCAU-TV — is the lone remaining original member of the band he cofounded in 1970 with Wyndmoor friend Reuben Gosfield (a.k.a. “Lucky Oceans”). Over the years, Asleep at the Wheel — Gosfield came up with the name — has had more than 100 different members. Benson says the turnover has been a positive, continually revitalizing the group.
“The band is not Ray Benson. The band is a conglomeration of fabulous players,” he says. “So when they join the band, they learn what the person before them did. Then they add whatever they have to add, their personality, their style. …
“In the ‘70s, it was incredibly difficult to find anybody who could play [this music] — including ourselves. We practiced a lot seriously and got very good very fast, but there not other fiddle players, steel players, etc. Now every 10 years there’s a group of young folks who’ve learned our music, George Strait’s music, Willie Nelson’s music, Bob Wills’ music. So it’s been pretty consistent to find good players.”
The new album is a 19-track collection featuring new performances of new and old material. Among the alumni who make strong contributions are singer-guitarists Leroy Preston and Chris O’Connell; Lucky Oceans on harmonica, accordion, and vocals; piano player Floyd Domino; and steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar. All but Oceans, who lives in Australia and can’t leave because of the pandemic, are scheduled to appear at the Keswick.
Benson says he got his musical education in the ‘50s and ‘60s from Philadelphia radio: “On the AM side, WIBG; on the FM side, WHAT; then there was Black radio — Jocko. … It was wonderful.”
As for his formal education (not counting what he says he learned in the pawn shops on South Street), he attended Springfield High in Montgomery County through 10th grade and then moved to Penn Charter, where he graduated — but not before being thrown out: “I was a bit of a rebel and it was 1969 — there was the Vietnam War.”
That rebel streak carried over to the creation of Asleep at the Wheel, which was “a grand sociological move to bridge the generation gap.” So the band played music associated with older generations rather than the rock and roll that preoccupied their peers. (It was also around this time that he changed his name, taking his cue from Ray Charles, whose full name was Ray Charles Robinson.)
Benson and company dove into that music with single-minded dedication, honing their chops in a remote cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va., before moving to Oakland, Calif., and then settling in Austin in the early ‘70s. Now, 51 years later, he remains committed to maintaining the classic Western swing lineup — fiddles, steel guitar, guitar, bass, drums, piano, and a horn or two. That “enables us to go a pretty wide range of styles” — not just Western swing and country but country rock, Cajun, big-band jazz, and more.
Benson contracted COVID-19 in March 2020 but says he is fine now and has no intention of stopping the Wheel from rolling on.
“As long as my health stays where it is and as long as my voice stays as strong as it is, I’ll be out there. And I’m pretty good at getting young folks to hang in and get on the bus.”
Asleep at the Wheel, 8 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. Tickets: $29-$49 in advance; $34-54 day of show. keswicktheatre.com