Asleep at the Wheel

  • Western swing band formed in 1970 from Paw Paw West Virginia. The founding member and leader was Ray Benson (lead vocals, lead guitar, songwriting).  The other founding members were Lucky Oceans (steel guitar), LeRoy Preston (vocals, drums, rhythm guitar), Danny Levin (keyboards, fiddle), Gene Dobkin (bass guitar, vocals) and Chris O’Connell (vocals, banjo, rhythm guitar). There have been nearly 70 members of the group over the years.
  • At 19 years old, Benson dropped out of college and moved to a farm in West Virginia with Oceans and Preston, determined to form a band. They gravitated to honky tonk and swing music, unlike most young anti-war artists of that time. Oceans came up with the name Asleep at the Wheel, and they performed at tiny venues in West Virginia for several months. Two hippie buses carrying a band called the Medicine Ball Caravan pulled into the farm looking for a band they had heard about – Asleep at the Wheel. They asked Benson and company to open for them at a gig in Washington D.C. Asleep at the Wheel built a fan base in D.C., but back in West Virginia they were considered anti-war hippies, leading to several confrontations at shows.
  • In 1971, after opening for Commander Cody at a show in D.C., Cody encouraged the to take their sound to Berkeley California. After arriving there, they got a regular gig on Tuesdays at a nightclub, and soon Van Morrison asked to play a show with them. Rolling Stone magazine was doing a story on Morrison, and Morrison mentioned to the magazine that he loved Asleep at the Wheel. Within weeks, the band was contacted by record companies, and they signed a record contract.
  • In 1973, their debut album was released – Comin’ Right At Ya. It was popular in Texas, and Willie Nelson encouraged the group to move to Austin Texas. Austin became their home base. They released five more albums in the 70s, and several of their songs charted on the Billboard Country Chart. Their highest charting single, The Letter That Johnny Walker Read, peaked at #10. In 1978, they won their first Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for One O’Clock Jump, a cover of the Count Basie jazz standard from 1937.
  • As the band entered the 80s, their style of music became lost to disco, new wave and outlaw country music. Dobkin left the group in 1974, Preston left in 1978, and Oceans left in 1980. New members joined, and the band continued to perform concerts without a record label to support them. From 1980 to 1985, around 30 people performed as members of the group. Benson made ends meet by producing commercials for Budweiser. The group finally released a new studio album in 1985, and they also released albums in 1987 and 1988. Their cover of the 1946 swing song House of Blue Lights charted at #15 on the Country Charts, and they won two more Grammy awards for Best Country Instrumental Performance for String of Pars in 1987 and Sugarfoot Rag in 1988.
  • Into the 90s, the group’s popularity grew as baby boomers became nostalgic. Five studio albums were released in the 90s, six in the 00s, and four in the 10s. They had singles make the country chart in the 90s and 00s, giving them the rare distinction of having charted songs in four different decades. They won four more Grammy awards in the 90s – for Best Country Instrumental Performance for Red Wing, Hightower and Bob’s Breakdowns, as well as their first Grammy for a Country Song by a Group with Vocals for Blues for Dixie. Their final Grammy was in 2000, in the same category, for Cherokee Maiden.
  • Their unique old school swing sound made them popular for their live performances, so over the years, they released over 15 live albums. And since swing music didn’t sell a lot of records, they never scored big hits or major record sales. Instead, they dedicated themselves to taking the swing genre to future generations with their live performances.
  • Benson continues to lead the group 50 years after its beginnings, and an album titled Half of Hundred Years was released in October 2021. The 19 songs on the album includes collaborations with George Strait, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett. Several tracks also feature original members Preston, Oceans and O’Connell. Here’s a clip of Asleep at the Wheel from 2013, performing Bump, Bounce, Boogie – a good representation of the swing sound that this group preserves today.

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