MIDLAND When Ray Benson was asked if he ever imagined that his band Asleep At the Wheel would still be around after 50 years, he could only laugh.
“No way,” Benson, the lead singer and founder said during a phone interview. “My plan was (to go) 10 years, make a record, buy a farm and play the guitar on the weekends.”
However, like with any other successful band, fate would play different role.
The band was founded in 1970 and has since been part of the American roots music landscape.
Asleep At the Wheel got its start on a farm in Paw Paw, W.Va., but it wasn’t long before it became a cornerstone of the Austin scene upon its arrival in 1973.
The group is inspired by western swing and honky-tonk country and over the years has garnered numerous awards including Grammys.
“The first part was to make a country western hit record, which we did, and play at the Grand Ole Opry, which we also did,” Benson said of the band’s early years.
Asleep At the Wheel will return to the Permian Basin this weekend in a concert with the West Texas Symphony beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center. It won’t be the first time the band has played alongside the West Texas Symphony with their last concert coming a few years ago.
By popular demand, the West Texas Symphony was able to bring back Asleep At the Wheel for this weekend’s performance.
“It’s great,” Benson said. “I think this is our second time performing alongside the orchestra, and it’s a lot of fun to do all these songs with an orchestra. There are a lot of fiddles.”
While Benson has been the main stay for the band, other members of Asleep At the Wheel have come and gone over the years.
“It’s personnel-wise (that has changed),” Benson said. “We’ve had about 100 people play in the band. I was fortunate enough to be trusted with this musical odyssey. There were three of us to start, and we added people over the years while others left. We’ve kept the consistency and have kept up with the changes.”
It was more than 50 years ago when Benson, as a 19-year-old, wrote in his journal that he wanted to form a band to bring the roots of American pop music into the present.
Benson has been able to do just that.
“As a 19-year-old, you have some lofty goals,” Benson said. “It’s very satisfying to know that that was what I was thinking at the time, besides having fun playing music.”
Benson talked about how the band’s early years saw a country that was politically divided, much like today, and how that shaped the country music scene.
“My generation was trying to get away from country music because of the political divides like the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement,” Benson said. “I just said ‘look, if you can ignore the political ramifications, this music has great soul, great artistic merit.’”
The band would pay its dues early on by touring as country singer Stoney Edwards’ band in 1971.
A year later, their United Artists debut album did well in Oklahoma and Texas and a year later, the group moved to Austin.
Benson says the big heroes for the group included Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
One of the band’s compositions “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” became a national Top 10 country hit in 1975. The band would continue to ride success.
That is, until a brief time in the ‘80s when the group faced an uncertain future.
“There have been times like in the early ‘80s where the disco thing almost killed us,” Benson said. “From 1981-1986, I didn’t have a record deal. I was able to diversify what I do so I helped produce Budweiser ads and worked with K.D. Lang. I did voiceover work just to keep the engine going. A number of people including my ex-wife asked why I was spending money on this band when we needed a new car. But we needed eight or nine people to carry this tradition. That was a real sacrifice through the ‘80s. I had to remortgage my house twice to pay for the band.”
However, the band has since pulled through and gotten back on the map. The ‘90s saw the group playing regularly between 180 and 200 dates a year and the band has stayed busy travelling.
It was hard for Benson to pinpoint what his favorite stage has been to perform on.
“Well, that would be two separate answers,” Benson said. “My favorites are the smallest, most insignificant theaters. But the George Strait Tour (venues) are pretty cool and the Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics and concerts. It’s always been touring with our heroes. We’ve toured with Bob Dylan. That’s pretty cool. It goes on from there. Willie Nelson to Merle Haggard to Glen Campbell, guys who I revered who have invited us on stage and collaborated with us in the studios. That’s about as exciting as you can get. That’s why I got into this mess in the first place. I really enjoy playing with these people and to play with them on the same level playing field is awesome.”
The group doesn’t aim to stop anytime soon.
“I got a whole bunch of new folks,” Benson said. “We have some young fiddlers. Some of the older folks have been with us for 30 years but had to take care of their families so we have some younger people now. We’ll have shows in France in November and who knows, there’s a lot of great stuff in the future.”
If you go
- What: Asleep At the Wheel.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
- Where: Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center.
- Tickets: tinyurl.com/2p8d4rrc