In 1971, some 25 plus years plus after Bob Wills, Asleep At The Wheel following in the tyre tracks of their hero, made the journey out west, relocating to California. Unlike Bob Wills, however, they weren’t responding to the drifting migration of those seeking work in the Great Depression and into the war years, but for this young combo, the invitation of the similarly minded Commander Cody was not to be ignored. Releasing their debut album in 1973, they picked up further patronage from Willie Nelson and on his request, moved back east to Austin, putting them at the heartland of Bob Wills original music revolution. Some 45 years or so into an unbroken chain of playing the music he pioneered, they have paid the ultimate tribute in rebooting Bob Wills signature western swing for the third time, by involving another generation of young artists, amongst a host of star names, in reworking some of The Texas Playboys’ classic fare. The resulting 22 track Still The King is superb and both a fitting accolade to one of America’s biggest ever musical stars, but also proof of Bob Wills’ own proclamation that you can hear at the end of track one, “I think the Western swing, or whatever you want to call it, will slack off for a little while and then I think some of these younger boys will come out here one of these days with a golden voice and it’ll build again.”
Over four decades later Asleep At The Wheel still sounds good and Still The King is easy listening, but in all the right ways. The natural swing, the sheer musicality, a great set of songs and an absolutely stunning guest list make this a real gem of a CD. It’s handsomely put together too with cigar box artwork (Bill was fond of a big, fat corona), with some nice notes that add commentary to the tracks and the guest list. Of course it’s not the first time that Asleep At The Wheel have focussed a record of Bob Wills, but as the sleeve notes make clear, whilst many of their previous collaborators are back for more, this time they’ve looked to the new generation of artists that have once again made American roots music their own primary source of inspiration. Pokey LaFarge, Kat Edmondson, Amos Lee, The Quebe Sisters, Old Crow Medicine Show, Carrie Rodriguez and The Devil Makes Three are all aboard this time around.
It all started for Asleep At The Wheel when (the ever-present) Ray Benson, Floyd Domino, and Lucky Oceans, along with a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston, Virginian Chris O’Connell (the band’s original female voice) and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces at the end of the 60s. The young band had come together in Paw Paw Virginia with their ambition of reviving American roots music, a desire that eventually morphed into a particular love of western swing, in an era that didn’t really know anything about the musical style that once dominated the ballrooms of America. Musically, Asleep At The Wheel were arguably just as revolutionary as The Band, without the patronage of Bob Dylan, or Gram Parsons without Keef, although an aside in a interview Van Morrison gave to Rolling Stone landed them a record deal.
Out of fashion in America as was back then, it would be quite possible for Bob Wills and Western Swing to be completely unknown outside of the USA. The music was a unique amalgam of country songwriting, Gypsy jazz, New Orleans rhythms, blues and dance band swing that took America by storm and Bob Wills was quite probably its foremost and certainly its most persistent exponent. In all sorts of other ways the style can claim to be a genuine precursor of rock ‘n’ roll, but before teenage rebellion gave music its dangerous edge. Wills himself was quoted in the 50s as saying, “Rock ‘n’ roll? Why man, that’s the same kind of music we’ve been playing since 1928!” He had a good point, particularly in the ways western swing featuring amplified electric guitars, fused black and white musical style and also in the excitement the music engendered in a huge audience.
Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys themselves formed around the start of the 1930s in Waco Texas. They included some of the greatest players of the age and featured a bold mix of fiddles, sax and trumpet alongside a rhythm section that featured a young firebrand drummer called Smokey Ducas. Steel guitarist and singer Leon McAuliffe and guitarist Junior Barnard, were two other star names in the line up, which slowly drifted out west, first to Oaklahoma and eventually California, were they were at least in part the founders of the Bakersfield country sound. Wills lived as a Hollywood star in the mid 40s at a time when his Texas Playboys were at the peak of their powers.
Really speaking, however, it was music of the dance halls and radio broadcasts, that’s where the audience lay. Sure from 1944 onwards they had an enviable run of country hits, but nothing that crossed over. If you want to find the best recordings now, you’re better looking to the radio archives, as the shellacs naturally limited the running time of the recordings and Wills’ band were in their element when they could stretch out musically. During the 40s they were playing to thousands a week, breaking dancehall box office records everywhere. Bob Wills could claim to be the genuine king of western swing, although that epithet had been grabbed by Spade Cooley, who followed in Bob’s wake, but was quicker to seize a marketing opportunity.
They were huge in appeal but a big band too with twenty plus musicians involved. Bob ran a couple of clubs as an extra, but bookers would take them any which way and on any day they could get them and the audience would fill the halls. They toured pretty relentlessly, but with that came problems. Wills, like many others of the era was a drinker and the stress of keeping the band going, plus mounting financial problems, caused in part by leaving the running of the clubs to some less than scrupulous people, turned the screws and Bob became a little unreliable.
After 1950 things got worse, the hits dried up and so too, although more slowly, did the live circuit. Radio had become much more segregated and suddenly they weren’t country enough for the country stations, jazz enough for the jazz stations and certainly didn’t fit the pop market. Rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues took over and western swing all but disappeared from the musical map.
Of course the CD age first, and ultimately the rise of the internet, have made archivists of many a music fan. Once the silver discs took off, the gold-rush to uncover a catalogue that could be repackaged and resold gathered a rapacious momentum. The obvious advantages of size, and therefore rack space, and cost of manufacture sent an army of newly incorporated record companies delving into the archives, unearthing all kinds of music that could be sold to fans all over again, even finding new enthusiasts for the first time. For Asleep At The Wheel at the start of the 70s, however, there was no such guarantee of a market and what they did really was quite radical. It just worked, however, with considerable success and a substantial clutch of Grammies were to follow.
Just the first side of a nicely vintage (although acquired in the 80s rather than on its 1974 release) vinyl copy of their second and self titled album is proof of their bold mixture and great to listen to. They thought nothing of mixing Choo Choo Ch’Boogie, with a Gypsy violin version of Basie’s Jumpin’ At The Woodside and country tearjerkers like You And Me Instead. Their own Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going To Texas) even manages to get the lines, “From Austin up to Dallas, Amarillo to El Paso, You can here Bob Wills, Bill Mack and me on your radio,” suggesting not everyone had given up on western swing. Looking at the new generation coming through, and there are plenty of hip-young-gunslingers in the mix here, Asleep At The Wheel are surely due some proper re-appraisal for keeping the torch lit, as the old school is most definitely the new school.
After a first track that features the Leon Rausch, the original voice of The Playboys and also the voice of Bob himself, you get the same kind of mix on the new album too. There’s the sassy put down of Cindy Walker’s I Hear You Talking (with Amos Lee), the hoe-down folksy jollity of The Girl I Left Behind Me (with the Avett Brothers), the jazz march of Trouble In Mind (with Lyle Lovett), the honky-tonking lover’s lament of Keeper Of My Heart (with Merele Haggard and Emily Gimble), the Broadway song that became a standard, I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (a superb duet between Kat Edmondson and Ray Benson) and the mad-cap-catoon caper of Hold That Tiger (with Old Crow Medicine Show) ring the changes through the first third of the disc, everyone a gem.
That’s followed by a typically stylish Pokey LaFarge, singing What’s The Matter The Mill, who is singled out for his encyclopaedic knowledge of old-timey sounds, but here suggests further collaboration should be a priority for both parties. At the other end of the spectrum Willie Nelson is on fine form, with an Andrews Sisters’ style chorus from The Quebe Sisters, in another generation hopping collaboration on Navajo Trail, that is near perfect. In fact the older generation, Del McCoury injecting a little bluegrass flair, The massed ranks of The Time Jumpers, the easy rolling musical genius Buddy Miller are all on top form. As too is George Strait, an old-smoothie, who has been a genuine Wills’ aficionado and torch carrier for years, channelling his blend of Sinatra and Gene Autry into South Of The Border (Down Mexico way), contrasting with Robert Earl Keen’s more ribald Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas.
Girls and guys alike, with Elizabeth Cook’s bluesy I Had Someone Else Before You, Carrie Rodriguez reading of the Bessie Smith classic A Good Man Is Hard To Find, are matched by Jamey Johnson’s Brain Cloudy Blues. The lighter side of the bar room vigil is taken by The Devil Makes Three’s Bubbles In My Beer, while there’s still more of a light stepping lift from the Wheelers’ own Katie Shore’s version of It’s All Your Fault. There’s even some room for some guitar heroics from Brad Paisley, Tommy Emmanuel and Brent Mason, with the latter pairing joined by saxophonist Billy Briggs for a stunning Twin Guitar Special. Shooter Jennings partnering with Randy Rogers and Reckless Kelly finally remind us that Bob Wills Is Still The King.
Of course Ray Benson is still the ever present and his playing and singing throughout are a vital part of the mix, as too are drummer David Sanger, and bassist Dave Miller, with Eddie Rivers lap steel, the afore mentioned Katie Shaw’s fiddle and the piano of Emily Gimble. There are also various contribution from Ray’s son Sam who helps with production too and other guests that keep things rolling for a little over 70 minutes that absolutely flies by. It works like a juke box crammed with killer cuts, or a (just over the odds) radio hour, a celebration of toe tapping tunes to put a smile on your face. And yes, Bob Wills is still the king, but Asleep At The Wheel and assembled friends are his extended Royal Family.
Review by: Simon Holland
What’s The Matter With The Mill (with Pokey LaFarge)
Navajo Trail (with Willie Nelson and The Quebe Sisters)
STILL THE KING: CELEBRATING THE MUSIC OF BOB WILLS AND HIS TEXAS PLAYBOYS TRACKLIST
- Intro—Texas Playboy Theme (with Leon Rausch)
- I Hear Ya Talkin’ (with Amos Lee)
- The Girl I Left Behind (with The Avett Brothers)
- Trouble In Mind (with Lyle Lovett)
- Keeper Of My Heart (with Merle Haggard and Emily Gimble)
- I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (with Kat Edmonson)
- Tiger Rag (with Old Crow Medicine Show)
- What’s The Matter With The Mill (with Pokey LaFarge)
- Navajo Trail (with Willie Nelson and The Quebe Sisters)
- Silver Dew On The Bluegrass Tonight (with The Del McCoury Band)
- Faded Love (with The Time Jumpers)
- South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way) (with George Strait)
- I Had Someone Else Before I Had You (with Elizabeth Cook)
- My Window Faces The South (with Brad Paisley)
- Time Changes Everything (with Buddy Miller)
- A Good Man Is Hard To Fine (with Carrie Rodriguez and Emily Gimble)
- Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas (with Robert Earl Keen and Ray Benson)
- Brain Cloudy Blues (with Jamey Johnson and Ray Benson)
- Bubbles In My Beer (with The Devil Makes Three)
- It’s All Your Fault (with Katie Shore)
- Three Guitar Special (with Tommy Emmanuel, Brent Mason and Billy Briggs)
- Bob Wills Is Still The King (with Shooter Jennings, Randy Rogers and Reckless Kelly)
Still The King : Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys is Out Now
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