Beginnings to Austin
In 1969, Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans (Reuben Gosfield) co-founded Asleep at the Wheel in Paw Paw, West Virginia, and soon after they found themselves opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in Washington, DC. A year later, they moved to East Oakland, California, at the invitation of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. After being mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine by Van Morrison, they landed a record deal with United Artists. In 1973, their debut album, "Comin' Right At Ya", was released by United Artists. At the request of Willie Nelson, they left Oakland for Austin in 1974.
1974 - 1979
In 1974, they released their second album, "Asleep at the Wheel", with a cover of Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", which was their first single to hit the country charts. The following year had the release of "Texas Gold" as the group's third album with the top-ten Country hit single "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read". In addition, they played on PBS's Austin City Limits, where they have since performed a recordsetting 10 times. In 1977, the band was voted Best Country Western Band by Rolling Stone and was awarded the Touring Band of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. They also went on tour with Emmylou Harris in Europe. The following year, they made a cover of Count Basie's song "One O'Clock Jump". Also in 1980, they appeared in the movie Roadie, along with Meat Loaf, Blondie, and Art Carney. By the end of the decade, the band recorded their first live album, "Served Live", at the Austin Opera House.
1980 - 1989
The 1980s became a turbulent decade for the band. After moving to MCA, co-founder Lucky Oceans left the band, and Chris O'Connell left in September 1986 due to her pregnancy. Asleep at the Wheel gathered a large amount of debt that required them to work on commercials and movie soundtracks. This band produced the soundtrack for the film Liar's Moon.
In 1985, the band released a virtually ignored self-titled album. By the late 1980s, Ray Benson had done some producing, allowing the band a second chance with Epic Records. In 1987, the band released "10", which won them their second Grammy for Best Country Instrumental, helping to launch their comeback. The album also had contributions from legendary fiddle player and onetime Texas Playboys member Johnny Gimble. The following year, the band released "Western Standard Time", which won them another Grammy for Best Country Instrumental. The late 1980s also had the growth of Jann Browne as a solo vocalist in the group; she would later embark on a solo career on Curb Records.
1990 - 1999
The band moved to Arista Records and released the album, "Keepin' Me Up Nights". Soon after, the band had turnover as old members left and new members entered. Among them was former solo singer Rosie Flores, who joined in 1997. In 1991, Ray Benson directed the music and co-starred in the movie Wild Texas Wind with Dolly Parton. In honor of the 66th anniversary of Route 66, the band launched the Route 66 Tour. In 1993, the band released the instant hit "A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys" to much critical acclaim with several guest musicians. Two years later, the band celebrated their 25th anniversary by releasing "The Wheel Keeps on Rollin". In 1999, the band and DreamWorks released "Ride with Bob", as their second tribute album to Bob Wills. This album became an instant hit and garnered the band two Grammy wins, one for Best Country Instrumental, and the other for Best Package Design.
According to Rolling Stone magazine, Ray Benson "didn't just enlist the obvious Wills fans" in this tribute album to Bob Wills like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and Lyle Lovett. He also brought in some of country's young lions the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, and Lee Ann Womack, some pop stars", including Shawn Colvin, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, and fellow country preservationists such as Dwight Yoakam.
2000 and onward
In 2000, the Dixie Chicks were nominated for an award for Vocal Event of the Year for "Roly Poly" with Asleep at the Wheel from the Country Music Association. That same year, the band toured with Bob Dylan and George Strait. Benson recorded a tribute to "Wills and Texas swing music", including Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks, and Willie Nelson. They were scheduled to play at the White House on the fateful September 11, 2001. In 2003, the band released "Live at Billy Bob's Texas", and by the end of the decade, the band had released two more albums: "Reinventing the Wheel", an entirely new set of songs, including a collaboration with The Blind Boys of Alabama, and a two-disc set "Kings of Texas Swing". In 2007, their second Christmas album was released, "Santa Loves to Boogie".
Asleep at the Wheel received six Austin Music Awards for their efforts in 2007, including Band of the Year, Songwriter of the Year (Benson), Country Band of the Year, Record Producer of the Year (Benson), Male Vocals of the Year (Benson), and Acoustic Guitar Player of the Year (McQueen).
"The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" is played on the K-Rose radio station in the 2004 PlayStation 2 video game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This created a revival for the song in younger generations.
A Ride With Bob
As the 100th anniversary of Bob Wills' birth (March 6, 1905, in Kosse, Texas) approached, friends suggested that Benson and his Asleep at the Wheel band do something to mark the occasion. "Some folks wanted another tribute album," Benson said. "But we'd already done two. I felt like we'd be cashing in on Bob's ghost." Benson was kicking around ideas with writer friend Anne Rapp, a West Texas native who had written scripts for two of director Robert Altman's films. She asked Benson whether he had ever met Wills. Benson said that he had, but never got to talk to him. "That's it: The conversation you never had," Rapp said.
In the musical, Benson, playing himself, boards a tour bus for a gig in Tulsa. The mysterious driver turns out to be the spirit of Wills (Austin actor Marco Perella). Benson is taken on a tour of Wills' life, told in an uncomplicated "and-then" fashion. Members of The Wheel play the musicians, with fiddler Jason Roberts as Wills, and actors play various characters from Wills' life, including his five wives, former Texas Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel (Steve Uzzell, who also memorably plays a flamboyant Hollywood director) and a black man whose music inspired Wills (Timothy Curry). A Ride With Bob premiered in the spring of 2005 in Austin, Texas to four sold-out shows. It has been performed all across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. It has also been performed in San Francisco, as well as in Washington, DC, at the Kennedy Center, where two unexpected guests were Texans President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
The play has been called "the most entertaining night in Texas" by Liz Smith from the New York Post.
«Willie and the Wheel»
In February 2009, Ray Benson collaborated with Willie Nelson to release "Willie and the Wheel". The long-overdue concept album, originally suggested by producer Jerry Wexler, teamed Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel on several wellknown Western Swing selections. Paul Shaffer and Vince Gill also perform on the album. Willie and the Wheel was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.
Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been presented numerous awards throughout their career. Most recently, the 16th Annual Midsouth Regional Emmy Award for the making of "A Ride With Bob" recognition by Mayor Kirk Watson of Austin, Texas, and the Darrel K. Royal Music Patron Award by The Texas Heritage Songwriters' Association. In 2007, the Austin Chronicle recognized Asleep at the Wheel for Band of the Year, Best Country Band, and into their Hall of Fame. Benson was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2002, was given the Texas Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and recognized as an Outstanding Producer by the National Academy of Recording Arts in 1988. He has also been given numerous Citations of Achievement by Broadcast Music, Inc. for his work in the country music field. Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been some of the strongest names in Country Music for the last 40 years.