The prospect of Asleep at the Wheel devoting an entire recording project to the music of Bob Wills seems not just inevitable. For them it is essentially business as usual.
For the better part of 45 years, founder-bandleader-guitarist-vocalist Ray Benson and a rotating arsenal of expert instrumentalists have been torch bearers for a brand of Western swing inspired by, along with numerous country and jazz influences, the sounds Wills and his famed Texas Playboys band created in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Benson has cut two previous Wills tribute albums with the multi-Grammy winning Asleep at the Wheel. But for the new Still the King record, Benson wanted a fiddle-driven Wills swing party that would defy the ages.
"The whole idea was you would have Asleep at the Wheel as the band along with every fiddle player under the sun," says Benson, who brings the current Wheel gang to the Lyric Theatre on Monday for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. "We're just trying to let people continue to experience the really great Bob Wills Western swing music.
As fiddlers go, Still the King has a bounty of them, including Lone Star sensation Carrie Rodriguez. But that's just the tip of guest list. The roster also enlists such country-Americana pros as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait and Lyle Lovett (all veterans of Asleep at the Wheel's previous Wills tribute records) as well as a healthy lineup of stylistically varied new generation acts that includes Brad Paisley, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three, Amos Lee and Kat Edmonson.
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"That's always been the purpose of these records — to get multi-generational support," Benson says. "But we also wanted to get folks who haven't had an opportunity to play real Western swing on a record to do that.
"We have people of five generations playing this music on this record, from one of the Quebe Sisters (the Fort Worth-based fiddle trio), who is 20 or 21 years old, right on up to Billy Briggs, one of the old Texas Playboys. He plays sax and is 92 years old," Benson says.
Just the King also chronicles one of the final recorded performances of Dawn Sears, vocalist for the all-star Nashville roots and swing troupe The Time Jumpers, who died from lung cancer in December. She and the entire Time Jumpers lineup join Asleep at the Wheel on Faded Love.
"Yeah, Dawn sang the bridge on Faded Love," Benson says. "She just killed it. That was very sad. Of course, her husband Kenny was one of the fiddlers on the session along with Larry Franklin, my old fiddle player. There was me, Ranger Doug (from Riders in the Sky), (Louisiana fiddler) Joe Spivey, (former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist) Elizabeth McQueen. Jason (Roberts) our old fiddler plays and sings, too. There were so many people. Ah, what a session. It's as beautiful a version of Faded Love as you'll hear and it's done in the style of, I think, the most modern Western swing music.
"Then you hear the Old Crow Medicine Show (which performs the classic Tiger Rag) and you have the most basic raw version of Western swing. We've got this incredible array of styles and music."
But what about Benson himself? As practiced as he is in the ways of such continually influential swing, are there elements of Wills' music that continue to surprise and inspire?
"Absolutely. Every night," he says. "I think one of the things the audiences don't realize — well, hopefully they do — is that this is improvisational music. So every night, I sing it a little different. I play my solos a lot different. Within the framework of the song, you get to jam quite a bit. So improvisation is not only fun for a musician, it also keeps you from being bored.
"Every night, you have to impress the people you're playing with, impress yourself and, hopefully, entertain the audience."