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Asleep at the Wheel: Driving Western Swing

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Asleep at the Wheel: Driving Western Swing

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Asleep at the Wheel: Driving Western Swing

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Sometimes nothing can get your toes tapping and your blood coursing and your feet moving like some good ol' Western swing.

(Soundbite of song "San Antonio Rose")

SIMON: Bob Wills was the father of Western swing. This his new San Antonio Rose recorded in 1940. Now, Bob Wills was the first artist to put electric instruments and drum sets into what used to be called country music. Audiences just couldn't sit still when they heard the result. Bob Wills toured the country in the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s with his famous band, The Texas Playboys.

And in the 1970s, Asleep at the Wheel picked up that mantle and they have carried the sound of Western swing into the new millennium. Now the two and a new millennium have come together on stage, so to speak. The result is a musical drama called A Ride With Bob. Asleep at the Wheel joins us in Studio 4A.

Thanks very much for being with us, everyone.

Mr. RAY BENSON (Asleep at the Wheel): Hey, good to be here.

Mr. JASON ROBERTS (Asleep at the Wheel): Thank you.

SIMON: Let me introduce the band. Ray Benson.

Mr. BENSON: Hello.

SIMON: Vocal and guitar. Jason Roberts, vocals and fiddle.

Mr. ROBERTS: How do you do?

SIMON: Walt Roberts, vocal and fiddle.

Mr. WALT ROBERTS (Asleep at the Wheel): Hi, there.

SIMON: Elizabeth McQueen, vocal and guitar.

Ms. ELIZABETH MCQUEEN (Asleep at the Wheel): Hello.

SIMON: John Michael Whitby on the piano.

Mr. JOHN MICHAEL WHITBY (Asleep at the Wheel): Yes, sir.

SIMON: Eddie Rivers on the steel guitars.

Mr. EDDIE RIVERS (Asleep at the Wheel): Howdy.

SIMON: Dave Sanger on the drums.

(Soundbite of drums)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Thanks for that. And Dave Miller is the base.

Mr. DAVE MILLER (Asleep at the Wheel): Howdy.

SIMON: Mr. Benson, let me turn to you first. A Ride With Bob comes out of a meeting - well, you saw Bob Wills. You didn't actually meet him.

Mr. BENSON: Yeah. We were introduced to him in 1973. We had put out our first album and Bob Wills was making what would be his last album. They invited us to meet him. So we were in Austin, we drove up, and there was Bob Wills sitting a wheelchair. He had already been - had a heart attack and he was pretty sick, so there he was. And they said, Mr. Wills, this is Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Benson. And he just kind slumped and kind of nodded. And they said, look, he's tired, you can talk to him tomorrow. They took him back to his room. Later that night he had a stroke, went into a coma, and two years later passed away.

So I never got to talk to him but we met him. So when it was his 100th birthday in 2005 and a friend of mine said, well, let's write a play. You know, the old like Bing Crosby in the Holiday Inn: Let's make a play! And I told her that story and she said, well, there's your play, the conversation you never had with Bob Wills. So that's how the play got started.

SIMON: Now, in real life, had you rehearse something to say to him at that moment?

Mr. BENSON: Not rehearsed. It was just going to be a hello. We were just - our first record was Take Me Back to Tulsa, which was his - a Bob Wills song. So I had no idea. We just wanted to meet the guy who got us, you know, going on this whole, you know, kind of music.

SIMON: Help us understand what Bob Wills means to - what do we call it, country swing? Texas swing?

Mr. BENSON: Western swing.

SIMON: Western swing, yeah.

Mr. BENSON: Well, the deal was that Bob Wills was, first of all, an iconoclast. He was an individual, and as a number of people have told me and is evidenced by his film, one of the most charismatic performers that ever stepped on stage. I know that's a hefty statement, but this is something that is - when you see him, you'll understand.

But the kind of music that he did was he took jazz, blues and Western fiddle music and melded them all together into this hybrid called Western swing. He didn't know he was doing it. He was just playing dance music for his folks, and fiddle guitar, et cetera, were the main instruments of the Southwest back then.

SIMON: We - you're set to do a section of the play for us. Can you set the scene up for us?

Mr. BENSON: This takes place in Fort Worth, when Bob Wills goes to work for W. Leo O'Daniels, who became the governor of Texas and then a Senator from Texas, one of the more corrupt ones we've had, although...

Mr. RICK PERKINS (Actor): Hey, now.

SIMON: Pappy.

Mr. BENSON: Pappy Leo Daniels. And he owned the biggest flour company in the country. And back then, of course, women baked. They didn't go to the store and buy, so flour was huge. And they sponsored what was called the Light Crust Doughboys, and that was Bob Wills and a bunch of guys. W. Leo O'Daniels treated them very badly and eventually ran them out of Texas into Oklahoma. So this is the first time that he got fired and they come in after a night of playing the Crystal Springs Dancehall. And Pappy is not happy.

SIMON: Okay. Rick Perkins, who we didn't get a chance to introduce before. I think Rick Perkins is the one actor.

Mr. PERKINS: There's several actors in the show.

SIMON: Yeah, but you're the one guy who doesn't have an instrument over here.

Mr. PERKINS: I have a vocal instrument, Bob. And I would be happy to...

SIMON: Sorry. As soon as I said that to an actor, I should have corrected myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERKINS: Give me more talent in my monitor, please.

Mr. BENSON: Okay. What have we got here?


Mr. BENSON: So here comes - the Light Crust Doughboys will be wandering into the studios a bit late, not too late but a little late.

Are you ready, boys?

(As character) Two minutes to show time, Mr. O'Daniels.

Mr. PERKINS (As Pappy Leo O'Daniels): Yeah, so where is this Bob Wills and all those other shirkers, huh?

Mr. BENSON: (As character) I don't know Mr. O'Daniels. I don't know.

Mr. PERKINS (O'Daniels) You cannot trust a musician past the end of a song.

Mr. BENSON: (As character) Yes, yes, yes. I know.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Good morning. Good morning, sir.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Well, you're late. And you boys know the rules. I'm docking all of you half a day's pay.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Yeah, well, half of zero is still zero, ain't it boys?

Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Well, that's the damn truth.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Look at you - I know you didn't get a lick of sleep. You played that Crystal Springs Ballroom last night, didn't you? I can smell the booze from here.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Well, so what if we did?

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Oh you lazy, ungrateful son of a drunk.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Is that right?

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) That's right.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) We're gonna see about that.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Get away from me. You don't treat me that way. I'm Pappy O'Daniels.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Four, three...

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) I'll get you no good.

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) ...two, one. Morning, ladies and gentleman. Hello there boys and girls. This is W. Lee. Please pass the biscuits. Pappy O'Daniels of the Burris Mill and Elevator Company, Fort Worth, Texas. Makers of light crust flour. And now the Light Crust Doughboys are on the air.

(Soundbite of music)

LIGHT CRUST DOUGHBOYS: (Singing) Well, listen everybody from near and far. If you want to know who we are, we're the Light Crust Doughboys from the Burris Mill. Unfortunately. And if you like the way we play listen while we try to say we're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burris Mill. Tell him. And all day long we'll sing this song. And if you get this song well you can't go wrong. We'll wear a smile and make things bright, make you happy from morning to night. We're the Light Crust Doughboys from Burris Mill.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Oh, that sure was fine, fine, fine. And so is Light Crust Flour, the finest flour for your home sweet home. And what is home without a devoted mother's love and the smell of sweet, fresh biscuits made with light crust flour. Pour it on them, boys. Nothing like motherhood and home to sell my flour. We got over 2,000 letters last week, 'cause they was all listening to me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Oh that sure was sweet. And now the boys are gonna play you a brand new number. One that I wrote especially for all...

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) No, Pappy no.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) No, no, no more waiting. It's a good one. It's called Beautiful, Beautiful, Texas.

LIGHT CRUST DOUGHBOYS: (Singing) In beautiful, beautiful Texas where the beautiful blue bonnets grow we're proud of our forefathers who fought at the Alamo.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) Turn in tomorrow ladies and gentleman for more of this fine homespun music. And remember to always buy light crust flour for the safety and protection of your family's health. The Lord will bless you and so will I. This is W. Lee. Please pass the biscuits. Pappy saying good day.

LIGHT CRUST DOUGHBOYS: (Singing) In beautiful, beautiful Texas, the most beautiful state that I know.

Mr. PERKINS: (As O'Daniels) You're fired.


(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BENSON: The crowd went wild.

SIMON: That ahhhhh - now, was that a Bob Wills invention?

Mr. BENSON: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. ROBERTS: It was.

Mr. BENSON: That was the trademark and it just came from his exuberance and from the Mexican grito(ph) where- ya hiyyyyah-yahhh - and he would sort of made it his own and that was his trademark.

SIMON: I want to ask you about some of the - some of the famous real life characters that appear in this play, aside from Bob Wills. Elvis Presley?

Mr. BENSON: Yeah. Played by Rick Perkins, is basically it's because...

SIMON: Rick Perkins who also - you're also I gather, do you mind me saying?

Mr. BENSON: W. Lee O'Daniels.

Mr. PERKINS: I cover it all basically. They do the music. I bring it in the - the good stuff.

SIMON: But you - am I wrong? You also have another career as someone who can impersonate Elvis Presley?

Mr. PERKINS: I do parties. I can come to your house as Elvis. That I - but we'll talk about that at another time.

SIMON: You are welcome at my house anytime, just not as Elvis, okay?

Mr. PERKINS: Yeah. But there's a wide range of characters, and to Ray's tribute, he checked with the Wills family and was down to - which we're still changing stuff to make it more precise and historically accurate and...

Mr. BENSON: Well, the reason that Elvis and all those people is they recorded Bob Wills' tunes. The San Antonio Rose for instance is why - and so we bring them out. Willie Nelson, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and - is that it?

SIMON: Minnie Pearl?

Mr. PERKINS: Ray Price?

Mr. BENSON: Minnie Pearl is standing right over there.

Ms. MCQUEEN: I play Minnie Pearl. Elizabeth McQueen.

SIMON: That's Elizabeth.


Mr. BENSON: Yes.

SIMON: Guitar player. You have to speak up because...

Ms. MCQUEEN: I bear an uncanny resemblance to Minnie Pearl, actually, when I take off my glasses.

SIMON: We need a hat on you though, right?

Ms. MCQUEEN: Well, I've got the hat and the sales tag and everything.

Mr. PERKINS: Say hello. Maybe...

SIMON: Can you do the howdy?

Ms. MCQUEEN: Shall I do a howdy?

Mr. BENSON: Absolutely.

Ms. MCQUEEN: Okay. Let me step back from the mike a little bit. Howdy.

SIMON: Oh, that is good. That is good. Now, now that reminds me of Minnie Pearl.

Mr. BENSON: You see, I had met Minnie Pearl many years ago and she told me the story about when Bob Wills came to the Grand Ole Opry. So rather than just act it out, we decided to have Minnie Pearl tell the story like she told it to me.

SIMON: Do you take some instruction from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys? As you say, that they - for them it was the music. They didn't care where it came from. They didn't care how it was created. It just set something off in them and that's what they wanted to do.

Mr. BENSON: Yeah. That's what I did. I mean, you know, honestly, we started playing and as the years went by we focused in on this approach to music. Not only the instruments we play - fiddles, steel guitar, piano, bass drums, and Eddie also plays saxophone. The attitude was, if they can dance to it - if they can dance to the music and if they like it, they're going to play it. And it's the instrumentation that defines it as Western swing.

SIMON: Did Bob Wills ever have to contend with any, for lack of a better word, purists who said, you know...

Mr. BENSON: All the time.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BENSON: Part of - for instance, the use of drums. When he went to this - the scene that we do in the Grand Ole Opry that Minnie told me about, he brought his drums, saxophones, electric guitars and they were not allowed on the Opry.

SIMON: Oh, that's right. They had an injunction against electrified instruments for the longest time, didn't they?

Mr. BENSON: And drums, and drums. Even when I started playing. We were banned from the Grand Ole Opry in 1975 because I wouldn't remove the sax player. We didn't play until 1993. And that was Bob Wills. I said, hey, if Bob did it, I'm going to do it. So you know, he had to deal with that completely. Now what happened was, he was up there and they said, oh, you can't use your drums. He said, pack them up, boys, we're going back to Texas, you know. And he was such a big star in 1945 - I mean he was huge, he was like Elvis to the country crowd - that they acquiesced and he played.

SIMON: My gosh, I encountered this statistic. I thought there was a misprint at first. Asleep at the Wheel has been playing together for 37 years.

Mr. BENSON: Thirty-six and a half, yeah.

SIMON: Oh my - I'm sorry - I didn't mean that...

Mr. BENSON: Now, let's look around the - now, Scott, look around the room. Some of the folks ain't old enough to have been here the whole time. No.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BENSON: Jason's been with me for 13 years. Dave's been with me for 20 years. Dave over here's been with me 14 years. And so we've had a bit of personnel changes, but this has been the best band we've ever had.

Mr. PERKINS: Ray started when he was nine years old too.

SIMON: Yeah. I understand, Ray, you were in grammar school, right, when you began Asleep at the Wheel? Right?

Mr. BENSON: Oh yes.

Unidentified Man #2: He was a tenor then.

SIMON: I wasn't altogether surprised to learn that you're not originally from Texas, but I was a little surprised to learn you're not even close to being originally from Texas.

Mr. BENSON: Philadelphia, PA is where I was born and raised in the suburbs. I got to Texas as soon as I could. But I started a band in West Virginia and started playing right here in D.C. back in 1970. And we moved out to California and met Willie Nelson and Doug Saum and they said, what are you doing out here? You sound like you're from Texas. You need to go down to Texas.

SIMON: Now in this play, I gather, Bob Wills asked you about your...

Mr. BENSON: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: ...wee authentico nature, right?

Mr. BENSON: Oh yeah. He says, how does a Jewish boy from Philadelphia get to playing Western swing? And I say, the same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from West Texas gets to play blues and jazz. You know, the longer explanation is it's what's in your heart and what's in your ability, you know, to play regardless of where you come from.

SIMON: Well, we want o go out on one song that's a particular audience pleaser and I wonder if you can set it up for us.

Mr. BENSON: This is a song called Route 66. Everybody knows the song. One of the ex-Texas Playboys named Leon Rausch back in 1974 said to me, you ought to take that song Route 66 and do your boogie woogie kind of version on it. And that's what we did it and it's been, I guess - it was never a hit but its our biggest hit. You know, because - no, people love it. It's our signature song. And John Michael will kick it off on the piano, if you're ready? Let's boogie woogie on Bobby Troop's Route 66.

(Soundbite of song "Route 66")

ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Well if you would ever plan to motor west take my way, that's the highway. That is the best. Get your kicks out on Route 66. Jason? Lord it winds from Chicago to L.A. More than 2,000 miles along the way. Get your kicks out on Route 66. It winds through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri. Oklahoma City, it sure looks pretty. You should see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don't forget Winona. Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.

Once you get hip to this kindly tip, when you take that California trip, oh baby you can get your kicks on Route 66. It winds through St. Louis, Joplin, Missouri. Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty. You should see Amarillo and Gallup, New Mexico.

Flagstaff, Arizona. Baby don't forget Winona. Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino. Once you get hip to this timely tip, when you take that California trip, get your kicks out on Route, out on Route 66. What do you say Jason?

Now you can get your kicks up and down Route 66. Elizabeth? Yeah. Baby you can get your kicks up and down Route 66. You'll be feeling real fine on Route 66.

SIMON: Thanks so much for speaking with us, everybody. Asleep at the Wheel is Walt Roberts, Elizabeth McQueen, John Michael Whitby, Eddie Rivers, David Sanger, David Miller, Rick Perkins - as part of the play, thanks for being with us - Jason Roberts and Ray Benson.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.

Ms. MCQUEEN: Yeah.

Mr. PERKINS: Oh yeah.

SIMON: And Asleep at the Wheel's on tour across the country this fall. A Ride with Bob will be presented in select cities next year. To hear more from our interview with the band, including their performance of Miles and Miles of Texas, and for miles and miles of pictures from A Ride with Bob you can come to our Web site, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Whah-hahh! I'm Scott Simon.

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