Talk about one of the great band names in music history, Asleep at the Wheel is a national institution. The country music group from Paw Paw, West Virginia has been in perpetual motion since 1970, right as country rock was taking off for the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Even though they were a part of the hippie counter-culture at the time, touring as an opener for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna and earning the praise of Van Morrison, they kept to the retro side of the country scene, doing authentic songs with an eccentric audacity, respecting a tradition that, at the time, didn't know it was an endangered species.
But now after 50 years they are one of the holdouts of the country traditions, recently releasing an album decided to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a legendary group from the 1960s known for pioneering western swing and conjuring images of raucous nights playing music behind chicken fence wire in dusty pool halls and small town honky tonks.
However, in recent decades, Asleep at the Wheel, since it is a national cultural institution, is more likely to play the swankier fine arts venues, such as the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, or, the Dell E. Webb Center for Performing Arts in Wickenburg, the Heritage Hall in Paris, Texas.
Band leader Ray Benson says even though the band has frequently been to Flagstaff, it's been a long time since they played at the Museum Club. The Route 66 connection and the history of Flagstaff's roadhouse venue is enormously important to the band, Benson says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
"The reason we are playing at the Museum Club is it's a nostalgic show," he says. "We haven't played there in 30 years ... With eight players it will be amazing if we all fit on the stage."
There is something ubiquitous about Asleep at the Wheel. They have been around for so long, doing shows year-round, they always seem to be a permanent marker on the upcoming concert horizon, and if you miss them now there's no doubt they'll be back again soon. In the imagination, they are that travelling troupe pouring out of the tour bus to have a bite to eat somewhere around Route 66. And this week, they will be driving several days from Decatur, Illinois, generally taking the direction of Route 66 from the Midwest to the Southwest.
"We will be doing sections of Route 66," he says. "This trip is going to take us a long way in the few days."
The group is racking up remarkable numbers. Benson says they are currently on their seventh tour bus, and even though the current model is equipped with internet, GPS and satellite TV, "They still break down from time to time." In addition to that, he says 90 different players have been in the band over the years, and with the exception of Benson, all of the current players are 30 years old or younger.
The band has won nine Grammy Awards and placed 20 singles on the Billboard country charts, including their highest-charting single, including "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," which went to number 10 in 1975. It's a tune that needs to be heard on an old juke box.
The band went through a lot of challenges in its second decade, but emerged late in the 1980s even stronger after Benson took over as the band's leader. The albums "10" and "Western Standard Time" started a comeback for the group.
"That was the third incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel," he says of those years. "We had three female singers but I decided to take over as lead singer, since I was developing as a songwriter and producer. We had a hot band and a great idea and we put it together with 'House of Blue Lights.' "
The song sounds like a kind of mission statement, as Benson sings:
Lace up your boots and we'll broom on down
To a knocked out shack on the edge of town
There's an eight beat combo that just won't quit
Keep walkin' 'til you see a blue light lit
Fall in there and we'll see some sights
At the house of blue lights
There's fryers and broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs
But the treat of the treats
Is when they serve you all those fine eight beats
By the 1990s they had found a groove and had become permanently recognized as traditionalist mainstays of country swing. In 20 years Asleep at the Wheel had gone from irreverent upstarts to being the keepers of the flame. That reputation was consolidated when, in honor of the 66th anniversary of Route 66, did a tour all along the remaining elements of the Mother Road, and their tributes to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys won them two more Grammys. They kept touring in support of a second Bob Wills tribute album, "Ride with Bob."
A play based on the life of Wills, with Benson, playing himself and meeting the spirit of the legendary country swing icon, was performed around the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.
Yet another Wills tribute, "Still the King," continues to cement Asleep at the Wheel to the very ground floor of the country swing tradition.
"Its been an amazing ride," Benson stated recently. "From Paw Paw to San Francisco to Austin, we've seen it all. But, rest assured, there's still many exciting projects in the works. The Wheel keeps rolling!"