Posts Tagged With: Bob Wills

Happy birthday, Bob Wills!

BobWillsTalk to Ray Benson long enough, and the conversation will surely get around to Bob Wills — and by “long enough,” I mean a couple of minutes rather than a couple of hours. Truly, the king of Western swing has always been the biggest influence there is on Ray and Asleep at the Wheel, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine what the band would have been without Bob Wills’ music as a template.

You’ll find plenty about that in the “Comin’ Right at Ya” chapter “Ride With Bob,” which we titled after the 2005 stage musical that Ray co-wrote and put on to mark the centennial anniversary of Wills’ birthday. Were he still among the living, Wills would be turning 111 years old today, March 6. But even though he’s been gone for more than 40 years now, Wills’ disciples in Asleep at the Wheel are keeping the master’s music going.

Roll on, y’all.

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Grammy love for the Wheel, but not Ryan Adams

Grammy2016In the media blitz that accompanied the release of DRA 1989 back in September, there was some hyperbolic speculation about Grammy Awards — that the album might get Ryan Adams a few nominations, maybe even for album of the year to set up a Grammy showdown against Taylor Swift’s original 1989. But that turned out to be wishful thinking.

Grammy nominations are out today and Swift checks in with seven total, including the categories of record, song and (yes) album of the year. So she certainly did her part — but Ryan, alas, did not make the cut. He didn’t pick up any nominations this go-round, which means he’ll have to wait at least another year to win his first Grammy (Ryan has been nominated seven times since 2001 but has yet to win one).

AATWKingEven if Ryan wasn’t nominated this year, however, a handful of others from North Carolina were, most notably Fayetteville-raised hip-hop star J. Cole and Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Rhiannon Giddens. You can find a recap of North Carolina-connected nominations here.

On a personal level, meanwhile, there is a bit of Grammy news in my book-related world. My “Comin’ Right at Ya” co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel is up for best recording package with his group’s third and latest Bob Wills tribute album Still The King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys, alongside albums by Florence + the Machine, Snoop Dogg, Alagoas and the late Elvis Presley.

The Grammys will be presented on Feb. 15 in Los Angeles. If the Wheel wins, this would be the group’s first since 2000 (which was in this same category — for another Wills tribute, 1999’s Ride With Bob) and 10th overall. To read about the star-crossed night when Asleep at the Wheel won that very first Grammy way back in 1979, click the EXCERPTS link here.


 

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Philadelphia freedom

PhillyAs Ray Benson puts it in “Comin’ Right at Ya,” the great thing about his band Asleep at the Wheel not really fitting in anywhere is that they can kind of fit in everywhere. So it is that over the decades, Asleep at the Wheel has performed alongside everything from symphony orchestras to leaf players (read the book’s closing Epilogue for more on the fine art of leaf-playing with a Western swing band).

Ray also frequently finds himself in highly eclectic company, especially today. Monday afternoon, Ray was inducted into the Music Walk of Fame in his original hometown of Philadelphia alongside fellow Philly natives Billie Holiday, the late great jazz singer; Cinderella, a band that had its peak of popularity during the ’80s hair-metal era; theatrical singer Andrea McArdle, best-known for her teenage star turns as “Annie” on Broadway; disco group The Trammps, of “Disco Inferno” fame; and hip-hop rock band The Roots, who serve as house band for Jimmy Fallon nowadays but who I will always remember most fondly for the killer version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” I saw them break out at the Hopscotch Music Festival a few years back.

Asleep at the Wheel is pretty much the only group I could imagine plausibly sharing a stage with everyone on that list (even Cinderella). And in the righthand photo below from the ceremony, there Ray is seated in the vicinity of Roots drummer/philosopher Amir Questlove Thompson. I would not be a bit surprised if it were to emerge later that Ray took this opportunity to sign up The Roots for another Bob Wills tribute project.

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Asleep at the Wheel on New Year’s Eve

In my personal hierarchy of holidays, New Year’s Eve ranks near the bottom. Anywhere you go that night tends to be overcrowded with too many people trying way too hard to cram too much “fun” into one night, because they don’t get out enough the rest of the year. But this New Year’s Eve looks like it has some potential to be really cool.

Nice to see Asleep at the Wheel opening for the Avett Brothers, especially after the Avetts were one of the acts contributing to the Wheel’s latest Bob Wills tribute album Still the King.

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Affordable art

RayPosterMy next book will be out this October, “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel,” a memoir that the great Ray Benson enlisted me to co-write. The project was a ton of fun, and I came away with a pretty cool video souvenir from it — a brief appearance in the video to “Faded Love,” from the Wheel’s new Bob Wills tribute album. And now here’s something I can hang on the wall.

The cover, of course, is another winner by the incomparable Lindsay Starr, staff artist at University of Texas Press (and the person responsible for how great all our American Music Series titles look). As for the poster, it’s the handiwork of my News & Observer colleague/office-mate Tim Lee, who is an incredible visual artist when he’s not cranking out charts, maps and graphs for the N&O. I had Ray sign it when Asleep at the Wheel played in Durham last month.

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Behind the curtain with “Faded Love”

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That’s me in the doorway, head down, surrounded by Time Jumpers.

So this Asleep at the Wheel book I co-wrote with Ray Benson, “Comin’ Right at Ya,” will be published in October. But it’s been in the works for a couple of years, since the summer of 2013. Because the subject was participating this time around, it was a lot more fun and less pressurized than “Losering.” Maybe the most appealing aspect of the whole thing was the opportunity it gave me to hang out behind the curtain in Ray’s world for a while. We met up a half-dozen times during 2013 and 2014, so I could interview Ray and associates, and also lurk around watching him work.

One of the most memorable such occasions was August 2013, a rendezvous with Asleep at the Wheel at the home of Vince Gill and Amy Grant. The Gill-Grant estate was just another super-nice mansion in the good part of Nashville — except, of course, for distinguishing features like the putting green in the yard, the dozens of Grammy Awards lining the shelves, the framed letters from Elton John and other celebrities hanging on the bathroom walls and the first-class recording studio in the house.

StillKing-DIEThe day I was there, Ray and company were working in Gill’s studio with his Western swing group the Time Jumpers to record “Faded Love,” which appears on the new Asleep at the Wheel album Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. I got a souvenir out of it, too, a brief appearance near the beginning of the behind-the-scenes “Faded Love” video. In the screengrab above, that’s me sitting on the steps in the doorway. If memory serves, I kept my head down for the cameras because I somehow thought that would make me seem less obtrusive.

But I’ll tell you what, I sure did lift up my head when Time Jumpers vocalist Dawn Sears began to sing that day. I hadn’t been familiar with Dawn before, but she was just jaw-droppingly great – maybe the best singer I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing up-close. Sadly, Dawn died of cancer this past December. But you get a sense of what a powerhouse vocalist she was from the video. I wrote a bit more about Dawn and the “Faded Love” video here; and also about the rest of the Still the King album here.

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