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Ralph McLean In Conversation With Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel)

"I’m so very excited to participate in this year's AmericanaFest UK, this will mark the first one for myself and Asleep at the Wheel. I’ve been playing music in the UK since our first tour in 1977 and always jump at the opportunity to come over any chance I get. I’m looking forward to showcasing our new record “New Routes” as well as checking out new bands and participating in the great panels during the week. It’s wonderful to see Americana grow worldwide and i’m honoured to be a part of this great genre of music."

Nine times Grammy Award winning Asleep at The Wheel frontman and leader Ray Benson is a true icon of Americana. Having released over 20 albums since the 1970s, and charted more than 20 singles in the Billboard Country Music Chart, Benson shows no signs of slowing down, with latest album 'New Routes' released in September 2018. A songwriting genius and master performer, Benson has collaborated and played with many of country and Americana's greatest artists, from Vince Gill to Dixie Chicks to Willie Nelson. Benson discusses his illustrious career and his unwavering passion for making music with BBC Radio Ulster's Ralph McLean.

Ray Benson Bio

New Routes, the brand-new album by Asleep At the Wheel, marks both a new path forward and a nod to the freewheeling roots (get it?) of one of Texas’ most beloved bands. After a decade of collaborating on record with friends, including Willie Nelson on 2009’s Willie and the Wheel, and paying ongoing tribute to the groundbreaking music of Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, the Wheel is marking 2018 with their first album of new material in a decade.

With a fresh lineup, a bracing blend of original songs and vibrant cover material and some unanticipated new musical tangents, Asleep At the Wheel demonstrates convincingly it’s more relevant, enjoyable and musically nimble than any time in its 45-year history.

From the sly “viper” jazz groove of the album’s opener, “Jack, I’m Mellow” to the languid original ballad, “Call It A Day Tonight,” to the Cajun romp of “Pass the Bottle Around” to the Americana-tinged acoustic cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” to the pedal-to-the-metal “Pencil Full of Lead” and “Seven Nights To Rock,”
 New Routes propels the listener down myriad musical byways.

Recorded in their hometown studio in Austin, Texas, New Routes also features two bonus tracks: “Weary Rambler,” an acoustic-flavored track by the Wheel’s female vocalist and fiddle player, Katie Shore, and the tongue-in-cheek “Willie Got There First,” a collaboration between the Wheel and the Avett Brothers.

“I call us the ‘Ray-vett Brothers,” joked the Wheel’s bandleader, Ray Benson.

The 6’7” Benson has been the one constant in Asleep At the Wheel since the band’s founding in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia. Since that time, more than 100 musicians have passed through the Wheel, but Benson remains the front man and the keeper of the vision, in the process racking up more than 25 albums, nine Grammy awards and literally millions of miles on the road. 

“A lot of people come into the band good and leave the band great,” said Benson. “There’s not a better school than to get on the bus and play 100-150 shows a year of challenging music.

“It took me 60 years, but I’m doing what I’m meant to do—singing and playing and writing better than I ever have. A bandleader is just someone who gathers people around them to play the best music they can play. I just try to stay healthy and kick some ass every night onstage.”

“People will come up after a show and say, ‘You look like you’re having a lot of fun,’” added fiddler and mandolin player Dennis Ludiker. “All we can say to that is that we are having a lot of fun. It’s hard not to, with this kind of music.”

Ludicker’s bandmate Katie Shore is also an accomplished fiddler, and together they give the band the one-two twin fiddles punch of classic Western Swing.

Shore follows in the long tradition of strong and talented female performers who have been an integral part of the band’s identity for decades. From founding female vocalist Chris O’Connell to Mary Ann Price, Rosie Flores, Cindy Cashdollar, Elizabeth McQueen and Emily Gimble, women vocalists and musicians have shaped the band’s legacy.

Shore agrees. “I always wanted to be in Asleep At the Wheel,” she said. “If you grew up in Fort Worth and played the fiddle, it was impossible not to know who the Wheel was. I feel part of a legacy, for sure.”

Shore and Benson also co-wrote one of the album’s standout tracks, “Call It A Day Tonight.” “It’s probably my favorite song on the record,” Shore said. “We shared some ideas and went our separate ways, but then we’d text back and forth. It was a lot of fun and it means a lot to me.”

“I’m 700 feet tall with a deep voice, so I always felt there had to be a female presence in there,” said Benson. “Also, when we started the band, we had the concept of a revue, like James Brown or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland or Buck Owens—more than one singer, more than one featured person. The idea is to feature everyone in the band.”

That driving principle comes into distinct focus on New Routes. “It’s a nice addition (to the Wheel’s catalog) because it explores music we haven’t explored before and it highlights the people who are in the band right now,” said drummer David Sanger who, with 32 years under his belt, is the longest-running band member next to Benson.

“Part of the new music is part of the Wheel’s repertoire” of country, jazz, jump blues, rockabilly, Western Swing and folk, said bassist Josh Hoag, “but part of it is going in new directions. Coming from the tradition but taking it forward. It’s a different direction for the Wheel, but I think people will connect to it.”

“This was a chance to re-invent the Wheel,” said Benson. “These are creative folks who can add stuff. I’m just the bandleader, so if I don’t have contributions from everybody, then the Wheel doesn’t roll.”

New Routes, he said, “is a pure distillation of where the band is right now,” Benson declared. With the twin fiddles of Shore and Ludiker in place and steel player Eddie Rivers being able to double up on saxophone with bandmate Jay Reynolds, the eight band members “sound like twelve onstage,” said Benson.

“It gives me the palette that I’ve always wanted,” he added. “You gotta be able to play Bob Wills, you gotta be able to play R&B, Louis Jordan, the swing stuff, Count Basie stuff. And we also want to play real country music. So, I think we pulled it off on this album. It’s a band album.”

Ralph McLean Bio

Ralph McLean is a BBC radio presenter, writer and producer from Ireland.  His multi-award winning country music show on BBC Radio Ulster has been an outlet for new and classic Americana music of all kinds for more than 20 years now.

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