And in the beginning, from the humble West Virginia town of Paw Paw, a Western Swing band was born, unlike any other, bringing the wildness of the times to merge with a saucy homage to the greats… Bob Wills. Charlie Ryan (“Hot Rod Lincoln”). Louis Jordon. Louis Prima. Milton Brown. Bands like The Light Crust Doughboys. Django Reinhardt and Stephan Grappelli. Yes this birthing of Asleep at the Wheel was matchless and amazing, and has stood the test of time for decades under the driving force of Ray Benson. The thing about Western Swing is that it’s a combination of so many elements, from American blues to both swing and traditional fiddling, from the sad ballad (give Liar’s Moon a listen and I swear you’ll cry) to the upbeat novelty boogie, but you’ve gotta be good at it to make it work! Western Swing is what Benson calls “jazz with a cowboy hat”.
The original team included Benson, Floyd Domino and Lucky Oceans, a farm kid from Vermont named Leroy Preston, the great Chris O’Connell (maybe my favorite singer of all time, and that’s saying something), and Ray’s classmate from Yellow Springs, Ohio, Gene Dobkin. This was the starter kit for the Wheel, and many detours from the miles and miles of Texas, getting their kicks on Rt. 66, taking them back to Tulsa, singing the blues for Dixie, and beyond, this band is still rolling along, better than ever, and with a line-up that will knock you to your knees.
The original goal was simple: to play and revive American roots music. “At the height of Vietnam, many Americans were using their choice of music to express their stance on the conflict in southeast Asia. We wanted to break that mold”, said Benson. “We were concerned more with this amazing roots music, which we felt was being lost amid the politics. We were too country for the rock folks and we were too long-haired for the country folks. But everybody got over it once the music started playing.”
And now, having tallied up an unbelievable history of more than 75 members who have come and gone (so many of them remarkably exceptional), the incredible phenomenon is that, after their first release in 1973, this band has played almost continuously for more than 45 years. (Rumor has it they opened for Alice Cooper back in the early 70’s, which I find hard to imagine, but I delight in thinking about what the scene backstage might have been like.) They band has included the likes of Cindy Cashdollar (extraordinary steel player), rhythm guitar master Freddie Green, Buddy Spicher, Elizabeth McQueen, Emily Gimble (granddaughter of Johnny), and oh, so many more.
So from Paw Paw to DC to California to their present home base of Austin, it’s been quite a journey. With nine Grammys, almost 30 albums, and an Americana Music Awards’ Lifetime Achievement in Performance, they’ve been on-board with an impressive processional parade of musicians, collaborations, and fans for most of my life. I’ve seen them maybe a dozen times, from the early seventies til the last time they were here. (Do you remember the year they played the Alderson 4th of July? I’m not sure they knew what they were getting themselves into!) This band will soon park themselves in Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall on September 9 at 7:30 pm. The self-proclaimed “chief practitioners, conspirators, and caretakers of Western swing” will roll into town, and they are NOT to be missed. They will deliver. They will take you on the bus and give you a joy ride of Western Swing, make you laugh and make you cry. It’s one of the best live bands you will hear in your life. “Jazz with a cowboy hat”, indeed.
– Susanna Robinson Kenga, Hashtag WV. August 2016