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Asleep at the Wheel Awake to Sold-Out Virginia Show

Rick Diamond, Getty Images

Asleep at the Wheel‘s shows make one wonder if the band’s name is something of a misnomer.

It certainly was at a recent show in Falls Church, Va., when it seemed that at least a quarter of the audience was out of their seats and dancing in the aisles as the band played some of its classics tunes, including ‘Am I Right (or Amarillo),’ ‘I’m an Old Cow Hand‘ and ‘Sweet Jennie Lee,’ a song made famous by Willie Nelson.

“I’m just blessed to have this long run and be able to play music my whole life,” leader Ray Benson told The Boot just prior to the concert. “You can blame it all on Willie.”

Fair enough. Willie became one of the band’s biggest fan when he first heard their brand of western swing mixed with jazz 40-plus years ago. His rave reviews plus Van Morrison‘s high praise of Asleep at the Wheel to a Rolling Stone writer, launched the band’s career that, even now, continues to build steam.

In addition to Asleep at the Wheel’s well-received theatrical production of ‘A Ride With Bob,’ which may soon hit Broadway, they’ve again joined Willie in the recording studio. A new album, ‘Willie & The Wheel II,’ is due for release in May. Add to that constant tours and special events — such as Ray’s Broadway debut November 16 in the production of ‘Million Dollar Quartet‘ — and you can see this band still kicks up quite a storm.

Even though Ray temporarily lost his voice on top of spending most of the morning at an area hospital owing to a freshly sprained hand, he joined the band on stage and even gamely picked out a few notes on a guitar at one point.

“As you can see, I got in a fight with the floor this evening,” Ray joked with the crowd as he greeted them, tipping his hat and gesturing to his band. “These folks will take care of you. I’m going to sing a little bit and then go back and rest my hand.”

Although the band boasts more than 80 former members, its current lineup is clearly up to any task set before it. The band — including fiddler/vocalist Jason Roberts and guitarist/vocalist Elizabeth McQueen — kept the arrangements tight and the mood swinging.

But as the band moved through more hits including ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ and ‘Miles and Miles of Texas,’ Ray still didn’t leave the stage, singing, dancing and chatting with the audience much as he likely did years ago when the songs were brand new.

Of course, things have changed dramatically since the nine-time Grammy Award winning band formed. Prior to the show, Ray reflected on country music’s focus on country pop that often leaves bluegrass, classic country, western swing, and other variations out in the cold. Not that he isn’t a fan of more contemporary artists — his bus is littered with CDs including those of Gretchen Wilson, and he offers high praise for her and other performers — but he thinks fans crave more variety.

Johnny Cash said he had the good fortune to be a simple player,” says Ray, likening Asleep at the Wheel’s sound to that of the Man in Black. “Audiences like the simple sounds.”

By the enthusiastic response of the capacity audience that came to see Asleep at the Wheel, Johnny was likely right.

Asleep at the Wheel are currently on tour. For a complete list of dates and locales, check here.

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