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Asleep at the Wheel Keeps Western Swing Rolling

Ray BensonAsleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson laughs as he recalls how attendees at a recent business meeting applauded when he walked in.

“They were applauding because we have won nine Grammy Awards,” Ray tells The Boot. “I told them it was a great honor, but they should remember that we also lost about 28 times. Sometimes I feel a bit like Susan Lucci.”

Of course Ray’s only real link to Lucci — who had 18 failed Emmy nominations for her work on the daytime soap ‘All My Children‘ before she won in 1999 — is that he’s still hard at work after decades of ups and downs.

“This is our 40th year and it’s going great,” says Ray. “I love playing and I love creating and I do it on a daily basis.”

What has kept Asleep at the Wheel vibrant after four decades is that the band keeps advancing its music with new albums and unique projects. Through last year, the group toured with Willie Nelson in support of the acclaimed album ‘Willie and the Wheel.’

Now Asleep at the Wheel has tour dates booked through January 2011 and a new album they plan to release this summer. Plus, Ray and the other band members will once again stage ‘A Ride With Bob,’ a musical which pairs Ray with the purported ghost of Bob Wills, the father of western swing.

Although much of the music played on country radio is by younger artists with heavy pop influences, Ray says there’s still demand for more established country sounds.

“We have found that with satellite radio and the Internet, Asleep at the Wheel still sells records and [has successful] tours,” says Ray of stations’ quest for young listeners. “Great country music still exists all over the place; it’s just not on country radio anymore … I don’t mind but it has certainly changed the format.”

In 1975, Asleep at the Wheel hit with a song Ray co-wrote (with Chris Frayne and Leroy Preston) with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner in mind. When the duo turned down ‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,’ Asleep at the Wheel recorded it, reaching No. 10 on the country charts.

“The problem was that we were exploring western swing and all kinds of great stuff and all [audiences] wanted to hear was that song,” says Ray. “The good news was that I made a lot of money because I co-wrote the song. The bad news was that wasn’t what I wanted to do on stage.”

Now Ray says audiences have basically moved on from the song he quickly found tiresome to play. “I try never to do it. If someone stands in front of the stage and yells for it, we might. As a friend of mine said, be careful what you wish for. That’s one reason we didn’t try to hit the charts again … If I did, it’d only be because I wrote it for someone else.”

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