Rockabilly was a musical powder keg of country and rhythm and blues. But it was its suave older brother, western swing, that first expanded the boundaries of country music – a heady combination of big band arrangements, “way down yonder” dixieland jazz, and rhythm and blues, all performed by Stetson-wearing hipsters.
Western swing bands that barnstormed the country included those led by Milton Brown and Spade Cooley. However, the most iconic of the western swing band leaders was Bob Wills, whose infectious boot-stomping, body-swaying conducting style enlivened many a motion picture and radio broadcast. “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” and “Stay a Little Longer” are songs still performed on concert stages and honky tonks around the world. Missourian Leon Rausch is one of the last of the Texas Playboys still touring. The vocalist was asked by Wills to join the band for a St. Patrick’s Day concert in 1958. Over the subsequent decades, Rausch has kept the Bob Wills sound alive at musical festivals in America and the UK.
It was inevitable that one day Rausch would join forces with a group that bypassed the heavy rock of their generation, preferring instead to embrace the culture of western swing. The band, Asleep at the Wheel, has long been associated with the “Austin City Limits” scene. Asleep at the Wheel was actually co-founded in 1969 by Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans in Paw Paw, West Virginia. An invitation to come out West to Oakland by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airman resulted in some Bay Area gigs, but it was Willie Nelson’s insistence that they relocate to the Lone Star State capitol, which gave Asleep at the Wheel the devoted following it continues to enjoy today.
The collaborative CD, It’s a Good Day!, sounds like Rausch is attached to hip – actually the wheel – of the band. The title track, written by Peggy Lee and her first husband, jazz guitarist Dave Barbour, is a standard of the Great American Songbook and was covered by Judy Garland, Perry Como, and many others. The red-headed stranger himself, Willie Nelson, contributes to the festivities by singing with Rausch on “Truck Driver Blues,” a composition originally penned by western swing band leader Cliff Bruner. Another signature tune of Peggy Lee’s, “Alright, Okay, You Win” (written by Mayme Watts and Sidney Wache), features a charming singalong by Rausch and Asleep at the Wheel’s female vocalist, Elizabeth McQueen. The Big Easy gets a shout-out on the Spencer Williams 1926 classic, “Basin Street Blues.”
Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” has a musical history as winding and adventuresome as the highway itself. Nat King Cole did an early launching of the tune; the Stones turned in an amphetamine-fueled rendition, and Depeche Mode did a cold and calculating turn on the number. In the capable hands of Asleep at the Wheel and Rausch, the “highway that’s the best” sounds like it’s a journey being taken by an open convertible with tumbleweeds being blown off the asphalt.
Benson has been the father figure of Asleep at the Wheel all these years and has kept the group alive through several personnel changes. On It’s a Good Day!, McQueen supplies the rhythm guitar; the beat is kept by Coronado native Dave Sanger; Jason Roberts wails away on the fiddle; David Miller is on the bass; Dan Walton tickles the ivories; and Eddie Rivers brings the steel guitar to life.
Last spring Asleep at the Wheel played a San Diego date, not in their usual habitat (the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach), but in the more rural setting of Ramona. It was in the town’s old movie theater, which had been converted in to a comfortable nightclub. The warm evening, rolling hills, and the bolo ties worned by the audience members certainly made it feel like you were in Texas. Whether they decide to return closer to the ocean on their next tour or not, here’s hoping that the “Wheel” rolls into San Diego very soon.