The Austin City Limits music festival is an annual event held at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas. The festival takes place over the course of two weekends jam-packed with a line-up of biggest artists. So basically, it’s the Coachella of the south. Opening the festival this year like many years past are ACL Hall of Famers Asleep at the Wheel, this time with songs from their latest album New Routes, the band’s first release in ten years. “We played the first ACL live when I was working for the broadcasting network,” front man Ray Benson tells me over the phone early Tuesday morning. Benson is referring to the Austin City Limits TV (ACLTV), the public broadcasting show that inspired the festival. ACLTV and bands like Asleep at the Wheel helped brand Austin as the “Live music capital of the World” back in the day.
Asleep at the Wheel currently consists of Benson and members Katie Shore, Eddie Rivers, David Sanger, Dennis Ludiker, Josh Hoag, Connor Forsyth, and Jay Reynolds. The ten-time Grammy-winning band found a home in Austin, Texas after legendary artist Willie Nelson suggested that they leave California and come over to the Lone Star State. When I asked him about the move all those years ago, Benson spoke of it fondly.
“Willie [Nelson] was still playing the honky-tonk scene and he convinced us to come out here. We were making Texas music, it was right for us to be in Texas.”
“Texas Music” is the only way you can really describe Asleep at the Wheel, and not just because of their western-undertones. When you Google the band, you will find them described as everything under the sun, from big band swing to Ameripolitan (which is a completely new term for me), Benson doesn’t really agree with any of these and neither do I.
“We don’t fit into a box,” says Benson. “We’re not quite country and we’re definitely not what country is today.” I asked him if he was referring to the more mainstream pop country music. “Yeah, we’re not that,” he continues, “Americana is something I’ve been hearing, but I think that’s what they put anything that is just different.” He’s right; Americana is a weird mish-mash ranging from country-lite to anything that sounds like a banjo.
As a Texas native myself I hear something in the ever-changing and diverse sounds of Asleep at the Wheel that matches my home state. We’re diverse; people paint Texas in a corner and say we’re all cowboys but that’s cutting Texas short. To do the same with Asleep at the Wheel is to cut them short. The band has worked with several different artists of all types of genres and shouldn’t be pinned down into one thing.
The diversity in sound stems from Benson’s love of music and the way he views music as collaborative. “I have a wide record collection,” he says. “I listen to everything, but I don’t want to just be a music museum.” Benson has brought many new musicians under his wings to play with the band over the years, with every new person adding their own flavor to the band to keep things interesting and fresh. He tells me he loves to give new artists a shot. When talking about their latest release New Routes he describes the album as a collaborative effort that just tell together.
“We were all just writing, and it just was the right time.” He praises his band members and their hard work on the album. Asleep at the Wheel is often called Ray Benson and whoever he can shove in a van,” Benson says with a laugh. The band has many gone through many changes and with New Routes being their first proper release in ten years, it’s less about what’s changed with the band (a lot) and more about what’s stayed the same. When asked about the progression of the albums, Benson describes it like building.
“You’re always building upon what was done before.” It’s the perfect philosophy for a band that is ever evolving and lasting throughout the years. Ray Benson’s dedication to creating and collaborating with artist reminds me of why I love the Texas music scene and am proud to be a part of it. The competitiveness I’ve heard of in the music industry isn’t that prominent in Texas. Leave the fame seeking and gatekeeping to Hollywood; the laid-back brand of Texas music is just about creating things you love, with people you care about, and having fun doing it. Asleep at the Wheel is a perfect of example of why I’m happy to call Texas my home.
Today, Asleep at the Wheel will take the stage. In the past they’ve brought out Willie Nelson and other artist as surprise, but with the new album Benson tells me the band is going to focus on their own stuff this time. “We’re up at 12, I always tell people it’s great, because there isn’t too much dirt or mud,” Benson says. The mud part is actually very important considering that it’s predicted to rain this weekend. I’m looking forward to seeing Asleep at the Wheel and I comment on how it must be fun traditions open the festival for everyone. Benson is humble saying he thinks so and he hopes everyone else does too.