Wheel teams with a Texas Play­boy Asleep at the Wheel and Leon Rausch

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN 360 BETS -

• ‘It’s A Good Day’ (Bis­meaux) Grade: B+ It’s star­tling to re­flect on the fact that Austin’s Asleep at the Wheel, the mod­ern stan­dard­bear­ers of the na­tive branch of coun­try mu­sic known as Western swing, has been a go­ing con­cern longer than the form’s most fa­mous in­no­va­tors, Bob Wills and the Texas Play­boys.

But nonethe­less, it’s true. The Wheel, a shift­ing cast of char­ac­ters un­der the long shadow cast by tow­er­ing front­man Ray Ben­son, be­gan as a group of Berkeley hip­pies who moved to Austin in 1974 where they dis­cov­ered some sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Play­boys, most no­tably fid­dlers Jesse Ashlock and Johnny Gim­ble, still hold­ing forth in lo­cal honky-tonks like the Bro­ken Spoke.

Since then, the two bands have been joined at the hip, spir­i­tu­ally and mu­si­cally. The Wheel and the Play­boys shared an episode dur­ing the first sea­son of “Austin City Lim­its” and many other stages be­fore and since. The Wheel recorded two trib­ute al­bums of Wills mu­sic, and Ben­son co-wrote and starred in a play, “A Ride With Bob.” As time and cir­cum­stance whit­tled the cast of Texas Play­boys down, the Wheel as­sumed the role of keep­ers of the flame of Western swing. No­body does it bet­ter (though Merle Hag­gard and Ge­orge Strait come close).

So it’s not only nat­u­ral, it’s prob­a­bly in­evitable that the band should team up with one of the Play­boys’ last and great­est vo­cal­ists, Leon Rausch. Sim­i­lar in spirit to last year’s Wil­lie and the Wheel, the lat­est ef­fort sees the band putting its guest in a fa­mil­iar set­ting and let­ting him rip.

Rausch joined the Texas Play­boys in 1958, rel­a­tively late in the day for the band whose hey­day was in the 1930s and ’40s. But songs like “It’s a Good Day,” “Ba- sin Street Blues” and “Sugar Moon” are en­coded in his DNA, which lends this prod­uct a nat­u­ral, ef­fort­less feel.

Rausch drops his voice to a play­ful, Satchmo-like growl for “Al­right, Okay, You Win” and duets play­fully with Ben­son and Wheel vo­cal­ist El­iz­a­beth McQueen on other tunes. Wil­lie Nel­son makes a cameo with Rausch on “Truck Driver Blues,” and the lat­ter sounds like a nat­u­ral mem­ber of the band on the Wheel’s rein­vented clas­sic, “Get Your Kicks (On Route 66).” Rausch also of­fers up an elas­tic, heart­felt blues vo­cal on Wills’ “Cot­ton Patch Blues.” Only the slightly me­chan­i­cal ren­di­tion of Cindy Walker’s sen­ti­men­tal “Sugar Moon” gives the track a forced, con­trived feel­ing.

Oth­er­wise, this is an up­beat, tip-of-the-Stet­son salute from one era of in­no­va­tors to the next. But the ef­fort begs the ques­tion: Now that Ray Ben­son and Asleep at the Wheel are the de facto elder states­men of Western swing, where are the hot young next-gen­er­a­tion mu­si­cians look­ing up to them? — John T. Davis Asleep at the Wheel and Leon Rausch play at 5 p.m. to­day at Water­loo Records, 600 N. La­mar Blvd. Free.

Larry Kolvo­ord

Ray Ben­son, cen­ter, and Asleep at the Wheel came to Austin in the ’70s to find sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Texas Play­boys and now carry on the tra­di­tion of Western swing mu­sic.

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