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