Today’s best known band playing Western swing comes from an unlikely source – West Virginia. Since 1969 Asleep at the Wheel has both preserved and advanced this nearly forgotten subgenre of country music through their tributes to previous generations of musicians as well as their own innovations that keep the music in the present.
Initially playing straight country, the band switched to Western swing after hearing Merle Haggards’ A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. They soon had a regular gig in Berkeley, WV and would be called on to open rock shows in the DC area.
After recording their first album, the group relocated to Austin and expanded their lineup. By 1975 they had their first big album. Texas Gold which reached the top 10 on the country charts.
Asleep at the Wheel has had its ups and downs over their 50-year career. Band members have come and gone and their financial situation has fluctuated – but the band has stayed true to their Western swing roots. In 1993 the band won a Grammy for a song from their ‘Tribute to Bob Wills’ album, which was the first of three Bob Wills tribute albums the band would record, performing with a wide range of guest musicians.
2018’s ‘New Routes’ is the band’s latest album. It features a new vocalist in Katie Shore, and is a combination of new and old material. Bandleader Ray Benson pays tribute to old friend Willie Nelson on a song written by and performed with the Avett brothers. ‘Willie Got There First’ makes the case that all emotions worth singing about have already been covered by Willie Nelson.