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Back to their West Virginia roots

Asleep at the Wheel performs tonight in Berkeley Springs

Asleep at the Wheel performs tonight in Berkeley Springs

August 27, 2009|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. - By post-Woodstock 1969, Ray Benson, an 18-year-old college student from Ohio, was convinced his calling was to be a professional musician and that Paw Paw, W.Va., was the perfect place to make it happen.

"It was sort of 1969, give back to the land," said Benson, who's a native of Philadelphia. "Get out to the country, and get out of the city."

Several decades and many Grammy Awards later, Benson is keeping the music alive.

Tonight, the band that resulted from this calling - Asleep at the Wheel - will be close to where it all started. Asleep will perform at a sold-out show at Star Theatre in Berkeley Springs, not too far from where it all began. The show is tied to Morgan (County) Arts Council's Back to Our Roots series celebrating folk art and roots music.

Benson chatted with The Herald-Mail about the upcoming show, the band's latest record, "Willie and the Wheel" - a collaboration with Benson's longtime friend Willie Nelson, and what it was like forming a band in Paw Paw in the heyday of the hippie.

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These days, Benson is the only original member of Asleep. He calls Austin, Texas, his home, where he produces a bevy of new musicians and relishes Austin's alt-country music scene.

It was Nelson who invited Asleep to move to Austin in 1973, where the band would go on to play on the PBS show "Austin City Limits." A 35th anniversary episode with Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel will air Nov. 14.

Q&A with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel



WEG: Can you really say Western swing is asleep at the wheel if you've won several Grammys?
Benson:
We don't think of that in negative terms. It means us, we're keeping it alive. It's not a negative in our book.

WEG: Why Western swing? Why do you feel this is a music that needs to be preserved?
Benson:
I was about 17 when I heard Western swing for the first time. And ... it combined all the music I was interested in. I had played in square dance bands, old-time country music, fiddle music, jazz - especially big-band jazz. I love jump blues. And I love country western music and cowboy music. This music, it did it all. That's what appealed to me.

WEG: What do you see as the future of roots music, if you would call it that?
Benson:
I think it's really taking hold - no pun intended. Roots music is really taking hold, that'd be a hell of a slogan. Um, but honestly, you know we started in Paw Paw, West Virginia, 39 years ago. And used to go to Hagerstown and Berkeley Springs for our groceries. The first man I ever saw was Ernest Tubb at the Redman's Lodge in, what was it, Williamsport? And at that time, country music especially wanted to be pop, kind of like it is nowadays. They were embarrassed to wear a cowboy hat and sang whatever. Tubb, he was like, 'That's what's great about country music.'

I say that about all the roots music that developed in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s. This is what we can build on and I think that is what happened.

WEG: Well, let's talk about the recent album.
Benson:
"Willie and the Wheel."

WEG: What was that like?
Benson:
Oh, it was a whole lot of fun. Willie's my pal, and this is an album that we did that was very historic, so it was a joy to do.

WEG: You've been in this for a while, but do you ever get star-struck when you work with people like Willie Nelson?
Benson:
: No, Willie's one of my good pals. It's hard to get star-struck with somebody you're pretty close to. Do I get star-struck? No, I work with everybody. I produce records on everybody from Garth Brooks to The Manhattan Transfer. I've played with Bob Dylan - everybody. I used to (get star-struck), but now I just consider it a real highlight of what I love to do.

WEG: How do you do that and stay humble?
Benson:
Well, I realize how much I have to learn. There's always someone better than me so I better get better at being me, so that's how I look at it. Shoot, if they go and start rating people in this world, I'd be way down on the list. We're all just people and I'm OK with that.

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