Western swing is the thing for these country big wheels

With his salt 'n' cinnamon ponytail, his stone-washed blue jeans, and what must be Size 46 New Balance sneakers, Ray Benson still looks like the hippie guitarist who cut his musical teeth on the Beatles, the Doors, and the Grateful Dead.

But ask him about the most influential moment in his musical life, and he'll talk about a scratchy old recording by Bob Wills, the king of western swing.

"It was like the Rosetta Stone. It was like, 'Oh man, this is everything I like,' " says Benson, sitting in an office crowded with guitars, computers, and pictures of the various incarnations of his band, Asleep at the Wheel.

"I like blues. I like swing, jazz. I like country music for the simplicity of its lyrics.... I love bluegrass, and this just had it all."

After 30 years, you'd think that Benson and the Wheel would have run out of things to say about a musical form that many country artists had left for dead. But the Wheel must be doing something right, because this year the band received six Grammy nominations for their tribute album, "Ride With Bob." Packed with guest artists from Merle Haggard to the Dixie Chicks to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Ride With Bob" combines veteran polish with the enthusiasm of a teenage crush.

Maybe it has something to do with the nature of swing music itself. "Let us remember when we were teens - dancing's the thing. How do we meet girls?" Benson says. "The beat is irresistible. That four-four swing beat is irresistible. It makes you want to tap your toes, it makes you want to snap your fingers."

Western swing, as its name suggests, is a kissin' cousin to the big-band music that Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington popularized in the 1930s and '40s. It had its genesis in the Dust Bowl era, when Texans, Okies, and Arkies were hitting the road by the thousands, picking up musical styles they heard along the way to their future home, California. The eclectic result was called western swing, combining the toe-tapping four-four beat of swing with the lighter sound of fiddles and the brokenhearted twangy soul of country.

As with their previous tribute album ("Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys"), the new "Ride With Bob" is chock-full of jewel-like performances by a wide cast of some unusual characters from true-blue swingers like Willie Nelson and Manhattan Transfer to such relative novices as Tim McGraw.

Benson says that the genius of Bob Wills was his flexibility in toying with musical forms and his skill at tapping into a wide range of human emotions. Even today, taking a ride with Bob down those long honky-tonk highways can be a strangely powerful experience, even for noncountry fans.

"There's a cycle of life where you're rebellious, you're angry, you're energetic, and then you're married," says Benson, with a laugh. "Our kind of music fits every kind of those ranges [of emotion]."

If it's sad love songs you're looking for, listen to the gorgeous tones of Lee Ann Womack on "Heart to Heart Talk," or the duet of Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin on "Faded Love." Those with a taste for the blues can turn to Merle Haggard's raucous take on the "St. Louis Blues" or Tim McGraw's "Milk Cow Blues."

But more than anything, riding with Bob down those honky-tonk highways of yesteryear means perky dance tunes, such as the Dixie Chicks' irrepressible version of "Roly Poly," or "Stay All Night," with Mark Chesnutt.

With six Grammy nominations, you'd think Asleep at the Wheel would be in danger of getting a little spoiled by success. But they aren't spoiled, yet.

Consider a recent concert in Austin, Texas. After finishing their gig, the band found their bus blocked in by a car. With another club date in an hour, Benson and buddies did what any top-of-the-bill country act would do: They rolled up their sleeves and lifted the car out of the way.

"With a bus that long, you turn and you clear cars with literally a quarter of an inch on either side," Benson says. "Usually, it's a little foreign car, and we can just pick it up and move it, but this was an Oldsmobile or something." He laughs again. "But that's life on the road."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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