Asleep at the Wheel

Jenny Lewis performs at ACL Weekend One on Oct. 5. Lewis, who has performed as a solo artist and with Rilo Kiley, has witnessed the change in music festivals to attract a more diverse audience.

Photo Credit: Lauren Ussery | Daily Texan Staff

In the 12 years since ACL has started, the influx of tourists and the sheer volume of patrons who travel to the city have done so much in terms of generating revenue and publicity. But, as the festival continues to change over time, it isn’t as clear which effects it will have — not only on artists but on the music industry itself.

Artists, such as the Austin-based country band Asleep at the Wheel, have watched the festival grow from its humble beginnings in 2002 as they’ve continued to return. 

“It’s a pretty well-oiled machine now. It gets better every year, I have to admit,” said Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel’s frontman. “[The first year] was very exciting — they pulled it off. It was a real question mark and then, boom, everything sold out.” 

The SoLa fashion boutique has attended and provided festival fashions since 2002, and SoLa founder Coral Smith also that ACL continues to improve.

“The festival has done a really good job of bringing in headliners,” Smith said. “They bring in acts for the older generations — people who have been there since day one — and have acts that will recruit younger people who’ll continue to go for a lifetime. They’ve done a great job of making it something for everybody, not just people from Austin, which is really good coming from a vendor standpoint, too.”

The variety of genres featured at ACL allows vendors and performers alike to reach a wider array of potential customers, something that is becoming increasingly important to artists today. As record sales continue to decrease, many artists must rely on performances to generate revenue.

While playing shows is how Benson and his bandmates make a living, he said performing is more than a job.  

“Festivals are now the driving force of income. They’ve really helped a lot of bands stay in business,” Benson said. “I love playing festivals because, if I play in a small town, I know the people are here to see me. They paid money to see Asleep at the Wheel, but, at a festival, you make new fans and introduce your music to people who would have never come to see you.” 

Jenny Lewis, who has been to ACL as a solo artist and as a member of the band Rilo Kiley, said the diverse audience that festivals attract allows for other changes in the music industry as well.

“I definitely have witnessed the rise of EDM,” Lewis said. “I came out of very indie rock festivals, and now one dude can go out with his laptop and get a whole tent of people jumping.”

This is something that Capital Cities, who performed at ACL for the first time this year, can attest to. Sebu Simonian, one half of the band’s duo, confirmed the importance of technology in the music industry. Capital Cities performs multiple remixed versions of their songs live.

“Technology is the core of all music creation,” Simonian said. “It has impacted us greatly — not just on the creation side but on the production side as well.” 

While they do generate a large amount of exposure and potential revenue from new fans, artists enjoy these festivals as much as the attendees themselves.

“I’ve always been on the fan side,” Simonian said. “I’ve loved going to festivals, and I feel great that they’re becoming so popular.”

As artists become more dependant on festivals, and, as festivals continue to provide artists with new, young audiences, the live music scene at ACL is subject to change. Regardless of whether these impending changes are well-received by ACL veterans, they have created a thriving intersection between artists and technology.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Many Texas twenty-somethings grew up on fiddle and banjo, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival has plenty to satisfy their love of twang.

Country-flavored acts Asleep At The Wheel, Randy Rogers Band and Trampled By Turtles help the mostly rock and pop festival harken back to its Texas music roots, Jason Mellard, a history lecturer at Texas State University, said.

“The festival is based on Austin’s close connection with country music,” Mellard, who specializes in Texas and country music history, said. “That’s how Austin first got on the map of music — with progressive country in the ‘70s.”

ACL owes its prestige to the television program of the same name that began in 1976 with acts like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker to showcase the Texas take on blues and country. The show featured Asleep At The Wheel on its second episode, and the western swing band has been an opening act at the festival every year.

“It’s a great time to see a band. People are raring to hear music because they haven’t heard anything yet,” Ray Benson, the Philadelphia native who started Asleep At The Wheel in 1969, said.

“There are people who come every year because to them it’s a tradition.”

Benson said ACL always features country artists, but not mainstream acts like Taylor Swift. Instead, the festival showcases bands that bring something creative to country, western and bluegrass music. Asleep At The Wheel blends country, blues, Americana and more.

“ACL always has country acts that are not down the middle Nashville acts,” Benson said. “Country music has so many facets.”

Just ask Ryan Young, the fiddle player in Minnesota-based bluegrass band Trampled By Turtles. The band doesn’t identify with the country genre but counts Hank Williams as an influence. Members’ tastes range from fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan to eclectic punk rock and world music.

“Maybe something I heard in a group from Ghana will relate to something we’re playing and I’ll steal from it a little bit. Timmy [Saxhaug], our bass player, might bring in some sort of Motown flavor,” Young said.

He looks forward to being back in Austin and said Trampled By Turtles gained a following in Austin more quickly than most cities. The band appeals to an audience that might not normally gravitate to country and bluegrass, he said.

“We get a lot of people that come up to us after a show and say ‘I don’t really like the kind of music you play or the genre you are in, but I love your band.’ And then they’ll buy all the CDs,” Young said.

Previous ACL country acts include Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss and Texas superstar Pat Green. The country and bluegrass acts at ACL tend to have elements of Americana, said Mellard, which helps them appeal to a wider audience.

“There are people who are drawn for the indie elements that are at the core of ACL, and they probably won’t know Randy Rogers,” Mellard said, but any large crowd in Texas will have its country music fans.

Those fans will likely be front and center when Texas country power house Randy Rogers Band takes the stage Sunday. On a phone call from New York City, Rogers said the band members love to play stages in their home state.

They’ve matured musically and exploded on the country scene since they last played ACL in 2006. The festival provides a great chance to see other musicians in action and play for a different type of audience, Rogers said. The band is a “left of center country artist,” he said.

“I like the fact that our fiddle player Brady [Black] will be jammin’ his ass off at a predominately rap, pop and rock festival,” Rogers said. “I’m thankful to ACL for inviting us and realizing there is a large fan base that does like their country music.”

The happiest ACL goers enjoy a wide range of genres. Like a lot of folks, Rogers can’t wait to catch the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the main stage Sunday night right after his band’s set.

Printed on Friday, October 12, 2012 as: Country music remains strong

Mardy Fish is the first singles competitor to be paired up for the Davis Cup. Fish, ranked No.8 in the world, is set to play against Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, No.31, on Friday.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

Massive American and Spanish flags framed Austin band Asleep at the Wheel as they opened the Davis Cup's draw ceremony and belted “Happy Trails” with a country twang Thursday.

This year is the first time Austin hosts the 111-year-old tournament. Ticket sale revenue from the draw ceremony, which sold out in less than two weeks, went to relief efforts for tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo.

The American and Spanish tennis teams will play five sold-out matches at the Frank Erwin Center from July 8-10. The draw ceremony determined and announced the match-ups for the weekend.

More than 700 people attended the draw ceremony, said Keri-Dawn Solner, a private events coordinator for Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater, where the event was held.

The United States Tennis Association created more opportunities for public participation this year by including open practices and the music at the draw ceremony.

“Usually it’s just a press event, but for the first time they opened it up to the public,” Solner said. “They turned it into more of a lunchtime musical performance.”

Ray Benson, lead singer for Asleep at the Wheel who plays tennis recreationally, drew the names of the tennis players to determine this weekend’s match-ups.

Midland business owner Jeremy Jones brought his family to see the Davis Cup and the draw ceremony.

“It gave a great taste of Texas — the whole music vibe with tennis,” Jones said. “They really did a good job of making those worlds come together.”

Local disc jockey Bobby Bones hosted the draw and brought Austinite Andy Roddick’s second grade teacher on stage. Karon Wheeless, the retired teacher, said even in elementary school Roddick had an interest in tennis that could be seen in the classroom.

“I did find out that the best place for Andy was in the back because he could get up and practice his back swing,” Wheeless said.

American Team Captain Jim Courier said fans have shown a great deal of energy that he expects to see at the matches.

“You should treat it a little bit like a college football team — in between the points,” Courier said. “We’d like you to clap a little louder for the American team.”

For such an accomplished musician, Ray Benson, the frontman for western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, is hardly pretentious. In fact, he concerns himself with the worries of the common man. During the interview he was keeping an eye on the election results, ruing another four years of Gov. Rick Perry. Perhaps this every-man attitude has led to his extended success as a musician, keeping him clean of the tabloid drama that ruins so many musicians’ careers. This Friday he will be celebrating his success with the current members of Asleep at the Wheel, alumni of the band and Willie Nelson as they play a 40th anniversary concert for the band.

The Daily Texan: What has made it possible for such longevity in the music business?

Ray Benson: More as a band than a songwriter. They’re two completely different things. Hell, when I started the band I was 19 years old when I started. And we figured 10 years maybe, that’d be really cool. When you’re 19, how old are you? 19. What do you think you’re going to be doing when you’re 30 years old? Gonna be dead you know, but it doesn’t happen that way. It’s pretty interesting, I never thought 40 years we’d be doing this. But now that I’m here it’s wonderful. I can’t see stopping at all. At 40 years things going to where it is, people really appreciate it now. It’s pretty cool.

DT: Do you feel, because you drew the distinction between a songwriter and a band, and since you’re the last remaining original member in the band …

RB: Yeah, and I was voted by myself and the other guys as the band leader. When we started the band, we realized that perhaps a democracy was not the best way to run a band. What we decided was that we would run it as a democracy until we couldn’t agree anymore. At that point I would make the arbitrary decisions as the band leader. And that worked pretty good, but you know, there were some really down times for me, you know. By 1980, the ten year time period I was talking about, it was kind of tough, things weren’t too great. We weren’t making a lot of money, didn’t have a record deal after ’81. And it was tough, and that’s when I totally took over. Took a lot of the guys back and said, I wanna go do our own thing or try something else, and I was left holding the bag and I said, “ok, I’ll continue forward.” That’s how it went.

DT: Since you are the last remaining member, do you feel like it’s more a 40th anniversary for yourself, or for the band and the ideology behind your swing band?

RB: Well certainly it is for me quite a milestone, but the band even more so because I’ve had so many wonderful people who’ve played into the success and that is a huge thing, at least, you know, there were so many people contributing to the success of the band by building on what they’ve done. So really it’s a tribute to all of the people who’ve contributed to Asleep at the Wheel. I was able to keep it going, but part of it is, yes I can write songs, yes I can play guitar, yes I can be the front man of the band but in the end, it’s about 30 years ago I had to take over all the business. That’s been the interesting thing for me. The business part is probably the hardest part. Playing the guitar, practicing, playing, singing and writing songs, that’s something I do naturally. The business is part is a little different, you have to compartmentalize in your brain and go, “ok, I’ve gotta take care of the business or the creative part won’t get a chance.” I always told everyone, “Well, we’re in show business. The show is really important but you also have to take care of the business.”

DT: With so many different members does the band, in your opinion, still have the same sound and feel, or has there been some evolution to the sound of Asleep at the Wheel?

RB: Yeah, definitely evolved over the years with all the contributions of all the different people. I started the band, I’ll be 60 in March. Dave Zanger, is my drummer, he’s been with me for 25 years, he’ll be 50 next year. Dave Miller, my bass player, is 40 and he’s been with me 18 years. Jason Roberts is 33 and has been in the band for 16 years, since he graduated high school. Elizabeth McQueen is 32 years old and has been in the band for six years. Dan Walton — he’s our new piano player — has been with us over two years now, and he’s 24 years old. So what I’m saying is we’ve had guys in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s in this band. So in terms of competency this is one of the best bands we’ve had, not just like any of the bands. We’ve had incredible musicians, understand, and these are top notch musicians. The alumni that are coming back for the show we have 25 of our alumni coming back for the show. People who have worked with Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, [David Allen] Coe over the years, and our fiddle player who’s been with every top 10 country record over the past 10 years, he’s a session player in Nashville. We had wonderful musicians throughout the years, and their all coming back for this reunion so it will be really cool.

DT: All of these former musicians have worked with renowned artists, and they’re great musicians in their own right, and you’ve worked with Willie Nelson and Jerry Wexler. How does it feel to have worked with all of these people, and can you look at that in light of you yourself being a Grammy-winning artist?

RB: I was a fan first, you know? And yeah it feels great. I’m not gonna pat myself on the back or anything. It’s why I got in the business, to work with people I feel are talented, legendary, and that I’m a big fan of. So that’s the plus of the whole deal.

DT: Back to Jerry Wexler. He was the man who coined the phrase “Rhythm and Blues” from “race records,” and was obviously influenced by black music in a time of musical segregation. Did he bring the influence of black music into your work with him?

RB: Absolutely, that’s what western swing is. It took the extremes of black music and combined it with rural country fiddling and songs and everything and brought the blues and the jazz and the swing. Black music was very akin to western swing. That’s why Jerry Wexler loved it. Jerry produced Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, started Atlantic records, which was the greatest R&B label from the late ‘40s through the ‘50s, Rolling Stones, etc. And why Jerry loved Asleep at the Wheel so much was because he also loved western swing because western swing and Texas music was a conglomeration of what I was just talking about — fiddle music, country music, and blues, jazz and swing, which was the black music experience of the ‘20s and ‘30s. So it’s that combination that’s really why it’s really cool. That’s why I play what I play. Because I love that kind of music, I play that kind of music, but I also wear a cowboy hat and wanna play fiddle music. Instead of doing it with saxophones, trombones and trumpets, we do it with guitars, fiddles, and steel guitars.

DT: I also know Louis Jordan was an influence of yours, and obviously you just told me you love black music, but when you were first starting your career was there any pressure to stick to more classical, traditionally white country music?

RB: Oh absolutely. In 1975, we had a big country and western hit record. I had written the song with two friends of mine called “The Letter that Johnny Walker Read,” which is kind of a joke because it’s about the scotch called Johnny Walker Red. And we wrote it and sent it to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and it was straight, straight country music, and they didn’t do it but we did it and it was a top 10 record [laughs]. So here we are, at that point we’re incorporating all this black music into our music, and the people in Nashville are going, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, we just, we need to you to make honky records.” We thought, “Well yeah, we like that too, but we’re gonna do this.” So there was all that getting through great pressure to get to make those kind of records.

DT: I heard about the musical “A Ride with Bob.” How much input did Asleep at the Wheel have musically? Was it a work of Asleep at the Wheel along with a playwright and director, or is it mainly just the work of a playwright and director and the band makes up the cast?

RB: First of all, the band has great input because they play the music. Me and Anne Rapp — you know Anne taught at UT — she’s a screenwriter and a script supervisor and she grew up in West Texas. So she and I wrote the play, but as we developed it, it was important, the music was so important that it was that everybody contributed musically to the songs within the play, though it was pretty much what we just do on records for Asleep at the Wheel, we just put it into the context of a theater piece.

DT: One last official question: Can you still swing?

RB: [laughs] Oh, better than ever.

DT: “Better than ever.” I like that.

RB: Yeah, better than ever. You know, you gotta understand, I’m 50 … almost 60 years old and I still practice and play every day, just hoping to get better, you know?

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WHAT: Asleep at the Wheel 40th Anniversary Concert with Willie Nelson
WHERE: Long Center for the Performing Arts (First Street between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road)
WHEN: Friday, 5-7:30 p.m.
How much: $30