There’s nothing like a holiday show by Asleep at the Wheel. And “Merry Texas Christmas Y’all” is the message the band will deliver when it performs Thursday at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.
“This is always a blast for us since it’s a break from what we normally do,” vocalist-guitarist Ray Benson says, calling from Texas. “We’re going to do 40 minutes of holiday songs and the rest will be from our regular set.”
Expect the old Bob Wills’ tune “Santa’s on His Way” and such classics as “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
“We mix it up,” Benson says. “I love doing ‘Pretty Paper’ – what a great song from Willie Nelson – and all of those standards. We all love Christmas songs since we all sung them when we were growing up. Most of them are really beautiful songs. But don’t forget we’ll be doing our own stuff as well. We just made a pretty good album that we worked hard on.”
That “pretty good album” is “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills.” To make the record, Benson called on some of his friends, who popped into the studio for the group’s third tip of the cap to the underheralded Western Swing icon, who would have turned 110 last March. Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Kat Edmondson and the Avett Brothers are among those who lent their skills to the 22-track tribute.
“This is our third (tribute) Bob album,” Benson says. “We did something different and we had a great time with everyone that came in.”
The easygoing Benson formed Asleep at the Wheel 45 years ago, and the Western Swing band has distinguished itself by crafting consistently strong albums. The band has earned nine Grammy Awards and it has a lone top 10 single, the clever “The Letter (That Johnny Walker Read),” which charted 40 years ago.
“It’s been very satisfying,” Benson says. “If it weren’t so satisfying, I wouldn’t do it anymore.”
Yet, there has been so much turnover that the band should install a revolving door on its tour bus. When the sublime Elizabeth McQueen left Asleep at the Wheel last year to pursue a solo career, it was the 30th time a member of the group departed.
“But we manage to stay afloat,” Benson says. “It isn’t easy but I do what I can to fill the void. This is a labor of love so it’s not a huge deal for me. When you’re passionate about something, you find a way to keep things going.”
It helps that Asleep at the Wheel, which started as a straightforward country band, has a solid fan base and a long list of respected musicians who rave about them. When the band toured with Bob Dylan in 2000, Dylan, who is arguably the most iconic living songsmith, gushed about Benson and company. “Asleep at the Wheel’s been on a lot of shows with us, and they’re the best group I’ve ever heard,” Dylan told the audience in Denver. “They’re the most genuine group.”
Dylan, who is one of the most idiosyncratic figures in the music world, doesn’t offer much public praise.
“Anytime someone like Bob Dylan says something nice about your band, you got to love that,” Benson says. “I love Dylan. I love the great songwriters like him and Guy Clark and John Prine. Writing has been a passion of mine for a long time. I started writing lyrics when I was six. I played the guitar and performed since I was nine but real songwriting didn’t start until I was 16.”
But there isn’t a songwriter Benson holds in greater regard than Wills. “He was an original,” Benson says. “He set a certain standard. If you play Western Swing, you have to admit that you were influenced by Bob Wills. When we made this album, it was so much fun. I asked everybody what they wanted to do and most knew what they wanted to do. Merle Haggard, the Avett Brothers, they were pretty emphatic about what they wanted to cover. This was so much fun to do but so were the other two Bob Wills (tribute) albums.”
“A Tribute to Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys” dropped in 1993 and “Ride With Bob” was released in 1999.
“The Bob Wills material is endless,” Benson says. “It’s a bottomless pit.”
Expect Asleep at the Wheel, to deliver plenty of Wills material at Thursday’s show in Carrboro.
“I love playing these songs,” Benson said. “It’s such amazing material. I never get tired of Bob Wills songs. Fortunately a lot of music fans feel the same. A lot of musicians feel the same. There’s nobody like Bob Wills.”
There’s also nobody like Asleep at the Wheel. Country star Vince Gill, who sings on “Still the King,” is an unabashed Benson fan. “Ray Benson is unique,” Gill said. “He’s a tremendous musician. I can’t say enough about him.”
When Benson isn’t performing, he oversees “Ray Benson’s Roadhouse,” an oasis at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
“It’s good to have a place like mine at the airport,” Benson said. “You can have a drink and relax.”
If you can’t make it to Austin, you can have a drink and relax at an Asleep at the Wheel show. “If you can’t come to Austin, I’ll come to you,” Benson said. “We’ll do our best when we come to town to give you a good time.”
Who: Asleep at the Wheel
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: ArtsCenter, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro