My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel & Leon Rausch – ‘It’s a Good Day’

91xsgyplbl-_sx522_Leon Rausch was the lead singer for Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys during the late 1950s and early 1960 and rejoined the band for its final recordings in 1973.  In 2010, he joined forces with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel for It’s a Good Day, a diverse collection of western swing, big band, jazz and mainstream swing (if there is such a thing) tunes.  He is front and center for the album, handling most of the lead vocals, with AATW acting as his backing band. Floyd Domino, AATW’s original pianist, rejoins the group for this project, as he did for the previous year’s Willie and the Wheel.  The album was produced by Ray Benson.

At age 83, Rausch’s voice is gravelly but still quite strong and he sings surprisingly well for his age.  He holds his own with AATW’s Elizabeth McQueen who duets with him on “Alright, OK, You Win”, a Count Basie tune written by Maymie Watts and Sid Wyche.  It had also been a hit for Peggy Lee in the 1950s, and he outsings Willie Nelson, who acts as his duet partner on “Truck Driver’s Blues”.

I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to hear that my favorite songs on the album are the more country ones, although I really do like all kinds of swing music and enjoyed the entire album.  The best ones are those that were penned by the great Bob Wills himself:  “I Didn’t Realize”, “Cotton Patch Blues”, “Sugar Moon” (a co-write with Cindy Walker) and “Osage Stomp”, the instrumental jam-session album closer.  I also quite enjoyed “Mean Woman with the Green Eyes”, which was not written by Bob Wills but was recorded by The Texas Playboys.

Benson and his band take a back seat to Rausch on this project, but Asleep at the Wheel , which is one of the best bands in any genre of music, is the glue that holds everything together. As always, the musicianship is excellent.  It’s not a strictly country album, but there isn’t a bad song to be found here.

Grade:  A

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Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Live From Austin, TX’

live-from-austin-txTheir albums are consistently enjoyable, but Asleep At The Wheel are undoubtedly at their best live. Unsurprisingly, they have recorded a number of live albums. This one, released on New West Records in 2006, consists of a 1992 performance from the Austin City Limits TV show, which saw the band teaming up with surviving members of the Texas Playboys, Bob Wills’ band (including fiddle legend Johnny Gimble who had worked with AATW before). It is also available in DVD format.

They open with the old ragtime instrumental ‘Black And White Rag’ (incorrectly credited on iTunes as a Ray Benson composition). It had been the B side to a recent single release of ‘Route 66’, also performed here.

‘Boot Scoootin’ Boogie’, a then-current Brooks & Dunn hit, had been cut first by AATW in their 1990 Arista album ‘Keeping me Up Nights; their Western swing take is slower and more relaxed than the more familiar version.

They include some of their hit singles – a nice relaxed version of the always likeable ‘Miles And Miles Of Texas’, and a racing ‘Boogie Back To Texas’ which really sets a party mood which is continued with ‘House of Blue Lights’. A lively ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ with slightly busy accompaniment affects to reproduce the sounds of the race, with mixed results – some of it is very realistic but it sometimes feels a bit too busy. This is the kind of thing which has more impact when you are actually there.

‘Corine Corina’ is performed with great energy, with the Playboys’ Leon Rausch on lead vocals, and I also enjoyed his pacy ‘Sugar Moon’. ‘Blues For Dixie’, a duet between Rausch and Ray Benson, is less memorable, while ‘Roly Poly’ feels a bit rushed. The lesser-known Wills ballad ‘Misery’ is very good, but Ray and the guys stray a bit too far in the tasteful jazz direction for me on ‘You Don’t Know Me’.

This is an enjoyable recording, but the DVD (which I haven’t seen) would probably be a better indicator of their great live show.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Asleep At The Wheel’

mi0001667918Asleep At The Wheel recorded their only album for MCA Nashville in 1985. The project, their second to be self-titled, didn’t have any singles released to radio. The album features an eclectic selection of material, interspersing covers and original tunes.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys originally recorded three of the album’s songs. The versions found here are excellent, with “Deep Water” and “Your Red Wagon” being highlights. Junior Brown provides Lap Pedal Steel on the former, his first recorded appearance. I also enjoyed “Across The Alley From the Alamo” even though I don’t have a connection to the Texas landmark.

I was disappointed in opening number “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” a traditional song that typically shreds much harder than their slightly somber interpretation. Chris O’Connell joins Benson for a duet of John Hiatt’s “This Is The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” a tune Rosanne Cash would take to #1 a few years later.

O’Connell is similarly terrific singing lead on both Paul Young’s sinister “Baby” and the rip-roaring “Switchin’ In The Kitchen.” Willie Nelson contributes harmonies to his “Write Your Own Songs,” a lyric he penned in response to the record executives who dared interfere with his artistic process. The final two numbers, “Liar’s Moon” and “Shorty” are Benson originals and both are quite good.

There exists a dated sheen to this album, which is to be expected given its age (it was released 31 years ago). But the musicianship and their tightness as a band nicely shine through the slightly warmed over tones. I don’t regard Asleep At The Wheel as an exceptional album, but it is very, very good and worth seeking out.

Grade: A

Spotlight Artist: Asleep At the Wheel

asleep-at-the-wheel-1970Whatever the actual origins of Asleep At The Wheel, the holistic origins of the band date back to the decision by Merle Haggard in late 1969 to record a tribute album to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the time Haggard was the top dog in country music, with every single and album rising to the top of the country charts, and enough clout with his label Capitol to be allowed to record some albums of lesser commercial potential.

During the 1930s and 1940s Bob Wills had led hot string bands (the term “western swing” would become common after 1944) both large and small with success that sometimes dwarfed that of the more mainstream country artists. During the 1950s Wills toured with smaller units and by the 1960s, Wills usually travelled with a vocalist and used house bands that really did not understand his music. His health started failing in the 1960s, and in 1969 he suffered a stroke that forever robbed him of his ability to play the fiddle.

Haggard took the Wills project so seriously that he learned to play fiddle for the album and enlisted six former members of the Texas Playboys to join his band The Strangers in recording the album A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in The World (or My Salute To Bob Wills). The album, recorded in April 1970, was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in November 1969. The album sold reasonably well, reaching #2 on Billboard’ s Country Albums Chart (and #58 pop), and despite having no singles released from the album, the album would influence upcoming artists such as Commander Cody and George Strait and our October Spotlight artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) was formed in 1969 in West Virginia by a couple of Jewish fellows from the Philadelphia area named Ray Benson Seifert (aka Ray Benson) and Rueben Gosfield (aka Lucky Oceans). The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody. AATW was originally a country–rock band but switched gears upon hearing the Haggard album described above, becoming great students and disciples of the Wills art form now known as western swing. By the time the first album (Comin’ Right At Ya) was released in 1973, the transformation to being a western swing band had already been completed.

The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody but in 1974 Willie Nelson convinced the band that they should be headquartered in Austin, Texas. They have remained a part of the Austin music scene through the present day.

AATW has been comprised of anywhere from eight to fifteen musicians during its long history. As might be expected for a band that has been touring for forty-five plus years, there has been substantial turnover in personnel with band members coming and going (and sometimes coming back). The initial crew included Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Leroy Preston and female singer Chris O’Connell, but while only the 6’7” Ray Benson remains, the musicians that he has enlisted have always been top-notch performers. While in many bands the lead singer hogs the spotlight, whether on record or on stage, Benson has always shared the spotlight. Taking the lead from Merle Haggard, AATW has often toured with member of the Texas Playboys as part of the group.

Like Bob Wills before them, AATW finds its repertoire from a number of roots music sources, including classic western swing repertoire, original compositions, blues, “jump blues”, big band swing, jazz, roots rock, honky-tonk country and even pop standards. The core, of course, remains western swing, but virtually anything can become western swing in their capable hands.

AATW has recorded for many labels over the years with many different singers and musicians. Consequently, even if an AATW album features songs that they have recorded previously, the recording is likely to sound quite different from other AATW recordings of the same song. AATW has toured with many of the biggest names in music including Bob Dylan and George Strait, and served has the backup band for the “Last of The Breed” tour with Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They have appeared on television and in movies, written for theater plays, have won many awards and issued many fine albums
We will be reviewing a representative sample of the AATW’s studio albums, but be sure to check out their live albums and DVDs. Also many AATW alumni have gone on to be successful session musicians and/or have successful solo careers.

We trust you have and will enjoy the music of our October Spotlight Artists Asleep At The Wheel.