My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris O’Connell

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

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

texas-goldAsleep At The Wheel’s third full-length album, and their first for Capitol Records, was released in 1975, It reveals them at the height of their powers, and also at the zenith of their commercial success.

‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’ was their most successful ever single, as a top 10 country hit. It’s a great story song with emotional impact, written by the band’s Ray Benson and Leroy Preston with Chris Frayne. Benson takes the lead vocal, with female vocalist Chris O’Connell plaintively singing the text of the letter, from the drunken protagonist’s abandoned wife.

The band shows off their instrumental chops throughout, but especially on a cover of the Bob Wills tune ‘Fat Boy Rag’, and on ‘Bump, Bounce Boogie’, although the latter is not a full instrumental but features a vocal from Chris O’Connell. It was the second single, but was probably not commercial enough, peaking just outside the top 30. O’Connell also sang lead on ‘Nothin’ Takes The Place Of You’, a sophisticated late Patsy Cline-style ballad with a brassy accompaniment – nice but not particularly distinctive, its chart peak was #35. O’Connell also takes the lead on a lovely version of the hymn ‘Where No One Stands Alone’.

‘Tonight The Bartender Is On The Wrong Side Of The Bar’ is an excellent Leroy Preston song about heartbreak and booze. ‘Runnin’ After Fools’ is a jazz-influenced mid-paced number which is well done but not so much to my taste.

‘Let Me Go Home Whiskey’ and ‘Roll ‘Em Floyd/Rebecca’ are old blues songs which the band liven up with a playful western swing twist. The album closes with a classic western swing version of ‘Trouble In Mind’ with a raucous brass outro.

This is an excellent album which is qunintessential Asleep at the Wheel. It is available digitally, and on a 2for1 CD with Comin’ Right At Ya.

Grade: A

Album Review: Asleep at the Wheel – ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ (1974)

r-6847990-1427926933-1911-jpeg1974’s Asleep at the Wheel was the band’s second release and the first for Epic Records. It was also the first of a pair of eponymous albums; another album titled Asleep at the Wheel would be released about a decade later by MCA.

Produced by Norro Wilson, the album was almost completely out of step with mainstream country, and as such it did not sell particularly well. It did, however, produce the band’s first chart single, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, which peaked at #69. But because it did not follow the the commercial trends of the day, it does not sound as dated as many of the albums released in that era. In fact, it is every bit as enjoyable today as it was over 40 year ago.

It is an eclectic collection of Western swing, straight country and 1940s-style jump blues. Two singles were released: “Don’t Ask Me Why (I’m Going to Texas)” written by Ray Benson, Leroy Preston and Kevin Farrell, and the aforementioned “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” which had been a big R&B hit in 1946 for Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five. Despite the inclusion of some fiddle, steel and honky-tonk piano, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” doesn’t sound very country at all but it is very well done. “Don’t Ask Me Why” is more Bob Wills-style Western swing and is also quite well done.

“You and Me Instead”, another Kevin Farrell composition, is a more contemporary number with a 70s-style string section. It’s a different style than we typically expect from Asleep at the Wheel and I wonder why no one though to release this one as a single. I wouldn’t rank it among my favorites on the album but it seems like it would have had some mainstream appeal in 1974.

“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” is a Count Basie tune that still sounds like mainstream 1940s big band music, despite some excellent fiddle from the great Johnny Gimble, who played on seven of the album’s eleven tracks, including “Don’t Ask Me Why”.

If pressed to pick a favorite, I would probably choose “Last Letter”, which is sung beautifully by band member Chris O’Connell, who at times sounds a bit like Connie Smith. The song itself was written by Rex Griffin, who had a hit with it in 1937. It is a story told by a jilted spouse as she writes a suicide note to the spouse who abandoned her. Griffin wrote the song based on his own real-life experience. O’Connell takes the spotlight again on one other track, “Our Names Aren’t Mentioned (Together Anymore)”, which is performed as a duet with its writer Leroy Preston. Cindy Walker’s “Miss Molly” is another highlight.

Leroy Preston is not as good a vocalist as Ray Benson, but he sings lead adequately on four tracks, the best of which is “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday”.

Asleep at the Wheel is an outstanding album from start to finish: the material is impeccable, and the musicians are excellent. The instrumental solos are as enjoyable as the vocals. I couldn’t find a single weak moment to criticize. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in Western swing — or swing music in general.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Asleep At The Wheel – ‘Comin’ Right At Ya’

comin-right-at-yaUnited Artists released the first Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) album in 1973. The album featured a mix of straight ahead country and honky-tonk, along with western swing. No doubt United Artists felt a need to mix the western swing with country as it had been a good dozen years since western swing had been a viable force in the marketplace, aside from the small band swing novelties of Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys.

The core of this early version of AATW was Ray Benson on lead guitar and vocals, Leroy Preston on guitar, drums and vocals, Lucky Oceans on steel guitar, Jim Haber (aka Floyd Domino) on piano and Chris O’Connell on vocals and rhythm guitar. Guests Johnny Gimble, Buddy Spicher and Andy Stein augment the band on fiddle, with Gimble also playing electric mandolin.

The album opens with a Bob Wills-Tommy Duncan composition “Take Me Back To Tulsa”. The arrangement on this track swings but not nearly as much as it would in later years.

Track two is the Leroy Preston composition “Daddy’s Advice”, a straight ahead country song with a very traditional steel guitar sound paired with the fiddles. The vocal sounds like it may be Preston singing.

Leroy Preston also contributed “Before You Stopped Loving Me” is a nice ballad handled by the inimitable Chris O’Connell. I think that Chris may have been the best female vocalist AATW ever had.

Jerry Irby’s “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” was a hit for Ernest Tubb. Although Ernest was not a western swing artist, his recording of the song straddled the line between western swing and honky-tonk, as does this recording.

The Hank Williams classic “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” is given a straight-ahead country arrangement. Again, the vocal sounds like Leroy Preston.

Lucky, Leroy and Floyd wrote “Space Buggy” which has a barrelhouse boogie sound. Ms. O’Connell handles the lead vocals on this bright up-tempo song.

“Cherokee Boogie” was one of Moon Mullican’s great songs, one that was a hit for Moon and has graced the charts several times since them. Since Mullican was one of the great piano influences on Jerry Lee Lewis, it is only appropriate that Floyd Domino’s piano is featured heavily on this track.

Track eight on album is another Leroy Preston original titled “Hillbilly Nut”, a bit of a novelty with some instrumental snippets of other famous tunes. Preston sings this song.

Ray Benson and Leroy Preston collaborated on “Your Down Home Is Uptown”, a country ballad sung by Chris O’Connell.

Preston also penned “I’m The Fool (Who Told You To Go)” another straight ahead country ballad with Chris O’Connell shining on harmony vocals on the chorus. Ray Benson sings the lead.

Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer, penned “I’ve Been Everywhere”. The song originally featured Australian place names; however, with American place names, the song became a massive hit for Hank Snow. Leroy Preston takes the lead vocals on this song, which are NOT taken at the breakneck speed often associated with the song. The vocals of this song frequently have been rewritten to reflect the nationality of the singer.

The album closes with “The Son Shines Down On Me”, a nice gospel ballad sung by Chris O’Connell. The songwriter is credited as ‘L. Lee’ but I know nothing further about that person.

Comin’ Right At Ya is an album which sees the band finding itself. The album produced no hit singles, and while there are traces of western swing styled elements throughout the album, the album is less western swing than any of their future efforts would be. As a vocalist Leroy Preston isn’t all that good and his vocals would be less prominent on future albums. I liked this album (I picked up a copy on vinyl when it first came out) but it is mostly a harbinger of things to come. I’d give it a B.

Koch paired this with Texas Gold (a much better album) on a CD reissue in 2000. Texas Gold, released on Capitol in 1975, would feature the band’s biggest hit “The Letter That Johnnie Walker Read”.

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.