116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Austin, Texas, has changed since Ray Benson arrived nearly a half century ago, but the leader of Asleep at the Wheel still is the same.
The live music mecca helped shape Asleep at the Wheel’s celebratory yet cerebral country. Benson, 71, a consistent songwriter, is on the same path but Austin is morphing.
“For a local musician, it’s a real conundrum here,” Benson said. “Engineers are moving into town. It’s more expensive. Musicians are moving out of town. It’s much different than when I came here. We played dance halls and clubs five nights a week. It was a wonderful place for working musicians. But it’s different now. Just look around. The tallest building in the entire state of Texas is being constructed downtown.”
The tall and lanky vocalist-guitarist still is standing in the Lone Star State.
“I still enjoy living here,” Benson said. “But I’m so glad to get out on the road.”
Asleep at the Wheel, which will perform Saturday at the Iowa Arts Festival, is on its 50th anniversary tour. The Western swing band has distinguished itself by crafting consistently strong albums. The band has earned 10 Grammy Awards, and it has a lone Top 10 single, the clever “The Letter (That Johnny Walker Read),” which charted 40 years ago.
What: Asleep at the Wheel
Where: Iowa Arts Festival main stage, adjacent to the Pentacrest, downtown Iowa City
When: 9 p.m. Saturday, June 4, 2022
Admission: Free; bring seating; outside food and drink allowed or purchase from vendors
Band’s website: asleepatthewheel.com/
“It’s been very satisfying,” Benson said. “If it weren’t so satisfying. I wouldn’t do it anymore.”
The lineup changes as often as the constantly morphing Austin skyline. Benson has been the band’s lone concept.
“But we manage to stay afloat,” he said. “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 lionized musicians, who rave about the band. The respect from peers is impressive. When Asleep at the Wheel toured with Bob Dylan in 2000, the bard, 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, also 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’ve got to love that,” Benson said. “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 6. I played the guitar and performed since I was 9, but real songwriting didn’t start until I was 16.”
There isn’t a songwriter Benson holds in greater regard than Bob Wills. Asleep at the Wheel has recorded three albums, which tip their cowboy hat to the iconoclast. “A Tribute to Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys” dropped in 1993. “Ride with Bob” was released in 1999. “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys” saw the light of day in 2015.
“He was an original,” Benson said. “He set a certain standard. If you play Western swing, you have to admit that you were influenced by Bob Wills.”
Odds are that Benson will drop some Wills songs into Asleep at the Wheel’s set list, but who knows what will be rendered since the band isn’t certain until it takes the stage.
“We have a lot of stuff to choose from,” Benson said. “We all know what we’ll start with. It’ll be one of three songs. The middle of our set is the doughnut. That’s uncertain territory. The end of our set will be four or five songs that we play every night. We’ll figure it out.”
Benson has a soft spot for Iowa City.
“It’s our home away from home. “Gabe ‘N’ Walkers was our place. It was incredible there,” he said.
Now shortened to Gabe’s, the music venue was called Gabe ‘N’ Walkers in the 1970s.
“I loved the band Long Shot that we would see there,” Benson said. “I loved that you could play poker at the bar. It was a scene. I remember going up stairs past the college students, who were our age. I played there in many configurations of this band.
“Every time I go back to Iowa City, I think about Gabe ‘N’ Walkers."