Western Swing revived for the younger set
Ray Benson and his band, Asleep at the Wheel, are working hard to bring the Western Swing subgenre of country music to a new set of ears. In service of this mission, Benson has released his third tribute album to hall-of-famer Bob Wills, otherwise known as the King of Western Swing. It goes without saying that Benson clearly loves this man and owes a lot to him. But it seems that beyond his love of Wills and his Texas Playboys, Benson wants to show a new generation how great this music can be.
Benson’s previous two tribute albums to Wills came in 1993 and 1999. Those records featured country music icons like Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and George Strait. In essence, he recreated country music popular in the 30s and 40s for the ears of pop country fans of the 90s. This time around however, he’s casting a wider net, identifying that there’s a new set of fans of Americana music that may like to hear the way the big boys used to do things. George Strait returns for this record, but in addition, Benson brings us The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett and Pokey LaFarge to name a few. Of course the 22 tracks of this record also feature guys like Willie Nelson and two original Texas Playboys members, vocalist Leon Rausch and saxophonist Billy Briggs, 87 and 92 years old, respectively. But the trend seems to be veering away from pop country to a more alt country flavor; sort of Texas Swing meets the neo-hippie set.
This music is old and it’s fun to listen to. It’s a deep dive into the history of Americana and country music that calls to mind a time when singing cowboys were staples of American television; when they sang songs while riding horseback in western films, and guys like Gene Autry put out Christmas albums. But of course the music is genuine and real. This is how it used to be done. It’s almost the equivalent of telling a modern painter, “If you want to put your own stamp on things, you first have to study the impressionists.”
Tying a direct thread to this past is Old Crow Medicine Show, who do a phenomenal job covering the jazz standard “Tiger Rag,” originally recorded in 1917. Considering Bob Wills actually used to play in medicine shows in Texas, it’s fitting that this is one of the most exciting songs on the record. The version proves that the younger set appreciates this music, and it appears that Benson, an ex-hippie hailing from Philadelphia of all places, is looking to pass the torch of his admiration for Bob Wills onto the next generation.