Confession time: Based on how huge an influence Bob Wills has always been on Asleep at the Wheel, you might think that I grew up listening to him and little else. Truth is, I didn’t even hear Bob Wills until I was nearly out of high school. But once I did, I got hooked and he quickly became the musician who means the most to me, for one very simple reason: He did it all. I’d grown up playing folk music in Philadelphia with the Four G’s and then gone on to jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, fiddle tunes, country, classical, and all the rest, in and out of school. Then I heard Bob Wills’ Western swing, which combined all of that and more into the most amazing music I’d ever heard, and I was smitten.
A lot of it comes down to dancing. I was at the Opry one time, talking about Bob Wills with Roy Acuff. “The difference between me and Bob Wills is he played for dances, and where I played dancing was a sin,” Roy said. You know, it’s like that old joke: Why don’t Baptists make love standing up? Because they’re afraid someone might see and think they’re dancing.
“A man ahead of his time” is a phrase you hear thrown around a lot, but Bob Wills is one who earned it. He brought electric amplification, brass instruments, and drums to country music; the Grand Ole Opry never know what hit ‘em the first time Wills brought his 18-piece band there in 1944. But afterward, everyone else on the Opry ditched their overalls for sharp-cut suits like what Wills and his Texas Playboys wore. Wills’ influence was more than sartorial, too—you can still hear echoes of his Western swing today. Asleep at the Wheel blazed the revival trail, and then George Strait and Lyle Lovett were the ones who truly brought it back to mainstream popularity in the modern era.
Back in the ‘70s, though, breaking that stuff out sometimes confused folks. The first Bob Wills song Asleep at the Wheel covered was “Right or Wrong,” in an arrangement Chris O’Connell and Danny Levin worked up to try out onstage at the Sportsman’s Club in Paw Paw. But it didn’t go over with the locals, who said they didn’t care for “that modern music you’re playing” and demanded we go back to “that old-time country music.”
That was more than 30 years after Wills recorded the definitive 1936 Western swing version of “Right or Wrong,” and West Virginia still hadn’t caught up because it sounded too cool and sophisticated for the yokels there to believe we weren’t doing some newfangled thing. Nope. Just Western swing, a style that never gets old and still sounds brand new.
That’s why we had to move to Texas, and why we’ve stayed there: It’s where Bob Wills is still understood. Once upon a time, Bob Wills was understood everywhere, because his style of Western swing was the rhythm of popular music in the 1930s and 1940s, before rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and he was the ultimate rock star of his era. He was like Elvis, prancing around like a peacock in a cowboy hat at a time when most singers stood still. And he combined so many different influences, from New Orleans jazz, Mississippi blues field hollers, Mexican gritos—that’s where he got that “Ahhh-haaa” he’d yell out. You could put Wills and his Texas Playboys on a bill with any style of music, be it blues or jazz or hillbilly or classical string quartet, and they’d fit right in and steal the audience. You couldn’t ask for a better legacy to try and carry forward.
I actually met Bob Wills once, even if he didn’t meet me. It was in 1973, after Asleep at the Wheel’s first album came out. We started off Comin’ Right at Ya with the Bob Wills standard “Take Me Back to Tulsa” as the very first song on side one, which was by design. Just our way of letting everybody know where we were coming from. We’d chosen that album’s producer the same way; Tommy Allsup got the nod because he’d worked with Wills.
Even though Comin’ Right at Ya didn’t sell, it did kind of help get Western swing back into circulation. Tommy went to our label, United Artists Records, and convinced them it was a good idea to make another Bob Wills album. The surviving Texas Playboys would play on it with Merle Haggard singing—a big deal, because Merle was at his peak of stardom in the early ‘70s.
The sessions were set for two days in December 1973 in Dallas. Wills’s performing career had finally ended when he had a major stroke four years earlier, and he could no longer play fiddle. But he was there on that first day to sing and do what he could for the album (which United Artists would release in 1974 as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys for the Last Time).
I was invited to drop in, and the prospect of actually meeting my biggest idol was enough to make me feel like a kid in a candy store. But the experience was a grave disappointment. Bob was kind of slumped over in his wheelchair when I arrived, and we were introduced, but he wasn’t really there. Bob had overtaxed himself, and his handlers said he wasn’t feeling well, so they were taking him home to rest. We would try to talk the next day.
Well, that night Bob Wills had another stroke that silenced him forever. He never spoke again before he died on May 13, 1975. The night he died, Asleep at the Wheel was in Dallas and booked into the Longhorn Ballroom, a place he used to own. I’d say our set that night was a special tribute to the man and his music, but the truth is it was no more or less of a Bob Wills tribute than every Asleep at the Wheel show. That’s pretty much what we do.
Appeared in This Land: Fall 2015. This excerpt from Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel (copyright © 2015 by Ray Benson) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com.