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Asleep at the Wheel returns to Durango

By Indiana Reed
Special to The PREVIEW

Asleep at the Wheel, the nine-time Grammy Award-winning band revered for sustaining Texas-based western swing, returns to the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College, Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 7:30 p.m. The dance floor will be open.

Since the early 1970s, the Wheel has been the most important force in Western swing — a mix of big band, country and dance music popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Formed out of reverence for Wills’ freewheeling, eclectic sensibility, Asleep at the Wheel and founder Ray Benson are said to have boldly defied the fickle lures of mainstream — and thrived — by keeping the distinctly Americana art form of western swing alive and kicking.

“I think Bob Wills is one of the iconic figures of popular music — one of the people who set the standard in the way we do music today,” Benson said in an interview with CBS’ “Sunday Morning.”

Typically featuring 6-11 musicians, the group has gone through myriad personnel changes (some 100 members have passed through the ranks), but the larger-than-life, 6-foot-7 front man Ray Benson has held the band together, keeping Asleep at the Wheel a viable recording and touring concern, maintaining devotion to classic-style western swing.

Core members currently touring are Benson (lead guitar, vocals), David Sanger (drums), David Earl Miller (base, vocals) and Eddie Rivers (steel guitar, sax).

Most recently, the Wheel infused some youth and has seen the addition of two women, with Katie Holmes (fiddle, vocals) joining the band in late 2013 and, this August, the arrival of Emily Gimble (piano, vocals).

Benson formed Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 in Paw Paw, W.Va., playing straight-ahead country, but soon shifted to western swing, thanks to influences from Merle Haggard and Commander Cody, and moved the band’s base to Austin. Hit singles followed, including “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read” and “One O’Clock Jump.”

The band, among many awards, has also been named “Best Country and Western Band” by Rolling Stone, as well as “Touring Band of the Year” by the Academy of Country Music. In 2011, Benson received the Texas Medal of the Arts award and was named Texan of the Year. The Americana Music Association honored Asleep at the Wheel with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

The band’s name is derived from the expression “asleep at the wheel,” referencing falling asleep while driving a vehicle, or someone who is blissfully unaware of a dangerous situation. A variety of live music videos and more are available at asleepatthewheel.com/the-band/videos/.

Tickets for Asleep at the Wheel — $24/$34 — are available online at www.durangoconcerts.com, by calling 247-7657, or at the ticket office inside the Welcome Center at 8th Street and Main Avenue in downtown Durango. All sales are final.

Showtime is 7:30 p.m., with doors to the Concert Hall opening at 6:30 p.m.

This story was posted on August 7, 2014.