Asleep at the Wheel swings into Strings

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Asleep at the Wheel is no stranger to the Grammy Awards ceremony, the recording studio or Steamboat Springs.

The Western swing band has won nine Grammies. It has recorded 23 albums. And Sunday night, the group returns to Steamboat Springs for a performance that is sure to bring boogie and swing to the chamber music festival, just as the band has done each of the past five festival seasons.

As the band's motto says, "Western swing ain't dead, it's asleep at the wheel." And its Steamboat performances are well-known for being a rousing good time.

Asleep at the Wheel came together under towering bandleader Ray Benson in 1970. Since its humble beginnings in Paw Paw, W. Va., the group has toured with a long and varied list of performers that includes Alice Cooper, Hot Tuna, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and George Strait. It got early kudos from Van Morrison and Willie Nelson and toured so much that band members retired their "Old Silver Eagle" tour bus with more than 3 million miles in 1997. By 1999, Asleep at the Wheel was recording with artists including the Dixie Chicks, Dwight Yoakam and Manhattan Transfer.

To top it off, Benson was named the official Texas state musician in 2004.

Throughout the years, Asleep at the Wheel has held true to its devotion to Western swing. Even with a lineup that has included an estimated 80 members to date, the band never changed its focus from its signature brand of danceable, big band music.

"This is improvisational music, which I think is the whole ball of wax, because that's where the rubber really meets the road -- and it's why we play it," Benson said in an interview on the band's Web site. "I think it's interesting to listen to updated versions of what people do, hearing how they have evolved. People change, and I love to have the luxury of having a career this long to do it. Part of the impetus was touring with Bob Dylan (in 2000). Every night, Dylan would do those damn songs a little differently, and it made it very exciting to see where they were going to go each night."

Asleep at the Wheel puts a new spin on its old-time sound by bringing in guest performers and new talent. When the band recorded "The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel," a collection of its most requested songs from years on the road, it used Lucky Oceans and Lloyd Maines on the steel guitar, Johnny Gimble on the electric mandolin and Huey Lewis on the harmonica. And the band is full of young talent that keeps the shows vibrant as well, including 20-somethings on the guitar, fiddle and piano.

"Every time that I figured I was going to quit, we'd have a wonderful, incredible show where the people were so appreciative that we were doing this music that it's like, 'Well, hell -- this beats working, so why not keep doing it?' Honestly, I would like to see this go on forever," Benson said.

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