Asleep at the Wheel (from the album Half a Hundred Years available on HOME Records) (by Lee Zimmerman)
Half a century is a long time for any artist or ensemble to play their particular craft, so it’s appropriate then that Half a Hundred Years not only measures up to the significance of its title, but also extends Asleep at the Wheel’s treasured storyline through songs that share a personal perspective. Known as the foremost practitioners of Country Swing music in its purest form, they’re the natural offshoots of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the inventors of a genre that’s also been purveyed by Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite and The Hot Club of Cowtown. Naturally, the trajectory remains intact, courtesy of songs that swing, sway, sashay, and strut with Asleep at the Wheel’s trademark tone and tempos. It’s the epitome of classic Asleep at the Wheel in a full multi-dimensional dynamic.
Naturally then, that means founder member, singer, and guitarist Ray Benson remains at the helm, and here he shares the title track with a narrative that brings the band’s long illustrious journey firmly to the fore. It shares plenty of anecdotal asides, and like the Grateful Dead’s classic song “Truckin’”, “Half a Hundred Years” enables the listener to feel what it’s like to be part of the journey. So too, the ragtime revelry of the clever “Word to the Wise”, a co-write by Bill Kirchen (guesting on the song) and Dan Hicks, commences with a dialogue that brings the audience in even deeper, enhancing the infectious attitude that pervades the effort overall.
Given the expansive list of participating musicians and guest vocalists — Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack, and George Strait are among the various A-list artists that lend their talents here — it’s little surprise that Half a Hundred Years is such an absolute opus. Boasting 19 songs in all, it conveys the feel of a decisive journey, one that culminates in a touching duet between Harris and Nelson while offering a perfect send-off as well.
Along the way, there’s plenty of the upbeat energy that’s always marked Benson and the band’s usual stock and trade, from the tireless tempo propelling “It’s the Same Old South”, the picking and plucking of “I Do What I Must”, the approximation of a ragtime rhythm for “Paycheck to Paycheck”, to the boogie and bluster that marks “I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here)”, “Bump Bounce Boogie”, and the perennial classic “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”. So too, the calming caress shared through “That’s How I Remember It” and the unadulterated spunk found in “Take Me Back to Tulsa” add further dimension as far as the unrelenting energy and enthusiasm.
With Half a Hundred Years, Asleep at the Wheel have not only achieved a milestone in their storied career, but reaffirmed a signature sound that’s clearly as vital as ever. Here’s to half a hundred more. (By Lee Zimmerman)
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