It’scommon for the elderly to start sorting through their worldly possessionsshortly before their deaths. They want to ensure that certain cherished itemsend up with specific loved ones.
Yet, when you clean out the closets of legendary music producer JerryWexler, you get more than just a few tokens of friendship and goodwill. You getone of the best albums of the year and maybe the best record ever from theGrammy award-winning Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel (appearing at theBirchmere, Wednesday, August 26th at 7:30 p.m. for $35).
According to the band’s co-founder and last original member, Ray Benson,that’s the genesis for Willie and the Wheel, a concept album released inFebruary that pairs Willie Nelson with Ray’s group for classic Texas swingnumbers from the 1930s, 40s and 50s (many of which Asleep plans to play duringtheir upcoming Alexandria appearance).
“You couldn’t make this story up if you wanted to,” admitsBenson in a recent telephone interview from his home in Austin, “but, it’sbeautiful.”
Six years ago, Wexler, the influential man who coined the term”rhythm and blues” and helped discover acts like Aretha Franklin, RayCharles and Bob Dylan, sent Benson a box of old-time country swing compilationalbums knowing that they wouldn’t go to waste.
“Jerry called up me and says ‘I’m getting’ old, these things gotdust on ’em, and I’m giving away all my records,'” Benson said.”Jerry Wexler was a good friend and a supporter of our music. He ‘got’what we were trying to do. Jerry was kind of like us a guy from New York whofell in love with music. Roots, blues, country [it] didn’t matter.”
Just like every good fairy tale, a little coincidental magic was neededfor events to be set into motion. For such an odd story, the mysticalflashpoint was just as unusual: public television.
“Then a couple of years ago, Wheel was backing up Willie Nelson,Ray Price and Merle Haggard on their Last of the Breed tour,” Benson said.”Well, one of our shows was filmed as a PBS special, Wexler saw it, and hecalled up Willie’s manager and said, ‘You gotta do this record!'”
It was an idea that Jerry Wexler had been sitting on for more than 35years. Wexler started dreaming of pairing Willie Nelson and classic Westernswing back in 1973, but after Nelson left Atlantic Records for RCA, the projectnever took off. The time for redemption had finally arrived.
“So, after the PBS special,” adds Benson, “Jerry tells usto get that list of songs from the box of records he sent me. Sure enough,tucked away in that box was a piece of paper on which he’s written ‘WN’ next to39 songs, which were the ones he was considering for Willie back in the 70s.Between me, Jerry and Willie, we got the list down to 12, and those are theones that made up the album.”
While such a project doesn’t sound like a stretch for a professionalmusician like Nelson, Benson likes to point out that looks can be deceiving.
“Sure, this was the music Willie grew up listening to, but even hedidn’t know the particulars of it,” he said. “He’s not amusicologist; he’s a musician. He hadn’t even heard Hesitation Blues or FanIt before we played them for him. He grew up playing music you coulddance to.
“It’s also important to note that [Asleep at the Wheel] finally gotgood enough to do this record,” claims the native Philadelphian. “In1973, we wouldn’t have been able to do it, since we’d only been together forthree years at that point, and [Wexler] wouldn’t have asked us to do it,because the older guys were still around.
“But then, over the years, we became the old guys,” the58-year-old adds with a laugh, now that Asleep at the Wheel will celebratetheir 40th anniversary next year.
As a final product, Willie and the Wheel, with its daring mix ofmoody if not depressing lyrics and bouncingly happy rhythms, is garneringhigh critical praise, with terms like “Best of 2009” being thrownaround from multiple sources. Yet, for Benson, this record will serve as afinal testament for a close friend.
“Jerry passed away a week after the final tracks werefinished,” he said. “He got to hear them all before he left us He was just an amazing guy.”