Musical institution Asleep at the Wheel was playing bluegrass, honky-tonk and Texas swing long before the term “Americana” applied to them.
“ ‘Americana’ has taken on this term to apply to music that doesn’t fit into the top 40,” says the Austin, Texas-based band’s founder, Ray Benson. “To me it means the art and culture of America. Cajun, Texas swing, hardcore country – that’s what Asleep at the Wheel has always been.”
The Philadelphia native, whose band plays Neighborhood Theatre Friday, decided to start a band that incorporated those sources. It was 1969, the pinnacle of the Vietnam War and the protests it sparked.
“The world was going crazy. Rock music was huge and I was 18 years old and I wanted to start this roots, Americana, hardcore country-western swing band,” Benson recalls.
Friends allowed him and his bandmates to use their 100-year-old cabin in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia as home base, if they’d farm the property. “It used to be a stage (coach) stop between Paw Paw and Berkeley Springs. The three of us went up there and played all these honky-tonks and went into D.C. and played the rock joints.”
They quickly realized the farming side of the deal wasn’t going to work out.
“We got to go out on the road and crops are going to die,” says the towering Benson, who had abandoned basketball in favor of music after he broke six fingers playing ball. (“I said screw this. I couldn’t play guitar.”)
He chronicles those stories in his 2015 biography, “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.” The book was written with News & Observer music writer David Menconi.
“I turned in a manuscript of about 75,000 words that I’d been writing for 25 years,” he says of his publisher, University of Texas Press, who then connected him with Menconi.
“He’d fly out to things we were doing. He interviewed me and got the facts straight and took my words and hammered it out,” he says of Menconi.
That’s not the group’s only recent Carolina connection. It’s latest Grammy-winning album, “Still the King,” a tribute Bob Wills, includes a collaboration with Concord’s hometown heroes, the Avett Brothers, along with old-timers like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard and younger artists like Pokey LaFarge and Amos Lee.
“That’s the whole idea – to bring it into each generation. In the ’90s we had Garth Brooks and Brooks and Dunn. In the 2000s the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Dixie Chicks. For this one we just wanted to bring the music to the present. The Avetts and Old Crow, they’re all like I was 30 or 40 years ago.”
He met the Avetts after inviting them to sing with Willie Nelson at a benefit that Asleep was playing. The Avetts ended up playing “Austin City Limits” during Asleep at the Wheel’s tribute to Wills episode, and in turn invited Asleep at the Wheel to open its recent New Year’s Eve show.
“We’re about the same thing,” says Benson. “Searching for this touchstone of American music, whatever it may be.”
Asleep at the Wheel
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.