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'Willie And The Wheel' Teams Up Country Star and Legendary Western Swing Band


Fans of Western swing and traditional Country music have a lot to be happy. Music icon Willie Nelson and legendary band Asleep At The Wheel have teamed up for a new album. Although it's only February, early reviews have some critics calling Willie And The Wheel the "album of the year."

"Hesitation Blues" is a good choice for the first song on an album that was 35 years in the making. It stated back in the days when Willie Nelson was working with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, and recording for Atlantic Records. Wexler came up with the idea of Nelson recording an album of classic Western swing, and even went as far as compiling a list of possible songs. Before the record could be made, however, Nelson left the label, and the idea lay dormant until Wexler saw Asleep At The Wheel backing Willie on a 2007 tour.

The songs on Willie And The Wheel are Western swing standards. Many were made popular by two pioneers of the style, Milton Brown and Bob Wills. "Bring It On Down To My House" is a song that was a big hit for Wills in 1936.

Western swing music is sometimes called "Texas music" because it first became popular there. It comes out of a mixing several kinds of American roots styles, primarily cowboy and hillbilly music with big band jazz. Its heyday was in the 1930s and 1940s, and by the 1950s, it had fallen out of favor.

Western swing is a form of music that Ray Benson fell in love with as a boy, even though he lived in the eastern U.S. city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, far from the dancehalls of Texas. Ray's been leading The Wheel for close to 40 years, and is credited for starting the 1970s' movement that revived Western swing music. He says that, technically speaking, the classic Western sound is very challenging to play. It's easy to understand what he means by taking a listen to the band playing an instrumental break in "Won't You Ride In My Little Red Wagon." It features long solos by the piano, trumpets, fiddles, steel guitar and more.

A Western swing band is a large group, mixing a traditional dance band with horns and a country string section and played pop songs. The band also made changes or improvised as if they were playing jazz.

Ray Benson says fans seeing Willie and The Wheel on tour later this year will be like seeing something of an improvisational show. Asleep At The Wheel has added two horn players, a second bassist and another fiddler for the tour, and Benson says they'll play a set of their own, before being joined on stage by Willie Nelson. They'll then play songs from the new CD, before going into "whatever Willie wants to do."

Ray Benson says the band is not only prepared to play Willie Nelson classics like "Whiskey River" and "Always On My Mind," they've also worked up arrangements of some of the songs on Two Men With The Blues, last year's release by Willie and jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Another highlight of Willie And The Wheel is "I'm Sitting On Top of The World," which also puts the spotlight on Asleep At The Wheel singer Elizabeth McQueen.

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