Asleep at the Wheel’s all-star homecoming

It’s always a thrill to welcome back ACL alumni. It’s an even bigger thrill to re-open the stage to a band that was literally there from the beginning. Asleep at the Wheel appeared in ACL’s first official episode in 1976, joined by Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys. It’s now 40 years down the road, and Austin’s beloved Western swing institution returns for their tenth taping in salute to the Playboys’ vast catalog.

After opening with straightforward renditions of “Cherokee Maiden” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” (which is as much a Wheel standard at this point as a Playboys staple), bandleader Ray Benson welcomed 92-year-old saxophonist Billy Briggs, who was a 1950s-era Playboy, to the stage for a hopping take on “Route 66,” co-sung by pianist Emily Gimble, the granddaughter of former Playboy (and frequent ACL guest) Johnny Gimble. The band then took a skillful, joyful trip through Wills’ back catalog, hitting not only the obvious hits (“San Antonio Rose,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Faded Love”) but titles that ring bells only with hardcore Western swing fans (“Keeper of My Heart,” “It’s All Your Fault,” “A Good Man’s Hard to Find”). Ending the first half with the party-hearty “Big Balls in Cowtown,” the Wheel brought the crowd to their feet.

For the second half, the band brought out some special guests. The Quebe Sisters, a trio from Burleson, TX, brought triple harmonies to both their fiddles and their Andrews Sisters-styled vocals on “Navajo Trail” and “Across the Alley.” Amos Lee gave “I Hear Ya Talkin’” and “Sweet Pea” a bluesily soulful spin. The Avett Brothers and their band turned “Girl I Left Behind Me” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (the Wheel’s first song on their debut episode 40 years prior) into down-home folk songs as much as Western swing. Then came the night’s biggest coup, as former Playboys singer Leon Rausch, who played with Wills in the ‘50s and with the Playboys on ACL’s 10th anniversary episode in front of the Texas capitol, arrived onstage for a rousing “Milk Cow Blues.” Eighty-eight years young. Rausch hasn’t lost a step and the audience showed its appreciation.

The entire ensemble then took the stage for a nifty run through the “Texas Playboys Theme,” which used to open the Playboys’ radio show; the band interpolated “Happy Trails” into the old chestnut. The Wheel encored with another of its standards, the jumping “Choo Choo Ch-Boogie,” before closing things out with a crowd singalong on country superstar – and Western swing fanatic – George Strait’s “All My Exes Live in Texas.” We can’t imagine a better way to complete a circle that began in the mid-70s, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs later this year on PBS.