Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.
Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel's debt to Western swing king Bob Wills comes to the fore once again with a new stage production.
Benson and the band star in "A Ride With Bob: From Austin to Tulsa," a two-act musical drama that Benson wrote with Anne Rapp, the screenwriter of "Dr. T & the Women" and "Cookie's Fortune."
The production will have a limited engagement March 3-6 at the State Theater in Austin. The last day coincides with what would have been the 100th birthday of Wills, who died in 1975.
Benson is planning to record a soundtrack CD and, possibly, a DVD version of the musical, which could be extended and brought to other cities if successful.
The show recounts "the conversation we never had [with Wills]," Benson says. It ends with a 30-minute Asleep at the Wheel "mini-concert," featuring Wills songs not performed during the play, plus such Asleep at the Wheel classics as "Route 66" and "House of Blue Lights."
Benson recalls the band's near-miss meeting with Wills.
"We'd had a lot of success with [the Wills standard] 'Take Me Back to Tulsa' and went to meet Bob in Dallas in 1973 when he was recording his last album, 'For the Last Time,'" Benson says. "They wheeled him out in a wheelchair and said he was really tired and that we should come back the next day. That night he had a stroke, went into a coma and died two years later. So we never did get to talk to him."
"A Ride With Bob" uses the premise of a surreal meeting on a tour bus to frame what that conversation might have been like.
"We talk about how we've carried his music on-and the disillusionment I've sometimes had in trying to keep it going," Benson says, noting the difficulties both acts faced in "reconciling" swing and jazz within a resistant country music format. "He had the same conflicts we had, but he always stood his ground and got his way because he was Bob."
Wills remains "the most important figure of his era in Texas culture," Benson says. And he can build a case for that assertion.
"He brought drums, electric instruments and Western dress to country music," Benson says. "We're just trying to show why people like George Strait are still playing his music."
Excerpted from the March 5, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available to subscribers.
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