Asleep at the Wheel and ACL Celebrate a Half Century of History

New KLRU retrospective wrangles two Austin icons

Willie and the Wheel on Austin City Limits in 2009 (Courtesy of Austin City Limits)

While it's common local knowledge that Willie Nelson taped the pilot for Austin City Limits, less recognized is that the actual first episode of the series when it debuted on PBS in 1976 paired an upstart young band reinventing traditional Western swing with their musical mentors who effectively created the genre. It was the first time that Asleep at the Wheel shared the stage with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys.

"The way it went down, they asked, 'Who do you want to be on the show with you?' and I said the Texas Playboys," recalled Ray Benson, formidable frontman for the Wheel. "Paul Bosner was the original producer, and he was from New York and didn't know who they were, and he said, 'That's great, let them do 15 minutes and y'all can do 40.' And we said, 'No no no, you don't understand, this is the Texas Playboys!'"

That seminal first episode kicked off a relationship between Austin City Limits and Asleep at the Wheel that has maintained and evolved over the past half century, with the band gracing the ACL stage more than a dozen times in various forms, making them the third most recurrent performers on the show (Nelson is #1, with Lyle Lovett set to tie next time he performs there). ACL Presents: 50 Years of Asleep at the Wheel, which premieres on KLRU October 31, captures 20 of those performances from 1976 to their 2015 inaugural ACL Hall of Fame induction.

The hourlong special also presents an impressive document of the evolution of two Austin institutions over the years, showcasing how both Austin City Limits and Asleep at the Wheel have managed to remain relevant to the times while staying true to their roots. "Staying relevant means that we have to be willing to take chances, to book artists that might turn off some of our traditional audience, and believe me, we do get emails," said Terry Lickona, producer of the television series since its fourth season. "As long as I've been involved with the show, I've heard people say that we tune in to watch Austin City Limits whether we know who it is or not, because we know it's going to be good. They've got to be good to be on that stage. People trust what the show stands for."

Back in 1981: (l-r) Johnny Gimble, John Mills, Willie Nelson, Freddie Powers, Ray Benson, and Jackie King (Courtesy of Austin City Limits)
“Ray Benson, he’s the skyline, both literally and figuratively, of Asleep at the Wheel.” – Tom Gimbel

"You look at [that] skyline background, the straightforward style of production, and there's not a lot of bells and whistles. It's about the music and capturing that artist," added the show's general manager, Tom Gimbel. "It's almost like that stage and that skyline are the consistent element. To me, Ray Benson, he's the skyline, both literally and figuratively, of Asleep at the Wheel. He's that singular figure that gives Asleep at the Wheel that unique feel and sound, and they've always stayed true to their roots in swing, and they've changed members and evolved, but that integrity of why they formed and what they set out to do I don't think has ever really wavered. And there's a real similarity there with Austin City Limits, in that we've never really wavered in our commitment to what we set out to do in 1974."

The special airs as both the show and the band weather the uncertainty of 2020's shutdowns. The series' 46th season was recorded without audiences, and their sister ACL Festival, for which the Wheel has played the opening set every year, went virtual with archived performances. The band likewise pushed its grand 50th anniversary celebrations to next October, though still plans to release the new album Half a Hundred Years this spring.

Those circumstances also provided a unique opportunity for Benson to approach the show about putting together a retrospective. For Benson, who edited it with his sons Sam and Aaron, it captures something unique about leading a band for so long. The talent that has spent time in Asleep at the Wheel literally requires its own Wikipedia page, not to mention their numerous collaborators and the artists they've backed over the years. "That's just who I am, I guess," he offered. "I never stop creating, and I've always been a collaborator. I've done solo stuff, but I always thrive on the band interaction. The kind of musics, and I say musics in plural, but the kind of musics we play are challenging musics that you gotta be a pretty good player to master, but you have to also be able to play simple, simple stuff that is really not so simple. That's I think the trick of being in this band."

Collaborations with Lovett, the Avett Brothers, the Texas Playboys, and Vince Gill provide some of the special's highlights, though none evoke the spirit of ACL and Asleep at the Wheel better than their 2009 episode of "Willie and the Wheel." "We figured out that we had so many guests – Charlie Daniels, Delbert McClinton, Manhattan Transfer, on and on – that we couldn't fit them all on," attests Benson. "But my favorite for me was when we did 'Willie and the Wheel,' and I got to sing 'Pancho and Lefty' with Willie. I got to sing Merle's part. So that was it, as far as aspirations, that was way beyond anything I thought I'd ever get to do."

"I think the show that Willie did with them 10 years ago was almost as memorable for the pre-show on Willie's bus as it was for the show itself," laughed Lickona. "I'm glad we taped that show or else I might have forgotten that it ever happened. I'll just say if you ever spend any time with Willie and Ray together, you better watch out. Willie and Ray are a natural pair and have been friends for decades, and they are both just such a really big part of ACL's legacy. They represent a lot of what Austin City Limits stands for, and as much as things have changed and our music has changed and evolved, it still gets back to the authenticity and the originality that they represent and [that] have kept our show going all these years."

ACL Presents: 5O Years of Asleep at the Wheel: A Retrospective premieres on KLRU Oct. 31, 7pm.

Oops! An earlier version of this story misspelled Terry Lickona's name. Sorry, Terry! Also we clarified Lyle Lovett and Willie Nelson's performance records.

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Asleep at the Wheel, ACL Live, KLRU, Ray Benson, Terry Lickona, Tom Gimbel, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, Half a Hundred Years

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