Western swing, as Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson admits, is not a dominant strain in country music. "It's like a footnote," he says, over the phone from his native Pennsylvania.
Funny thing is, even though Western swing is the sort of thing people might think would by now be long forgotten, somehow the music endures. Some 70 years have passed since Texan Bob Wills formed his first fiddle band and began to fuse Western-style fiddle music with jazzy, urban swing.
Even at its peak, the style was hardly part of the country mainstream, and yet, its popularity lingers, as Asleep at the Wheel demonstrates on its latest album, "Ride With Bob," a tribute to the music of Western swing pioneer Wills.
Benson believes that Western swing holds on for two reasons. "The reason why we like to play it, as musicians, it that it is improvisational music, like blues and jazz, so therefore it is infinitely satisfying," he says. "On the other side of the coin, it's dance music for a lot of people. In other words, people either love to sit and listen to it, for its complexity and originality, or they like it for its dance-ability."
Benson prefers the latter sort of listener. "I love to play dances because it's a lot of fun. A lot of the pressure is gone, because people are dancing. If it's a sit-down audience, they might get bored. Whereas if they're dancing, they don't care if you're singing or playing or what. As long as the beat's going, they're happy."
But he also thinks that Western swing exerts a certain nostalgic pull over people -- even those way too young to remember the music when it was new. "Vince Gill said it best," he says. "It's like Count Basie with cowboy hats. And it really is cool, man. We get to play this weird stuff, and yet we get to dress like Tom Mix and Roy Rogers."
Benson and his bandmates wound up playing Western swing almost by accident. When the group began to play the Baltimore/Washington/West Virginia circuit, back in the early '70s, Asleep at the Wheel had a very specific ambition. "We really wanted to be the first long-haired country/Western group. Not like the Burrito Brothers or the Byrds; we wanted to be George Jones and play that real pure country music, but be hippies."
But they had an affinity for Western swing, something Benson ascribes to having been brought up on old Count Basie records. As an aspiring bass player, Benson had a music teacher tell him that if he wanted to learn how to swing, he had to listen to the Basie band's rhythm section. "I was a lucky guy," he says, laughing. "When I was 15 years old, my band director said, 'Go listen to [bassist] Walter Page and [drummer] Jo Jones and [guitarist] Freddie Green, and don't come back until you've learned it."
Getting that sense of swing is essential to understanding the music of Bob Wills. "That light, swinging rhythm is very much a swing, and a black, thing," says Benson. "And a lot of country players and country musicians don't have that experience, and don't understand it."
Benson understands, and feels compelled to pass the lesson on. "I've been handed this mantle, and to me, it's just a great honor," he says. "I look at the material, and then I say, 'What would Bob do here?' You know, like 'What Would Jesus Do?'
" 'What Would Bob Do?' "
Asleep at the Wheel
When: Tonight, at 7:00 and 9:30 p.m.
Where: Ram's Head Inn, 33 West St., Annapolis
Call: 410-268-4545 for information