I know it’s not fair of me to expect what I expect out of Asleep at the Wheel. They’re an extraordinarily good band, they truly are, and both times I’ve seen them live I’ve enjoyed them immensely. Rachelle and I caught them on the last day of Jazz Fest this year, when they were fresh off of a gig playing the part of the Texas Playboys in a musical about Bob Wills. Accordingly, their set leaned heavily on Wills’ sterling catalog. They veered off now and then to play an original, or to pick up a Hank Williams tune, staging long pedal-steel guitar pulls and fiddle solos to demonstrate their virtuosity. But despite the group’s incredible versatility–which they exhibit frequently across Comin’ Right At Ya–I only ever want them to be the Texas Playboys. Ray Benson and Leroy Preston, Asleep at the Wheel’s principle singer and songwriter, have other ideas.
Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes that it was Merle Haggard who kicked off the Western swing renaissance in 1970, but Benson and Asleep at the Wheel are the movement’s central figures. They combined elements of Wills’ sound (think countrypolitan meets swingin’ jazz and low-down blues) with traditional country, seen through the haze and long hair of the country scene that was then developing down in Austin. (We’ll hear much, much more about Austin in the seventies as we go on: My dad, from whom I pilfered a substantial portion of my collection, and whose signature you can see scrawled across the upper-right corner of my copy of Comin’ Right At Ya, was an early adopter of outlaw country and the scene that centered around the Armadillo World Headquarters. You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that there are cartons more of this stuff in my closet at my mom’s house in Broussard, and that I tried to be selective in what I took for my own.)
Comin’ Right At Ya is the group’s debut record, released in 1973, and it opens (much to my relief) with a respectable-enough cover of Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Oddly, “Tulsa” turns out to be one of the record’s lowest moments. It lacks the drive and peppiness of the Wills original and the Wheel’s live versions, and seems to get by based on the novelty of its existence; only Bob Wills was playing Bob Wills in 1973. Where the group really shine is in their transitions from genre to genre–some be-bop country here, a little boogie there. A run through Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” starts off with a yelping vocal that the band–who are note-perfect imitators of ole Hank’s backing groups, scholars of tone–gently massages down. Co-vocalist Chris O’Connell hip-checks one-liners like Loretta Lynn in the Benson/Farrell/Preston original “Your Down Home is Uptown,” a classic of the too-big-for-your-britches country subgenre. O’Connell chides her subject for having forgotten his country roots (that title is more of a rebuke than an observation), and the band swing their way through the chorus, replicating the uptown sound, then draw back to classic country for the verses. It’s a trick they repeat in “Hillbilly Nut,” approximating the “rock and soul” of a bar band as country-boy Benson and his date walk into a bar, then shifting into Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” as the singer begs for a chance to slow-dance with his lady.
“Hillbilly Nut” rests firmly in a songwriting tradition of its own, that of country-singer-as-outcast. The trope came to prominence as younger country musicians, reared as much on the Beatles and the Byrds as they were on Hank and Lefty Frizzell, began making records of their own. Though the song presents itself as straight, Benson’s delivery is cheeky, and the Wheel play a suspiciously awesome rock lick for a group who are supposed to feel out of place. That knowingness, which pops up elsewhere in Comin’ Right At Ya, is a turn-off to Erlewine (albeit a “slight” one), but I think it gives “Hillbilly Nut” its charm. As rock and country began to spend more and more time together, and hippies found themselves wearing boots and hats and cowboys stopped cutting their hair, the question of who was a rocker and who was a hillbilly became unexpectedly unclear. That tension produced the Charlie Daniels classic “Long Haired Country Boy,” caused Waylon Jennings to threaten to kick the ass of anyone who didn’t like Hank Williams, and built the entire career of David Allan Coe. “Hillbilly Nut” does break the run of note-perfect historicism the Wheel put together, but, forty years down the road, it, along with the rest of Comin’ Right At Ya, feels like an excellent representation of the time.