On March 3rd, Asleep at the Wheel will release their third tribute to Bob Wills, the revered "King of Western Swing." But they aren't going it alone: The big band and its leader Ray Benson recruited a crop of guest stars, from veterans Willie Nelson and George Strait to contemporary Americana acts the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show to cover Wills classics. Today, Rolling Stone Country premieres Old Crow's contribution to Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the rollicking "Tiger Rag."
"It's a helluva cut," says Benson, seated on his bus last night in Nashville, where the Austin-based Wheel was performing. "Every 10 years there is a group of youngsters who are exactly what I was when I was young and saying, 'What kind of music do I want to play?' I wanted to play roots music."
Benson approached Old Crow Medicine Show after a performance in Austin and eventually asked them to participate in Still the King, co-produced by Benson's son, Sam Seifert. Old Crow's Ketch Secor suggested the little-known "Tiger Rag," from Wills' time with the Light Crust Dough Boys band. "Ketch is a musicologist," says Benson, "and he figured it out and we played it with them. They tore it up. It sounds like 1938."
Secor reveals those musicologist roots in describing the song and Wills' place in music history.
"What made Bob Wills the 'King of Western Swing' was his pioneering fusion of the driving rhythm of jazz and a wild, melodious, and highly original strain of country fiddling," he says. "Mixed together and shook up, this new, purely American genre rocked the dance halls on the far side of the Mississippi just as fiercely as rhythm and blues did the juke joints over on the other bank."
The inclusion of such hip Wills acolytes as Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avetts, Pokey LaFarge and Amos Lee is in line with Wills' own thoughts on the preservation of swing music.
"On the record, we open with an interview with Bob Wills in the early Sixties where he says, 'Western Swing is not what it was, but one of these days one of these young golden-voiced boys will come along and resurrect it and have a big hit with it,'" says Benson. "And, boom, we go right into Amos Lee's cut. That's what we're about."
Benson is amazed by the growing number of artists embracing Wills' type of music, as well as by his own band's 44-year longevity. "We've hung in there, and now we have generations of musicians who want to play this music. People ask why, and I say it's because it's very appealing. It's Americana — and not in the context of the Americana charts. The original word meant something [representing] the American art form."
Secor echoes that sentiment, and says true American music like Western swing is alive, kicking and hard to wrangle. Case in point, "Tiger Rag."
"'Tiger Rag' is no mere pussycat," Secor says. "She's a hillbilly hellcat, busted loose and ready to pounce."
For his part, Benson hopes the inclusion of artists like Old Crow and Nelson will help even more young people discover the genre via the Still the King album. He and Seifert are planning a Thirties-looking animated video for "Tiger Rag" and will utilize the web to promote the project.
"Mainstream radio and video won't play this stuff, so we're going to go to the Internet and the cloud," Benson says with a grin. "And since we have Willie Nelson on this record, we know exactly what kind of cloud it's going to be."