Country Jukebox Jury LPs: Asleep at the Wheel and Sturgill Simpson

Asleep At The Wheel – Half a Hundred Years

Since 1969, Ray Benson has employed almost 100 hired hands in his quest to keep Western Swing in the musical sphere. It is a selfless and altruistic aim which has gained him a cult following; Van Morrison was an early supporter, while Willie Nelson did a whole album with them in 2009 called Willie and the Wheel. The band have also brought out two sets of Bob Wills interpretations, acknowledging the King of Western Swing.

Their new project is a mix of old and new, making it the closest thing to an Asleep At The Wheel live show. The old include: their very first single Take Me Back To Tulsa (‘I’m too young to marry!!’), which here features George Strait and Willie Nelson; The Letter That Johnny Walker Read, their biggest hit; the charming Bump Bounce Boogie, first recorded in 1975; a version of the Bob Wills classic Spanish Two Step, which includes the original Playboys Jesse Ashlock and fiddler Johnny Gimble; and a pair originally recorded in 1976, Miles and Miles of Texas (where Austin is praised as ‘the cradle of the West) and Route 66.

The title track opens the set with Ray singing ‘I’ve been round the bend!’ and namechecking ‘Buck and Merle’, as well as Willie, to the accompaniment of horns, piano and some neat guitar fretwork. As ever, it’s fun and gets the toes tapping. Ditto Miles and Miles of Texas, which is music to be played by anyone wanting a good time and praises Austin, ‘the cradle of the West’ and my cousin’s new home city.

Ray has gotten the band back together to celebrate the half-century. It’s The Same Old South and My Little Baby (with a self-referential line about girls crying as if it’s a country song!) has warm vocals from a woman who was part of the group in its early days, Chris O’Connell. Old timer LeRoy Preston sings on three of his own tunes: the laid-back and sombre Paycheck to Paycheck; The Photo, which sounds like country music from the 1950s; and the excellent I Do What I Must.

Lyle Lovett, a fellow Texan musician, helps Ray out on the bouncy Benson composition There You Go Again. Willie and the great Emmylou Harris adds her wonderful voice to album closer The Road Will Hold Me Tonight, a waltz supreme where the trio of voices mesh delightfully.

Other highlights on an album smattered with marvellous melodies and the usual virtuosity include Word to the Wise, where Ray and Bill Kirchen (‘these two hicks’) trade quips before Bill pops up to sing his self-penned set of morals. That’s How I Remember It has grand piano chords and a self-consciously classic melody and lyric about holding memories in your hands.

On the other hand, I Love You Most of All (When You’re Not Here) sounds exactly like you think it does, a proper jive of a tune (with a few bars of saxophone solo) when absence truly makes the heart grow fonder (‘I think it’s time to wander!!).

Ray Benson, it occurs to me, is the American equivalent of Jools Holland. It is crazy that the whole of America isn’t in thrall to Ray (the leading Jewish light in American swing music) the way Jools’ Rhythm and Blues Orchestra are a Christmas institution today. Hootenanny!!

Sturgill Simpson – The Ballad of Dood and Juanita

Slipped out with very little fanfare, country maverick Sturgill has popped out a concept album which, if rumours are to be believed, completes his career catalogue of five albums. In recent years he has made a straight-ahead rock album and two volumes of bluegrass versions of his country catalogue, while becoming an independently minded star who accompanied Chris Stapleton on guitar on a Saturday Night Live performance thanks to their mutual friend, producer Dave Cobb. (Find the review of Cuttin’ Grass: Volume 1 here: https://countrywol.com/2020/10/23/country-jukebox-jury-sturgill-simpson-and-jeremy-ivey/)

Co-produced by Sturgill with David Ferguson, the album opens with a military drum beat and whistling, introducing an old-fashioned tale, set in ’29 (1829 or 1929, I suppose each can apply), set in ‘the old Kentucky hills’ about Dood, ‘son of a mountain miner’, and his ‘one true love’ Juanita.

Over 28 minutes, we get banjos, fiddles, block harmonies and Sturgill’s fabled Appalachian tenor voice. After two albums where he reinvented his rock songs as bluegrass music, Sturgill takes us on a cinematic voyage of sound. The meet-cute is described in the song One in the Saddle, One on the Ground, where it’s revealed the pair create two children, Dood was ‘working the plough far away from his rifle’ but couldn’t stop the bandit knocking him out (‘Dood crumpled down’) and Juanita snatched. He leaves his children ‘till Daddy returns’. Thus we have a bardic quest, accompanied by bluegrass instrumentation including harmonica, fiddle and bass.

Dood’s horse Shamrock and his dog Sam both get their own song in the tradition of hundreds of old songs describing the American West. The horse ‘stood about 19 hands’ and there’s even the jaw’s harp boinging away and some coconut percussion in the mix, while the banjo solo serves to move the narrative along and keeps the mood focussed on the quest. Sam, however, doesn’t survive the journey and there’s a funereal a cappella song to underline that ‘the runt of the litter’ was ‘wonder of all walkers’.

Between those odes is the song Played Out, a slow song in 12/8 time full of prayers to the Lord: ‘Don’t let this journey be all in vain’, Dood sings of his woe, sagging on his horse with ‘shoulders throbbing’ at a high vantage point to try and spot the dastardly bandit.  

As for the Tejano-flavoured Juanita, Willie Nelson joins in to further reach back into the past (bear in mind he is 88 years old) and provide support for Sturgill’s narrator, who reminisces about their love: ‘You are the ocean, I am a grain of sand’. Go In Peace starts with a bluegrass hoedown and tells of a meeting with a blind Native American chief who, incredibly, now has possession of Juanita. So it must be 1829, as the Natives had been put in reservations by 1929 (GCSE History!).

In the third verse, the pair are reunited (hence the hoedown) and the military drumbeat returns to send them on their way, as Dood and the bandit, Seamus McClure, meet for a showdown. This time, of course, Dood has his rifle and he ‘let that iron ball fly free’. He doesn’t kill him first time but, tomahawk in hand, makes sure of it the second. They all lived happily ever after, though I hope the kids didn’t create too much mayhem back on the homestead.

The fact that an award-nominated star can put this record out in 2021 gives me hope for independently minded music.

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