With Ray Benson on guitar and Lucky Oceans on steel guitar, AATW added some impressive talents along the way, among them vocalist Chris O’Connell, pianist Floyd Domino and singer-songwriter Leroy Preston. With two albums under their belt, they took up residency in Austin, Texas in 1974 as that city underwent a musical renaissance spearheaded by Willie Nelson. Five years with Capitol Records brought five well-received albums, their first hit singles and their first Grammy.
But after seven albums in seven years, they would have only two in five years after signing with MCA in 1980. Many longtime bandmembers moved on, leaving only Benson and O’Connell from the original band. Newcomers included jazz vocalist Maryann Price, formerly of Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks, and Bobby Black, who’d played steel with Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen. Expanding the music’s scope on Framed (1980), “Midnight In Memphis” reflected a Stax soul groove. Big band swing infused “Slow Dancin’” (sung by Price) and Benson’s “Cool As A Breeze.” O’Connell let fly on Loretta Lynn’s hit “You Wanna Give Me A Lift” and Bonnie Raitt guest-vocalized on “Lonely Avenue Revisited.”
Their 1985 self-titled album marked a return to straight-ahead Western Swing. Along with “Switchin’ In The Kitchen,” “Liar’s Moon” and Wills’s “Deep Water” (featuring Junior Brown on steel guitar), they recorded the traditional “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and Willie Nelson’s “Write Your Own Song” as a duet with him. Their version of John Hiatt’s “This Is The Way We Make A Broken Heart” predated Rosanne Cash’s chart-topping 1987 rendition. “Across The Alley From The Alamo” reflected both the Mills Brothers, who had the original 1947 hit, and Wills, who covered it twice.
Over time, AATW have become the standard-bearer for Western Swing, with their Grammy-winning 1999 Ride With Bob tribute album an acclaimed and best-selling hit. If Wills And His Texas Playboys epitomized the First Coming of Western Swing, there’s little doubt Asleep At The Wheel’s success personifies the Second.