Asleep at the Wheel landed a gig opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in Washington, DC in 1970. At the height of Vietnam, many Americans were using their choice of music to express their stance on the conflict in southeast Asia. "We wanted to break that mold," said Benson. "We were concerned more with this amazing roots music, which we felt was being lost amid the politics. We were too country for the rock folks and we were too long-haired for the country folks. But everybody got over it once the music started playing."
A year later, they were coaxed into moving to California by Commander Cody, leader of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. But, the band’s big break came when Van Morrison mentioned them in an interview with Rolling Stone "there's some relatively unknown group around that I really dig. Asleep at the Wheel, they play great country music." Van Morrison Rolling Stone Interview (1973). The record offers started coming in and The Wheel got rolling.
The musicianship of Asleep at the Wheel has become the stuff of legends. Reuter’s pegged The Wheel as "one of the best live acts in the business." Taking a page from Bob Wills’ book, the band has constantly toured at a national level throughout its history; with anywhere from 7-15 of the finest players Ray Benson could talk into jumping in the bus to play a string of dates. The alumni roster is well over 80+ members, and includes an impressive list of musicians who have gone on to perform with artists such as Bob Dylan, George Strait, Van Morrison, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams, and many more. A quick scan of awards, such as "Touring Band of the Year" (CMAs, 1976) and "Lifetime Achievement in Performance" (Americana Music Awards 2009), not to mention near dominance of the GRAMMY "Country Instrumental" category over the years, reflects the reputation of the band’s musicianship. Ray Benson fell in love with western swing because of its unique combination of elements of American blues, swing and traditional fiddling but also for its demanding musical chops. Western swing is what Benson calls "jazz with a cowboy hat," is a thrill to hear live, and thanks in large part to the Wheel’s 40+ years of promotion, is a living and creative genre of music today.
In the tightknit musical community of Austin, Texas, it’s tough to get away with posturing. You either bring it, or you don’t.
If you do, word gets around. And one day, you find yourself duetting with Bonnie Raitt, or standing onstage with the Allman Brothers at New York’s Beacon Theater and trading verses with Susan Tedeschi. You might even wind up getting nominated for a Best Blues Album Grammy — four times. And those nominations would be in addition to your seven Blues Music Awards, three Austin Music Awards, the Grand Prix du Disque award from the Académie Charles-Cros in France, a Living Blues Critics’ Award for Female Blues Artist of the Year, and the title of an “inspiring American Artist” as a United States Artists 2018 Fellow.
There’s only one Austinite with that résumé: Ruthie Foster. The small rural town of Gause, TX had no chance of keeping the vocal powerhouse known as Ruthie Foster to itself. Described by Rolling Stone as “pure magic to watch and hear,” her vocal talent was elevated in worship services at her community church. Drawing influence from legendary acts like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, Foster developed a unique sound unable to be contained within a single genre. That uniqueness echoes a common theme in Ruthie’s life and career - marching to the beat of her own drum.
Joining the Navy was one way for Ruthie to stake out her own path. It was during her time singing for the Navy band Pride that her love for performing became apparent. After leaving the service, Ruthie signed a development deal with Atlantic Records and moved to New York City to pursue a career as a professional musician.
A deal with a major label would seem to be a dream come true for a budding artist. But the label wanted Ruthie to hand over her authenticity in exchange for being molded into a pop star. In another bold move, she walked away from the deal and returned to her roots, moving back to the Lone Star State.
Returning to Texas, Ruthie solidified her place as an up-and-coming singer/songwriter and began a musical partnership with Blue Corn Music. Her studio albums for the label began with "Runaway Soul" in 2002, followed by "The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster" in 2007, "The Truth According to Ruthie Foster" in 2009, "Let It Burn" in 2012, "Promise of a Brand New Day" in 2014 and "Joy Comes Back" in 2017. Her live shows, which she has referred to as a “hallelujah time,” have been documented on the album “Stages" in 2004 and the CD/DVD release “Ruthie Foster Live at Antone’s" in 2011.
Ruthie’s latest Grammy nominated album "Live at the Paramount", released on May 15, 2020, swings back to the days (and nights) when Lady Ella sang Ellington and Sinatra blasted off with Count Basie and Quincy Jones. Recorded on the night of January 26, 2019 on the 105-year-old stage of Austin’s grand-dame Paramount Theater, it features the Ruthie Foster Big Band: a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist and drummer, plus 10 horn players, three backing vocalists and one conductor. As Ruthie wraps her oh-so-malleable, impeccably nuanced voice around each song, the wisdom of her selections, the strength of each arrangement, their near-seamless flow and the outstanding talent of her band converge into yet another reminder that Foster’s artistry really is in a league of its own.
Carsie Blanton writes anthems for a world worth saving. Inspired by artists including Nina Simone and Randy Newman, her songs encompass a wide range of genres, from sultry pop to punk-tinged Americana. Whether alone with her electric guitar or fronting her four-piece “handsome band,” Carsie delivers every song with an equal dose of moxie and mischief, bringing her audience together in joyful celebration of everything worth fighting for.
Born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1954, Grammy winning singer songwriter and multi- instrumentalist Tim O’Brien grew up singing in church and in school. After seeing Doc Watson on TV, became a lifelong devotee of old time and bluegrass music. Tim started touring nationally in 1978 with Colorado bluegrass band Hot Rize. His songs “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories” were bluegrass hits for Hot Rize, and country hits for Kathy Mattea. Soon more artists like Nickel Creek, Garth Brooks, and The Dixie Chicks covered his songs. Over the years, Tim has collaborated with his sister Mollie O’Brien, songwriter Darrell Scott, and noted old time musician Dirk Powell, as well as with Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler, Dan Auerbach and Sturgill Simpson.
Living in Nashville since 1996, O’Brien’s skills on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo make him an in demand session player. He tours throughout the US and abroad, most often with his partner Jan Fabricius on mandolin and vocals. His regular band includes Fabricius along with Mike Bub (bass) and Shad Cobb (fiddle). The International Bluegrass Music Association awarded him song of the year in 2006 and named him best male vocalist in 1993 and 2006. He was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2013. A voracious reader who loves to cook, he has two sons, Jackson (born 1982) and Joel (born 1990).
Notable O’Brien recordings include the bluegrass Dylan covers of “Red On Blonde”, the Celtic-Appalachian fusion of “The Crossing”, and the Grammy winning folk of “Fiddler’s Green”. His duet recording “Real Time” with Darrell Scott is a cult favorite, and he won a bluegrass Grammy as part of “The Earls Of Leicester”. His 2017 release “Where the River Meets the Road” paid tribute to the music of his native West Virginia. O’Brien formed his own record label, Howdy Skies Records, in 1999, and launched the digital download label Short Order Sessions (SOS) with his partner Jan Fabricius in 2015.
His new release “He Walked On” features eight new originals and five covers from R.B. Morris, Bill Caswell, Dale Keys, Yip Harburg, and mentor J.D. Hutchison. A rhythm section including drummer Pete Abbott and long-time bassist Mike Bub underpins contributions from fiddlers Shad Cobb and Justin Moses, bassist Edgar Mayer, gospel singer Odessa Settles, guitarist Bo Ramsey, keyboard player Mike Rojas, as well as vocals and mandolin from Jan Fabricius. Historical and socially conscious themes weave their way through songs about ordinary and not so ordinary people just trying to “keep it between the ditches”.
Leyla McCalla finds inspiration from her past and present, whether it is her Haitian heritage, living in New Orleans, dancing at Cajun Mardi Gras, or growing up on the streets in Brooklyn, she — a bi-lingual multi-instrumentalist, cellist and singer — has risen to produce a distinctive sound that reflects the union of her roots and experience.
Born in New York City to Haitian emigrant parents, Leyla was immersed in a meld of cultures from an early age. As a teenager, she relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years before returning to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Armed with Bach’s Cello Suites, Leyla left New York to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Singing in French, Haitian Creole, and English, and playing cello, tenor banjo and guitar, her move allowed her to connect more viscerally to historical Haitian Creole resilience and musical expression. She rose to fame during her two years as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, before leaving the group in 2013 left to pursue her solo career.
Deeply influenced by traditional Creole, Cajun and Haitian music, as well as by American jazz and folk, Leyla’s music is at once earthy, elegant, soulful and witty — it vibrates with three centuries of history, yet also feels strikingly fresh, distinctive and contemporary. Leyla’s debut album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, was named 2013’s Album of the Year by the London Sunday Times and Songlines for its haunting mixture of music and message. “Her voice is disarmingly natural, and her settings are elegantly succinct…her magnificently transparent music holds tidings of family, memory, solitude and the inexorability of time: weighty thoughts handled with the lightest touch imaginable,” wrote The New York Times. A limited release at the time, the album saw it’s re-release in October 2020 from Smithsonian Folkways Records, its topics only amplified by the year’s social and political unrest. “[The album] is an illuminating conversation between artists both past and present, and balm for the soul,” said Bandcamp.
Her album, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey (2016), continued to explore themes of social justice, and included guests Rhiannon Giddens, Marc Ribot, Louis Michot of Lost Bayou Ramblers and others. Through deeply felt originals and interpretations of traditional songs, the album depicts a diverse American experience and Leyla’s struggles with and acceptance of her own cultural identity
2019 saw the release of Leyla’s third solo album, The Capitalist Blues. With this record, Leyla processed the current political environment in her own way, by sonically blending New Orleans cajun, zydeco and Haitian jazz, with lyrics sung in English, French and Haitian Creole. The album “imaginatively maps her vision of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora while gently taking Anglocentricism (and capitalism) down a notch,” said NPR. “She’s partly in the moment and partly looking beyond it, and seeing truths that we’ve missed.”
Following her solo release came widely acclaimed collaborative project, Songs of Our Native Daughters (Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell), via Smithsonian Folkways. The album pulled influence from past sources to create a reinvented slave narrative, confronting sanitized views about America’s history of slavery, racism, and misogyny from a powerful, modern black female perspective.
Leyla’s current project, Breaking the Thermometer to Hide the Fever, tells the legacy of Radio Haiti, Haiti’s first privately owned Creole-speaking radio station, and the assassination of its owner through Leyla’s own Haitian-American lens. The multidisciplinary performance is set to her own original compositions and arrangements of traditional Haitian songs and is set to premiere next March at Duke University.
Leyla’s work unearthing history and musical tradition, combined with her knowledge of cultural hybridization and her own identity as a Haitian-American has given her an entirely unique voice & perspective. Her music reflects her eclectic and diverse life experiences, projecting a respect for eloquent simplicity that is rarely achieved.
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