February 2004

Asleep at the Wheel - Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo
Shout! Factory CD - DK 31133
Released: 2003

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

I’ll acknowledge three factors up front that could bias me with regard to the new Asleep at the Wheel (AATW) CD Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo. One: When very young, I had guitar lessons with the same teacher as AATW bandleader and lead singer Ray Benson, and Ray’s kid brother was in my elementary-school class. Two: I have no particular liking of Texas swing, the genre for which AATW is famous. Three: I do not subscribe to the discredited but popular notion that it is America’s manifest destiny to dominate all possible territories -- an unacknowledged assumption often underlying gung-ho views of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War.

That first, of course, could breed jealousy as well as pride of association: My folk-music performing career, a sideline to my full-time work, is a sputtering candle, not a bright light like Ray’s. The second -- well, this disc contains songs of several genres and, anyway, AATW does Texas swing astonishingly well. The third? AATW’s sophisticated treatment of the many fine songs here blends self-effacing humor with chauvinism, diluting the latter with the former. Bottom line: I dig it!

Track one is a predictable choice: a famous Alamo song with the standard chauvinistic bent, the Kingston Trio and Donovan hit "Remember the Alamo": "A hundred and eighty were challenged by Travis to die / With a line that he drew with his sword when the battle was nigh. / … Hey, up, Santa Ana, we’re killin’ your soldiers below / So all of Texas will know and remember the Alamo." Among the other best-known cuts: "Green Leaves of Summer," "Ballad of the Alamo," "Ballad of Davy Crockett," and "Yellow Rose of Texas."

If the humor sneaks in early with over-the-top musical touches reminiscent of retro cowboy movies, it gallops in on the backs of later tracks "Across the Alley from the Alamo" and "Don’t Go There." "Alley" begins, "Across the alley from the Alamo / Lived a pinto pony and a Navajo / Who sang a sort of Indian hi-de-ho / To the people passin’ by. / The pinto spent his time a-swishin’ flies / While the Navajo watched the lazy sky…." From "swishin’, not a-lookin’" one day while walking down the railroad track, "they never came back."

"Don’t Go There," by Benson and AATW drummer David Sanger, commemorates the historic moment when a drunk Ozzy Osbourne blasphemed by "going" on a wall of the Alamo. "I don’t know if the guy was drinkin’ beer, / Jack, or Beam -- it’s not exactly clear, / But when he whipped it out, / The ghost of Travis gave a shout, / Whose message all good Texans still can hear: / Don’t go there, don’t go there, / You really shouldn’t go there, / It’s a source of Texas pride -- hell, John Wayne died inside!" And on from there! It’s an extremely clever, well-crafted, wonderfully performed song, with many clever touches, including a spoken trailer imitating Osbourne giving his account of the event.

The main feature that usually causes Texas swing and some other genres not to grab me is one that many people highly esteem: smoothness. I like Bob Dylan’s singing more than Frank Sinatra’s, Elvis Costello’s more than Tony Bennett’s, Bonnie Raitt’s more than Barbara Streisand’s. I gravitate toward material that "pushes" the social or political "envelope," and a rougher-edged voice is more suited to that task. That’s not for everyone, though, and obviously smooth singing offers much delight.

Benson, a fine singer, is not only smooth but has wonderfully subtle rhythm and timing -- a master of his art in the best sense of the word. The players in the band work with him, not against him. The arrangements never drown him out or obscure the lyrics. And so much variety comes into play without disrupting the unity of the songs that listening to this disc becomes an engaging journey, not only through time but also through sound. Thus, there is every reason for Asleep at the Wheel to, as Benson declared, "fight to the last man to save Texas swing" -- and for millions to enjoy listening as the battles rage.