On Aug. 25, 1970, Asleep at the Wheel played their first gig, opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper in Washington, D.C. The Wheel played country standards “Cocaine Blues” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—as straight as a band could be with a long-haired, barefoot guitarist standing 6-foot-7. One young singer, Chris O’Connell, was so enthralled seeing the Wheel open for the country-rock outfit Poco at American University, she followed the band back to Paw Paw and became its female vocalist.
“All of a sudden we had a big band that was really good,” Benson said.
The band took off for East Oakland, California, in 1971 and immediately gained a following, sharing a manager and club dates with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and bills with the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Soon, a young jazz-trained pianist from Berkeley hired on after a one-song audition. He then changed his name from Jim Haber to Floyd Domino.
Benson and Willie Nelson on Nelson’s bus in 2009. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
With an opportunity to back up mainstream country acts, the hippie country outfit got serious, cutting their hair and donning Western suits to play with the likes of Stoney Edwards, a Black honky-tonk singer on Capitol Records. Around that time, the band went to Nashville to record its first album. “We wanted to be a country band,” Preston said. “We didn’t want to be lumped with New Riders of the Purple Sage or the Flying Burrito Brothers.”
Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was produced by Tommy Allsup, the Texan who had played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Allsup brought in fiddler Johnny Gimble, another Playboys alumnus. The Wheel’s version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became the star of their reinvention of Western swing and got the band touring in Texas.
“The audience in Texas knew our music as roots rather than fad,” Preston said.
Up until then, Wills’ music had been only a small part of the band’s repertoire. But the Wheel added twin fiddlers in California, and in 1973, Benson and the band saw Wills at a Dallas studio during the recording of the Texas Playboys’ album For the Last Time. A formal introduction planned for the next day didn’t happen; Wills had a stroke that night and never recovered.
The Wheel played venues like the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio; the Western Place in Dallas, where Willie Nelson showed up to introduce himself and jam with the band on stage; and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where they opened for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, this is heaven!’” Benson said of the crowd’s untethered enthusiasm.
The band moved to Austin in February 1973 at the urging of Nelson and Doug Sahm. It was an exciting time, when longhairs in cowboy hats were suddenly a thing. Most of the musicians on the Austin club scene—legends like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey—played rock, folk, or what was known around town as “progressive country.” The Wheel fit right in. “We were regressive country,” Benson laughed.
Nelson liked the band so much he had the Wheel open shows all over Texas. They were an ensemble of smart players with chops. O’Connell was a featured vocalist, along with Benson and Preston. Domino was the featured boogie-woogie instrumentalist. Upright bassist Tony Garnier and Domino would hold up fingers to represent which classic rhythm section they wanted to emulate during a particular instrumental break. Benson developed a crisp swing-guitar style on his big-bodied Epiphone, which melded seamlessly with fiddles and Oceans’ steel guitar.