full circle with joshua bell

joshua bell.

joshua bell.

Peruse the specifics regarding Joshua Bell’s performance tonight with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and you will discover how everything – from the artist to the program to the very performance setting – is linked.

First, consider the pairing – one of the world’s most celebrated classical violinists collaborating with a student orchestra full of players roughly the age Bell was when the Indiana native made his performance debut in some of the most prestigious concerts halls in the world.

“I enjoy being around young people who are sort of at the cusp of a musical career,” said the Grammy, Mercury, Gramophone and Avery Fisher Prize winning Bell. “I enjoy being around that sort of enthusiasm. I feel at that stage they are still ready to soak things in and learn. They have a real love of music which one should have throughout one’s life.

“I spend most of my time playing with professional orchestras, and that can be wonderful, too. But there are times where you get the sense that most professional orchestras are doing it precisely as a profession. Sometimes it feels like you don’t get the same sense of youthful enthusiasm of a student orchestra. My point is I enjoy being around young people. I’ve had 30 years of touring and making music professionally. Hopefully, some of that wisdom might be able to rub off on them.”

Next consider the work that will feature Bell tonight, Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, a piece that has long been an integral part of the violinist’s performance repertoire. In fact, Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut playing the concerto with the St. Louis Symphony. That was in 1985, when Bell was 17.

“I’ve played the piece since I was 12 years old. It was also the first concerto I ever recorded, when I was 18. But I wouldn’t even dare listen to those recordings now. I approached the piece so differently. That’s the wonderful thing about these great classics, it’s that you grow with them. The way you look at the piece just changes. The greater the piece, the more depth there is to find. Even though Bruch not the kind of household name as a Beethoven or a Brahms, this particular piece is really up there with the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, as well as the really great pieces in the repertoire.

“But as you keep looking at a piece, you find different nuances. You look at a phrase and realize that it means something a little bit different than you had thought of before. It’s really a wonderful thing about classical music.”

Curiously, one of those early recordings of the Bruch concerto links Bell directly to the here and now. It was cut in 1988 with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the reknown British orchestra Bell today leads as Music Director. The only other person to hold that title was Sir Neville Marriner, whose served as conductor for the 1988 recording.

“It’s probably been the most important musical experience for me of the last 20 years,” Bell said of his work with the orchestra. “It’s really taught me a lot about leadership, about how to articulate musical ideas and how to show them as a conductor. It’s also taught me how to look at music in a far deeper way because I’m so apt to be involved on a deeper level with every instrument in the orchestra. It’s made me a better musician, for sure, so I’m incredibly grateful.

“Also, it’s expanded my repertoire. Getting to do Beethoven symphonies, like the Eroica Symphony or the Fifth Symphony… these are pieces I’ve known my whole life, but it’s a dream to get to really interpret them. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Joshua Bell performs with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Tickets are $45-$85. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to http://finearts.uky.edu/singletary-center.

critic’s pick 268: joe pug, ‘windfall’

joe pug windfall“I can see it in the whites of your eyes if you’re in it to survive.”

Such is the affirmation offered by Joe Pug during the title tune of his fine new Windfall album. Sure, the song might seem like a survivalist anthem to some, especially given the more jagged folk turns of his two previous albums (and, to a lesser extent, the pair of EP discs preceding them that complete his discography). But breathe all of Windfall in and you’re hit by two things: an overall hopeful narrative character and a matured, more complete musical backdrop that a few Lexington hands had a say in.

A Maryland native now working out of Austin, Tx., Pug has been a tireless touring artist over the past six years both on his town and as opening act for songsmiths like Steve Earle. Onstage as well as on record he came across as an earnest Americana folkie fighting to contain the heartland rocker within. Perhaps that’s why so many songs on his last album, 2012’s The Great Despiser, seemed to follow folk intuition, especially in their more reflective moments, but suggested a Dylan-esque (or even Earle-esque) combustibility.

That doesn’t mean things boil over on Windfall. In fact, all 10 songs reveal a far warmer cast than The Great Despiser. But the new record is more musically realized thanks to the dexterity shown within basic tracks by his touring band (especially guitarist Greg Tuohey and bassist Matt Schuessler) as well as a crew of Lexington pros brought in by producer Duane Lundy, who recorded Windfall locally at his Shangr-La Productions studio. The local guest list includes pedal steel guitarist Tom Hnatow and percussionist Emily Hagihara along with expatriate vocalist/song stylist Mark Charles Heidinger (better known to indie audiences as Vandeveer) and Louisville violinist/songstress Cheyenne Mize.

The two band approach never sounds busy. In fact, it presents an elegiac, electric vitality to The Measure and the far more plaintive Pair of Shadows. Another guest, Wilco’s Pat Sansone, adds a touch of mellotron to If Still It Can’t Be Found’s elegant but bittersweet orchestration (“If still it can’t be found, it’s probably for the best”).

But the unhurried solemnity of Pug’s songs quietly drives Windfall. The lyrics to the record’s highlight tune, Great Hosannas, are recited with almost deadpan urgency as echoing percussion, piano and beautifully arid harmonica sweep about Pug’s singing like a twister. It’s a four minute stroll through an ambient folk purgatory reflective of Joe Henry’s late ‘90s records

Patch this fascinating, artful quilt of songs and sounds together and you have the full arrival of a Texas talent solidifying his identity with some loving, local help.

in performance : rhiannon giddens

rhiannon giddens.

rhiannon giddens.

“Please continue to make noise whenever you want,” remarked Rhiannon Giddens four songs into her astonishing Opera House performance earlier tonight.

The call came in response to the singer’s transportive delivery of She’s Got You, the Hank Cochran country classic and a decades-old hit for Patsy Cline. As was the case for much of this extraordinary evening, Giddens took the tune to another country altogether. Her band – the current line-up of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the African-American string band responsible for much of Giddens’ previous visibility, plus a rhythm section and backing vocalist – reimagined the song with an earthier, swampier sway. But the singer’s gorgeously clean and complete intonation underscored the lyrics’ inherent torch song legacy.

Similarly potent was Waterboy, popularized initially by folk giant Odetta, but delivered by Giddens with a field holler intensity that sounded in no way revivalistic. Her vocal command was pure, involving and beautifully immediate.

The scope of the setlist was remarkable, as well. With 8 of the 11 songs from Giddens’ debut album Tomorrow is My Turn serving as its centerpiece, the show opened with a pair of tunes (Spanish Mary and Hidee Hidee Ho #16) from Lost on the River, a 2014 collaborative album credited to The New Basement Tapes that fashioned new music for unpublished Bob Dylan lyrics (or, as Giddens described them tonight, “a couple of songs I wrote with Bob Dylan in the ‘60s”). The program concluded 90 minutes later with two works by gospel-charged rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, including the powerfully jubilant Up Above My Head.

The Chocolate Drops had their say, too, from the jagged cello lines of Malcolm Parson (essentially the lead instrumental voice within the band’s all-acoustic makeup) to multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins’ ultra-funky vocal charge on Blind Willie Johnson’s Can’t Nobody Hide from God to the Celtic-Appalachian chatter of bones by Rowan Corbett that peppered the rich roots intensity of Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man? to Giddens’ own turns on banjo and fiddle.

Fascinating as all that was, the evening belonged to Giddens the vocalist. In an age where pop singers are cranked out as auto-tuned celebrities with little or no personal investment in the material they interpret, Giddens is a gift. There was no fabrication or forced intent in her delivery. What was on display tonight was the performance of an artist on the cusp of a true critical and commercial breakthrough with a voice that was regal, confident and, at every turn, breathtaking.

john renbourn, 1944-2015

john renbourn.

john renbourn.

John Renbourn was a guitarist of many worlds. Though rightly championed as a vanguard member of the British folk movement during the 1960s, he was a quietly restless journeyman that expanded the roles of jazz, blues, Eastern music and even shades of Baroque within a decidedly folk context.

As a result, his recordings were always rich and stylistically varied while his concerts, especially acoustic sessions done solo or as collaborations with pals from the seminal folk troupe Pentangle, were deceptively unassuming affairs.

During the ‘90s and ‘00s, when he performed as close as Newport and Covington with Pentangle mates Bert Jansch and Jacqui McShee, he presented no airs. He possessed enough technique and stylistic dexterity to teach a master class on guitar history. But his delivery was always relaxed and conversational, a blend of folk traditions laced with the casual improvisational command of a jazz scholar.

Renbourn died on March 26 at the age of 70 in Scotland from a heart attack. He was scheduled to perform in concert that evening.

He leaves behind an extraordinary catalogue of music, from mid ‘60s duet albums with Jansch (who died in 2011) to groundbreaking blends of folk, blues and jazz cut with Pentangle during a wildly prolific run between 1968 and 1973 to a host of exemplary projects under his own name that shifted from the Renaissance flavor of 1970’s Lady and the Unicorn to the world music slant of 1981’s Grammy nominated Live in America.

Especially recommended are the extraordinary 1966 folk/blues set Jack Orion (with Jansch), Pentangle’s breathtaking half live/half studio 1968 opus Sweet Child and 1971’s folk-refined Faro Annie. The latter remains, arguably, Renbourn’s finest solo record.

A burly man with an impish smile and an audience-friendly demeanor, Renbourn was never so outward with his talent that he could be considered a celebrity, especially since his career largely bypassed rock ‘n’ roll. But make no mistake. Last week, a guitar giant left us.

the arrival of rhiannon

rhiannon giddens.

rhiannon giddens.

As it turns out, the title could not have been more prophetic – Tomorrow is My Turn.

It’s a song penned decades ago by Charles Aznavour and popularized by the incomparable Nina Simone. But this spring it serves as the title tune to the debut solo album of Rhiannon Giddens. That this co-founding member of the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and, more recently, the all-star New Basement Tapes, adds a luster to the tune worthy of Simone is almost beside the point. It represents the arrival of an exact, complete and powerfully regal voice.

“All of this has been a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest with you, but not necessarily an unwelcome one,” said Giddens, who performs Tuesday at the Lexington Opera House. “I was gearing up to work on the next Chocolate Drops record when all of this happened. It’s taken some time to get used to. But I just feel like after 10 years in the Chocolate Drops and continuing on with that mission as I am, it’s time for this.

“I’m just so much about the music, and the music is getting out there. This album seems to be reaching a wider audience than the Chocolate Drops albums have. That makes me happy because it means that maybe this expansion is working.”

Expansion is the key word. Over the past decade with the Chocolate Drops, Giddens has explored the roots music repertoire of African-American string bands from the 1920s and ‘30s. The band’s recordings featured Giddens’ talents as an instrumentalist as much or more than as a singer. But on Tomorrow is My Turn, her vocal talents are placed front and center on tunes penned or popularized by Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Odetta, Patsy Cline, Elizabeth Cotton and Kentucky’s own Jean Ritchie. She also concludes the record with an original work, a gorgeous song of renewal called Angel City.

“I’ve always been a singer who has played instruments, and I am okay with the fact that my singing was secondary to what the Chocolate Drops were trying to do,” Giddens said. “I really feel strongly in that mission. But it has been really neat to let my voice fly a little bit. What I’ve always been is a singer, so it’s good to have a solo record out there representing artists that I respect so much.

“The whole reason I wanted to do this was to honor to these women who had come before me. It just seemed right. Everybody who is on this record with me, I can hear in my head or I could be reading their stories and picking up on what they’re passing on. There is that feel of the knowledge of where I stand with these women. It’s all there.”

Giddens had a strong ally in her corner as she established her solo career – famed Americana producer T Bone Burnett. After inviting Giddens to his curated Another Day, Another Time concert (a 2013 performance at New York’s Town Hall dedicated to the ‘60s folk scene in Greenwich Village that inspired the Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis), Burnett signed on to produce Tomorrow is My Turn.

“When T Bone and I started off, he was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ I had a list of songs and he said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ It was very empowering, I think, and that is something he is very good at doing – creating the space so you can feel empowered. You may not know exactly that you can do it. He doesn’t make you do it. You have to do it. But he creates the space to let you bring your A-game.”

No sooner was the solo album complete than work on Lost on the River, the resulting recording of the New Basement Tapes project began. The collective teamed Giddens with Elvis Costello, Jim James (of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) and Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes) to create new music for unpublished 1967 lyrics by Bob Dylan.

‘That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. You take a box full of old Dylan lyrics, put it in one of the nicest studios in the country at Capitol Records with some of the best engineers in the world with four other incredible musicians and then go at it. It was just fantastic. Now, in the middle of it, I was freaking out a little. But I’m really proud of my contribution and feel like I learned so much. I’ll be using for years what I learned from that project.

“I feel like last year was a really important one for me with my first solo record and the New Basement Tapes. Those two projects will loom large in my career for a long time to come. It’s great, you know? But when all is said and done, for me, the most important thing is to feel the music is being treated right and that we’re getting it out to the people I want to get it out to. If that happens, I’m happy no matter what.”

Rhiannon Giddens and Bhi Bhiman perform at 7:30 p.m. March 31 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $25.50, $35.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

stevie wonder in the key of life

stevie wonder performs  'songs in the key of life' tonight in louisville. photo by chris pizzello (chris pizzello/invision/AP).

stevie wonder performs
‘songs in the key of life’ tonight in louisville. photo by chris pizzello (chris pizzello/invision/AP).

The prospect of a veteran pop act playing a career-defining album in its entirety as the focus of repertoire for a concert tour is nothing new. But outside of Roger Waters and his recently completed performance revival of the Pink Floyd epic The Wall, few artists have taken the album concert concept to an arena level.

Enter Stevie Wonder, 64, perhaps the most enduring and progressively minded artist from the golden age of Motown. Tonight, he makes an ultra-rare regional concert return with a KFC! Yum Center show built around a full performance of the album that served as the zenith of his commercial and creative visibility, 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life.

To appreciate the potency of the popularity behind Songs in the Key of Life, you have to consider the stylistic and artistic growth achieved by the four albums that preceded it. Those recordings – Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale – were cut and issued in whirlwind fashion between March 1972 and July 1974.

While Music of My Mind was the least commercially prominent of the pack, it redefined Wonder’s music with a modernized keyboard vocabulary (he performed nearly every instrument on the record) and compositions that shied away from Motown’s cherished pop soul formulas of the ‘60s in favor of a more contemporary funk and R&B groove. Talking Book and Innervisions quickly weaved a much stronger social urgency into the lyrics, yielding some of the most commanding hits of Wonder’s career (Superstition, Higher Ground and especially Living for the City). Fulfillingness’ First Finale was, by comparison, a cool, sophisticated exhale of a record.

Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year in 1974 and 1975. Songs in the Key of Life was given the same honor in 1977 after spending nearly three months atop the Billboard all-genre album chart and scoring four hits (including the charttoppers I Wish and Sir Duke).

Songs in the Key of Life had it all. Released as a double album with a bonus five-song EP, it contained some of Wonder’s brightest pop (typlified by the uber-popular radio smash Isn’t She Lovely, which, amazingly, was never released as an official single) as well some of his keenest social observations (as shown by the way-underrated Black Man, which was equal parts global anthem, history lesson and funk manifesto).

Tonight, it all comes to life onstage for the first time on a Kentucky stage. Forget the fact this music is nearly four decades old. Songs in the Key of Life will forever be in tune and of the times.

Stevie Wonder performs Songs in the Key of Life at 8 tonight at the KFC Yum! Center, 1 Arena Plaza in Louisville. $36.50-$144.50. Call (800) 745-3000 or go ticketmaster.com, kfcyumcenter.com.

critic’s pick 267: mark knopfler, ‘tracker’

trackerThe cover photo to Tracker largely sums up Mark Knopfler’s view of his own celebrity status. It depicts the guitarist in a field under a (presumably) summer sky. But he is standing so far in the distance as to be indistinguishable from the elements except for one detail. He has his back to the camera.

There are two clearer shots within the album notes. One looks like it is from Knopfler’s teen years. The other is a performance shot with Bob Dylan during the guitarist’s commercial heyday with Dire Straits, which means it’s around 30 years old. Pretty telling stuff, eh?

The music within is only modestly more revealing. There are snapshots from younger days, a few quintessentially British remembrances, novel-esque story songs and love reflections both mad and mournful. As for the white hot finger-picking that bolstered the Dire Straits sound of old… well, all that has caught the last coach out of town. On Tracker, guitar is used sparingly, along with the keyboards of longtime co-hort Guy Fletcher, to orchestrate rather than lead on the album’s 11 tunes (which jumps to 15 or 17 songs on various deluxe versions of the recording).

All of this probably makes Tracker sound like the work of a rocker who is more than a little long in the tooth. But at 65, Knopfler is something of a master craftsman when it comes to his songs. While Tracker may be the most clearly subdued record of his career, it also sounds like a million bucks – from the mix of Dave Brubeck-like swing and Northumbrian fancy on the youthful memoir Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes that opens the album to the lullaby-like duet Wherever I Go, sung with gorgeously subtle grace alongside Ruth Moody of the Wailin’ Jennies, that closes it.

In between are all kinds of exquisitely detailed but heavily understated delights. Broken Bones locks itself into the sort of steadfast blues groove that recalls the finer work of the late Okie song stylist J.J. Cale while Lights of Taormina fashions a Dylan-esque song structure to a neo-tropical groove. But the Celtic sway of Mighty Man, along with an ode to British poet Basil Bunting (Basil) whose curmudgeonly profile (“too old for the job, bored out of his mind”) could be viewed as a parallel to Knopfler’s, best typlifies Tracker’s lean beauty.

Then again, this is in no way a rock ‘n’ roll album. Those hoping for a reawakening of Dire Straits should wait for another train. Tracker is instead the work of an unapologetically grizzled pop journeyman, joyfully detached from rock stardom, who stills luxuriates in the construction of a good musical yarn and, even more so, the time it takes to share it.

in performance: asleep at the wheel

Asleep at the Wheel. Standing, from left: David Sanger, David Miller, Eddie Rivers, Jay Reynolds. Seated, from left: Emily Gimble, Ray Benson, Katie Shore. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

Asleep at the Wheel. Standing, from left: David Sanger, David Miller, Eddie Rivers, Jay Reynolds. Seated, from left: Emily Gimble, Ray Benson, Katie Shore. Photo by Wyatt McSpadden.

You could have had the worst Monday known to mankind and it would not have mattered, providing you were on hand earlier tonight as Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel turned the Lyric Theatre into a Lone Star dance hall.

Born not in its four decade old home of Austin but in rural West Virginia (“the suburbs of Paw Paw,” as Benson put it tonight), Asleep at the Wheel is a multi-generational ambassador of Western swing – a light, elegant but driving sound that blends the seemingly incongruous camps of country and jazz.

During its featured set tonight for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Benson remained the sheriff of swingtown as well as an ageless cheerleader for Asleep at the Wheel’s richly animated songs. But if anything defined the band’s country-jazz mash-up, it was the jubilant instrumental harmony created by clarinetist/saxophonist Jay Reynolds, fiddler Katie Shore and especially lap steel guitarist Eddie Rivers. All were spirited soloists, but when they combined forces on bright melody lines, the trio made Asleep at the Wheel sound like a full swing orchestra.

Then again, there were several instances when the band became exactly that. Once the Quebe Sisters (a fiddle trio from Fort Worth that played like swing scholars and sang like the Andrew Sisters) and their rhythm players joined in, the ensemble grew to a dozen players. That gave Western swing classics like Navajo Trail and Miles and Miles of Texas a huge, sweeping sound that enveloped the theatre.

The thrust of the performance was Still the King, Asleep at the Wheel’s third and newest tribute album to Texas swing patriarch Bob Wills. Benson has long been a natural for Wills’ fiddle-savvy music as well as its inherent sense of playfulness, which was expertly emphasized on the mischievous I Hear Ya Talkin’.

But not even the iconic Wills could contain Asleep at the Wheel’s massive sound. When Benson, Rivers and a monstrous blast of boogie-woogie piano from Emily Gimble ignited on Route 66 (along with giddy vocal tradeoffs from Benson, Gimble and Shore), the music became as big and robust as a Texas twilight.

bonus tracks : ray benson

ray benson.

ray benson.

Our featured story/post yesterday on Asleep at the Wheel dealt primarily with the band’s new Bob Wills tribute album Still the King. But founder and frontman Ray Benson had plenty more to say about his storied swing band.

On the musicians who inspired and helped him: “I was always helped by people coming up. Commander Cody was a good friend who helped us. Van Morrison got us our first notoriety, really. Without the help of people like that we wouldn’t have gotten to where we did. When we got to Austin, it was like we knew everybody. It was a small town then. It’s a big town now, though. It’s never been a competition, either. While we have been grateful to win a lot of awards, award shows also make me a little nervous because I don’t want to compete with my friends. I want to cooperate with them. I love working with other musicians.”

On Van Morrison: “We went to the Bay Area. Commander Cody helped us out there. We had this gig every Tuesday night. Van heard about it and said there was this great country band he had heard. He would come down and play with us and mentioned us to Rolling Stone magazine. That sent a flood of people from LA. He put us on a bunch of shows. Van is the man. He’s quite an artist. But that was a nice little kick in the butt. All of a sudden, this unknown little band had these people in LA looking for it.”

On the Austin, Tx. music community: “I’ve been in this town for 42 years, and it has always welcomed creative people and supported them – Janis Joplin and all those folks, rock bands, blues groups… Mother Earth, all those great bands. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys weren’t really an Austin band, but they certainly played here. So when I moved here, it was like a haven. Now, it’s grown considerably. You know, we have a thing here now called Health Alliance for Austin Musicians that gets health care for musicians who can’t afford it – health care and mental health care. We have a city council that supports the music community. We have hundreds of venues, small and large, that present music. I don’t think we could have done what we’ve done without the support of this town.”

On Asleep at the Wheel’s all-star alumni: “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Hey Ray. I actually met somebody today who didn’t play in Asleep at the Wheel. That’s amazing.’ But yeah, Bob Dylan’s bass player Tony Garnier, was with me in the ’70s. Larry Franklin, of course, has done all done all those sessions in Nashville. Junior Brown was in the band in the ‘80s. It’s just been an incredible bunch of people that I’ve been honored to play with.”

On his lengthy string of performances on The Late Show with David Letterman: “We’re hoping to fit that in again before he retires. That would be fun. There is a great place for music on that show, I’ll tell you what.

On what Lexington audiences can expect from Monday’s performance: “Listen, man. Wait till you see the band we’ve put together. I’ll let it be a surprise, but it will be pretty cool. Hang on, strap into your seat belts, get ready. We’re Asleep at the Wheel.”

Asleep at the Wheel performs for the 800th broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 7 p.m. March 23 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets are $20, $30. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.

hanging with swing king

ray benson.

ray benson.

The prospect of Asleep at the Wheel devoting an entire recording project to the music of Bob Wills seems more than inevitable. It is essentially business as usual.

For the better part of 45 years, founder, bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Ray Benson and a rotating arsenal of expert instrumentalists have been torch bearers for a brand of Western swing inspired by, along with numerous country and jazz influences, the sounds Wills and his famed Texas Playboys band created in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ’40s. Benson has cut two previous Wills tribute albums with the multi-Grammy winning Asleep at the Wheel. But for the new Still the King record, Benson wanted a fiddle driven Wills swing party that would defy the ages.

“The whole idea was you would have Asleep at the Wheel as the band along with every fiddle player under the sun,” said Benson, who brings the current Wheel gang to the Lyric Theatre on Monday for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. “We’re just trying to let people continue to experience the really great Bob Wills Western swing music.

As fiddlers go, Still the King has a bounty of them, including Lone Star sensation Carrie

Rodriguez. But that’s just the tip of guest list. The roster also enlists such country/Americana pros as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait and Lyle Lovett (all veterans of Asleep at the Wheel’s previous Wills tribute records) as well as a healthy lineup of stylistically varied new generation acts that includes Brad Paisley, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, The Devil Makes Three, Amos Lee and Kat Edmonson.

“That’s always been the purpose of these records – to get multi-generational support,” Benson said. “But we also wanted to get folks who haven’t had an opportunity to play real Western swing on a record to do that.

“We have people of five generations playing this music on this record, from one of the Quebe Sisters (the Fort Worth-based fiddle trio), who is 20 or 21 years old, right on up to Billy Briggs, one of the old Texas Playboys. He plays sax and is 92 years old.”

Just the King also chronicles one of the final recorded performances of Dawn Sears, vocalist for the all-star Nashville roots and swing troupe The Time Jumpers, who died from lung cancer in December. She and the entire Time Jumpers line-up join Asleep at the Wheel on Faded Love.

“Yeah, Dawn sang the bridge on Faded Love,” Benson said. “She just killed it. That was very sad. Of course, her husband Kenny was one of the fiddlers on the session along with Larry Franklin, my old fiddle player. There was me, Ranger Doug (from Riders in the Sky), (Louisiana fiddler) Joe Spivey, (former Asleep at the Wheel vocalist) Elizabeth McQueen. Jason (Roberts), our old fiddler, plays and sings, too. There were so many people. Ah, what a session. It’s as beautiful a version of Faded Love as you’ll hear and it’s done in the style of, I think, the most modern Western swing music.

“Then you hear the Old Crow Medicine Show (which performs the classic Tiger Rag) and you have the most basic raw version of Western swing. We’ve got this incredible array of styles and music.”

But what about Benson himself? As practiced as he is in the ways of such continually influential swing, are there elements of Wills’ music that continue to surprise and inspire?

“Absolutely. Every night. I think one of the things the audiences don’t realize – well, hopefully they do – is that this is improvisational music. So every night, I sing it a little different. I play my solos a lot different. Within the framework of the song, you get to jam quite a bit. So improvisation is not only fun for a musician, it also keeps you from being bored.

“Every night, you have to impress the people you’re playing with, impress yourself and, hopefully, entertain the audience.”

Asleep at the Wheel performs for the 800th broadcast of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at 7 p.m. March 23 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets are $20, $30. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.

Come back tomorrow to The Musical Box for more of our interview with Ray Benson.

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