- - Monday, March 9, 2015

This is a tough night to be a country music fan in the D.C. area as guitar slinger Eric Church rocks the faithful at the Verizon Center.

Expect Mr. Church to dazzle fans with what he calls his “face-shredding” guitar wizardry, then slow it down and play some acoustic ballads that show off the beauty of his work, including songs on his much-lauded latest album, “The Outsiders,” which he described as Metallica meets outlaw country.

Asleep at the Wheel is in town, too, and its latest album, “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys,” have made the band members the new cool kids.

Calling the Ray Benson-led band “newcomers” is as incredible as when music fans mistakenly thought Paul McCartney was a Kanye West discovery. Asleep at the Wheel has been around more than 40 years and won nine Grammy Awards for their Western swing music that is a world apart from the sound of Mr. Church and other Nashville hit makers.

The last time I spoke with the Texas-based Mr. Benson, he wasn’t overly familiar with the current Nashville scene. That’s understandable. Texas music, especially Western swing and the like, is its own brand of country.

Few bands are more tethered to their distinctive sound and Lone Star state heritage than Asleep at the Wheel.

It wasn’t always that way. Mr. Benson and co-founder Leroy Preston were making music inspired by Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen when Willie Nelson caught a show. Mr. Nelson praised the band during a Rolling Stone interview and urged the men to move to Texas and get into that music scene.

Since that fateful time in the 1970s, the band has played a mix of Western swing, jazz, boogie and even classic Doc Watson-style songs.

Mr. Benson said he knew many young music fans aren’t familiar with his music.

“To me, I’m just blessed for this long run, and our music is better than ever,” he said without a trace of bitterness. “Artistically and commercially, we have been very blessed. I, personally, have been very fortunate to play music all my life.”

Well, credit Mr. Nelson and other Asleep at the Wheel fans for making sure the band keeps rolling along.

Mr. Benson was joined on the new album by country legends Mr. Nelson, Merle Haggard and George Strait, as well as major contemporary artists such as Brad Paisley, Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson, and bluegrass and Americana fan favorites The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Old Crow Medicine Show, Kat Edmonson, Robert Earl Keen and Tommy Emmanuel.

“After 45 years of traveling and playing, it still amazes me how well this music, born in the 1920s and ‘30s, thrives in the present day,” said Mr. Benson. “The artists playing and singing on this collection range in age from folks in their 20s to former Texas Playboys 92-year-old Billy Briggs and 86-year-old Leon Rausch [which provides] certain evidence that Western swing music is alive and well as it cruises through the next millennium.”


What: Asleep at the Wheel with The Quebe Sisters

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, Virginia

Info: Tickets are $35 each; call 703/549-7500 or visit TheBirchmere.com

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