Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Asleep at the Wheel [extended]

  • Comin' Right at Ya [United Artists, 1973] A-
  • Asleep at the Wheel [Epic, 1974] B
  • Texas Gold [Capitol, 1975] B+
  • Wheelin' and Dealin' [Capitol, 1976] B
  • The Wheel [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • Collision Course [Capitol, 1978] B-
  • Served Live [Capitol, 1979] C+
  • Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009] A
  • Half a Hundred Years [Bismeaux, 2021] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Comin' Right at Ya [United Artists, 1973]
Their coterie complains about flat recording and performance, but flatness is of the essence in Western swing, and the sly singing and positively underhanded songwriting here exploit it brilliantly. Beneath their unflappable veneer these country revisionists are seething subversives; it may even be that the protagonist of "Daddy's Advice" only plans his little murder to right a case of incest. Side one ends with a song of praise to a spaceship. Side two ends with a song of praise to the Son of God. A-

Asleep at the Wheel [Epic, 1974]
This band has stopped trying to straddle their original home, West Virginia, and their spiritual one, Berkeley. Now comes the straight country push, and just in case the straight country isn't buying fetching Western swing with a '70s accent, once or twice those fiddles even sound like strings. The losses, in sprightliness and fantasy and danger, aren't fatal. But why not just listen to Bob Wills? B

Texas Gold [Capitol, 1975]
If honest country music is what we need, then the mildly satiric mood of this is a blow for truth, especially considering the compromises of their second LP. But when I consider the matter-of-fact suffering and brutality of the first one, I conclude once again that honesty ought to go further than a commitment to good sound and good sounds. B+

Wheelin' and Dealin' [Capitol, 1976]
Now that its musicianship and production values are established, the album quality of this excellent but marginal band will depend mostly on the song quality. Except for "Miles and Miles of Texas," this LP singles out no really striking nonoriginals, and Leroy Preston, touring hard of late, contributes only two new ones. B

The Wheel [Capitol, 1977]
I began by wondering what unsuspecting big band had provided the horn riff on "Am I High?" and ended by wondering whether they'd made it up themselves, as with so much that is good on this group's most satisfying post-debut. By now the songwriting has become almost straight; you might conceivably find "Somebody Stole His Body" on a white gospel album or "My Baby Think's She's a Train" on a Sun outtake. The distance that remains comes across as healthy, good-humored respect, especially for banality, which with this band often turns into dumb eloquence, as on the love song "I Can't Handle It Now." Inspirational Verse: "In French Baton Rouge might mean red stick/But to me it means broken heart." A-

Collision Course [Capitol, 1978]
A lot of conceptual work went into the choice of material here. But what's made the Wheel's records come across have been new Ray Benson and Leroy Preston songs that played off and framed the borrowings and rediscoveries. This offers wonderful countrifications of Count Basie and Randy Newman; the other covers are nice, rarely more. B-

Served Live [Capitol, 1979]
Side one is playable, although "God Bless the Child" was born under a bad sign, and the hot live performances don't suit the living room as well as the more delicate studio versions available on three out of five songs. Side two, however, sounds terribly forced. Not only does John Nicholas's overstated, bloozey original make clear that Leroy Preston's songwriting is going to be missed, but his duet with Chris O'Connell is too close to Peggy Scott and Jo-Jo Benson to remain so far away. And "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" might just as well be "Saints," or "Send in the Clowns." C+

Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009]
Every once in a while Nelson nails a fluke--kiddie album, Hank Snow stopover, sop to his road band. It's the big concepts that fall slightly flat--we're lucky American Classic is as lively as it is. This one falls in between. Three decades ago the late great Jerry Wexler, who signed Nelson to historically R&B Atlantic in 1973 and got Phases and Stages as a reward, came up with the grand scheme of pairing the subliminally jazzy Nelson with the world's greatest Western swing revival band. Only by now Asleep at the Wheel, though in need as always of distinctive vocals and material, has been on the road as long as Bob Wills himself. Enter Wexler's song list and one of the greatest singers alive. Western swing is so rowdy and lighthearted that its chestnuts lack the serious sophistication of great American songbook fare. But they sure are spry, and Nelson is so delighted to be singing them that the band's expertise lights up. Fact is, this compares favorably to Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions box. Fact is, Wills never had a singer in Willie's class either. A

Half a Hundred Years [Bismeaux, 2021]
After a 1971 debut I admiringly dubbed subversive, Ray Benson's unprecedented nuevo Western swing band succumbed to twin deficits in songwriting and vocal pizzazz and became merely rather than ironically generic--until, that is, Benson inveigled the highly inveiglable Willie Nelson to join in on a bunch of Western swing classics selected by none other than Jerry Wexler that surfaced in 2009 as Willie and the Wheel, AATW's best album ever including their 2014 live best-of. Then they once again sunk from the view of all but their loyal fanbase and the Austin Better Business Bureau. But no more. Starting with a relaxed Benson title tune that neatly encapsulates their five decades on the road, this new one immediately switches gears into an obscure Jimmy Rushing number called "The Same Old South," written by an NYC songwriter later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: "It's a regular children's heaven/Where they don't start to work till they're seven," and also "Let the Northerners keep Niagara/We'll stick to our Southern pellagra." There's also a "Paycheck to Paycheck" as self-explanatory as any union organizer could hope. Both add decisive tone to an album that also features George Strait, Lee Ann Womack, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Gimble, and none other than Willie Nelson. A-

Further Notes:

Distinctions Not Cost-Effective [1980s]: Commander Cody with chops--which isn't what they (or Commander Cody) originally had in mind.

Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies [1990s]