The affection that Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have for the music of Bob Wills has been well-documented. They recorded their first tribute to the man’s work in 1993, with their album Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and followed it up six years later with Ride With Bob. After spending much of the sixteen years that followed focused on live albums, a Christmas album, a record with Willie Nelson, and a handful of albums of new material—plus, of course, the stage musical A Ride With Bob in which Benson and Wills finally meet—the band finally decided that now is the time to revisit the music of their spiritual forefather one more time. Hence the forthcoming tribute album Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, out March 3.
For the new album, Benson tapped the enthusiasm that old friends and new had for Wills’s music—from younger acts like the Avett Brothers and the Devil Makes Three to longtime stars like Lyle Lovett and Merle Haggard. And, of course, a king to pay tribute to a king: Listen below to George Strait taking a turn with the band through Wills’ “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way).”
“George opened our show at Gruene Hall in 1978,” Benson laughs. “When he put together his Ace in the Hole band in the early eighties, he hired two of our old fiddle players. We’ve been friends for a long time, so as long as he’s willing to do it, it’s a cinch. We kinda understand each other, in terms of our music. He just drove up in his pickup truck from San Antonio to Austin, sat around for a few minutes to get the arrangement together, then boom, boom, boom, and we’re done. It’s a very natural thing for us to do.”
The arrangement that Asleep at the Wheel and Strait settled on finds something new in the well-mined territory of “South of the Border” by looking at the various ways that the song has been interpreted. “We did it in a western swing style—and that’s pretty broad,” Benson says. “Which means that what we did is we combined a few things. The pop version of that, back in the day, would have been with Mexican-style trumpets, which we did, and the western swing version would have been with fiddles and steel guitar, which we did. So we combined the two different styles of music that I’ve experienced with this song, and that’s what western swing is.”
Listen to “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” by Asleep at the Wheel and George Strait below.
(Photo by Wyatt McSpadden)