THE ALBUM: Asleep at the Wheel, "Framed," MCA Records (MCA-5131).
THE SHOW: At the Bayou, next Tuesday at 8 & 11.
Western swing, the top-tapping blend of country twang and be-bop, has always boasted a small but dedicated following. Since the Depression days when Bob Wills invented this hybrid of hillbilly and jazz, its listeners have been downhome country folk. But the current masters of the music, Asleep at the Wheel, make a pitch for urban rockers as well.
"Framed," their new album, offers an assortment of original swing songs by Ray Benson, the group's lead guitarist, vocalist and producer, and a hatful of other foot-stompers. There's a Dan Hicks tune with a comic touch ("Up Up, Up"), a rousing "Midnight in Memphis" that's less schmaltzy than Bette Midler's version in "The Rose," and a slick cover of Loretta Lynn's pure country tune, "You Wanna Give Me a Lift." Overall, the selections display an infectious energy, without the sobbing vocals of mainstream country & western.
With smooth precision, a full orchestra turns in polished licks on sax, flute and trumpet, punctuated by brief takes on traditional country pedal steel guitar and fiddle. The two female vocalists, Chris O'Connell and Maryann Price, create bubbling harmonies, at times reminiscent of the Andrew Sisters, while Benson's deep bluesy voice has a cool crooning quality. He's often been compared to Ernest Tubb, the "Texas troubadour." but thiss ol' gal ain't a-goin' that far" -- Asleep at the Wheel's jazzy vocals combined with honky-tonk music yields a rockabilly format that's closer to a scat singer than to the coal miner's daughter.
Rock'n'rollers note: Bonnie Raitt makes a guest appearance on the album, singing a burnt-out blues number with Benson, "Lonely Avenue Revisited." And between the two of them, no duo's ever sounded more down-and-out.
Most cuts, however, are upbeat and sometimes funny with the bright hern section threatening to blast away the country accents. "Slow Dancing" lets the country fiddle take a brief bow, leaving the female harmonies to jive and the brasses to boogie, while 'Cool as a Breeze" picks up the tempo with Benson's complaint about an icy romance: She's cool as a breeze, busier than a hive of bees, Impossible to please & doubly hard to hold & squeeze . . .
In short, the group is fresh as a country breeze and every bit as cool.