Long before swing became the thing again, Asleep at the Wheel virtually made a career out of paying tribute to western swing king Bob Wills. So given Wills's enduring appeal and prevailing pop winds, it's not surprising that Asleep at the Wheel had no difficulty rounding up an all-star cast to join it on its latest salute, "Ride With Bob."
Aboard the bus are current chart busters (Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Clint Black, Vince Gill and Dwight Yoakam, the Dixie Chicks), weathered veterans (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson), longtime western swing exponents (Lyle Lovett and Don Walser), retro types old and new (Manhattan Transfer and Squirrel Nut Zippers), and a lot of other folks smitten with fiddles, pedal steel guitars and Southwest dance halls.
Playing host to all of its guests, Asleep at the Wheel generates the requisite spirit and rhythm, though some of the performances are far more memorable than others. Highlights include "Bob's Breakdowns," a vibrant melding of Texas fiddles and the stellar guitar work of Gill and Steve Wariner; Walser's yodeling reprise of the Emmett Miller tune, "I Ain't Got Nobody"; McEntire's soulful treatment of "Right or Wrong"; Haggard's trumpet-tinged "St. Louis Blues"; and the pairing of Lovett and Shawn Colvin on "Faded Love."
Despite all the familiar vocalists, though, most of the album's finest musical moments are produced by instrumentalists, including AATW's Ray Benson, band mates past and present, and plenty of kindred spirits.
Asleep at the Wheel performs at the Birchmere tonight and Thursday at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)
CAPTION: Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel salutes Bob Wills on its new album, "Ride With Bob."