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October 2, 2015

Book Notes - David Menconi "Comin' Right at Ya"

Comin' Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Written by Ray Benson and David Menconi, Comin' Right at Ya shares the enjoyable and informative history of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and its frontman, Benson.

Dolly Parton wrote of the book:

"Ray Benson is something—creative, fun, entertaining—you’ll love this book!"

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is David Menconi's Book Notes music playlist for his book Comin' Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel:

Formation stories don't get much more unlikely than that of Asleep at the Wheel, which sounds like highly implausible fiction: Jewish college students drop out at the height of the Vietnam War, retreat to the West Virginia wilderness and form a Western swing band. But somehow, it worked. Forty-five years later, the Wheel is still rolling under the leadership of founder/guiding light Ray Benson, the sole constant throughout the group's existence.

Comin' Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel tells the band's story in close to no-holds-barred fashion. It was my privilege to serve as co-writer for setting down one of the most remarkable chronologies in country music. Here is the "Comin' Right at Ya" playlist, with music from Asleep at the Wheel as well as various peers along the way.

Asleep at the Wheel, "Take Me Back to Tulsa" – The book's main title "Comin' Right at Ya" was also the title of Asleep at the Wheel's 1973 debut album, released by a record company touting the group as "The Beatles of Western swing." The first song on the album was "Take Me Back to Tulsa," one of the most enduring songs from the canon of Bob Wills, the great Texas swing icon and Benson's biggest idol. Covering Wills right off the bat was very much by design, just to let folks know where the Wheel was coming from.

Merle Haggard, "Okie From Muskogee" – How crazy was it for a bunch of dope-smoking long-hairs to want to play hardcore country music? This crazy: At the time Benson was hatching the idea of the band in the fall of 1969, the No. 1 country single in America was this defiant Merle Haggard put-down of all things counter-cultural. Benson looked at that as just another challenge, part of the thrill of going behind enemy lines. Years later, he and Haggard would meet and become (yes) dope-smoking buddies.

Asleep at the Wheel, "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" – Benson and his bandmate Leroy Preston co-wrote this tug-at-the-heartstrings ballad, thinking it would be perfect for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. That went nowhere, so the Wheel put it on their third album, 1975's Texas Gold. It became their biggest hit ever, still the band's only top-10 single to date. Because it's slow and maudlin, however, it rarely turns up in the Wheel's live setlist anymore.

John Denver, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" – In early 1971, the Wheel was still living in West Virginia but playing a lot in the Washington, D.C., club scene. One of their local peers was Fat City, a duo comprised of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. Backstage one night at a club called Tammany Hall, they played Benson a song they'd just written with a then-unknown folksinger – "Almost heaven, West Virginia…" – which struck Mountaineer State resident Benson as hilarious. But later that year, John Denver's version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" would hit No. 2 on the pop charts. Five years later, Danoff and Nivert would have a gigantic hit of their own as Starland Vocal Band, "Afternoon Delight."

Stoney Edwards, "Poor Folks Stick Together" – Later in 1971, Asleep at the Wheel relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area and found it to be tough going financially. One way they made ends meet was to serve as backup band for Stoney Edwards, who was one of the few African-American singers to have any success on the country charts. This was his then-biggest hit, and the ensemble toured as Stoney Edwards and the Poor Folks.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, "Hot Rod Lincoln" – Cody and the Wheel were buddy bands and brothers of the road, with Cody's merry mob of bar-band crazies serving as a major inspirational blueprint for Benson's conception of his own band. After Asleep at the Wheel moved to Cody's Bay Area stomping grounds, Cody had enough leverage to help them out thanks to this 1972 top-10 hit, powered by guitarist Bill Kirchen's twangy picking. Later, Asleep at the Wheel did a very fine Western swing cover of "Hot Rod Lincoln" on their 1988 album Western Standard Time.

Asleep at the Wheel, "One O'Clock Jump" – An ace cover of the 1943 Count Basie classic, done up Bob Wills-style. "One O'Clock Jump" had the distinction of winning the first of the Wheel's nine Grammy Awards, for best country instrumental in 1979. Benson was thrilled, but with a catch. In his words: "Can I just say how proud it makes me to be lead vocalist of an ensemble so consistently honored for instrumental performances?"

Rosanne Cash, "My Baby Thinks He's a Train" – 1977's The Wheel was the group's first album of all-original songs and one of its choicest cuts was this Leroy Preston composition, done up like a 1958-vintage rockabilly song with echo and slap bass. Benson wanted to make it a single, but the record company said no. He got the chance to say I Told You So four years later, when Rosanne Cash took a version to the top of the country charts. It's still one of the Wheel's live-set staples.

Asleep at the Wheel, "Faded Love" – A slow-burn classic from the Wills songbook, 1950's "Faded Love" has been recorded by everybody from Elvis Presley to Wall of Voodoo. Asleep at the Wheel has done it on two of the band's three Wills tribute albums, including 2015's Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. This latest version was recorded with Vince Gill's Time Jumpers and it's stunningly beautiful, featuring a jaw-dropping vocal star turn from the late Dawn Sears (who died of cancer before it was released).

Asleep at the Wheel, "House of Blue Lights" – Between disco hangover and attrition from Asleep at the Wheel's ranks, the '80s were a difficult decade for Benson and company. But they got their groove back with this roadhouse tune, which was their first significant hit in ages and cracked the country top-20 in 1987. Benson still calls it one of his favorite songs from the group's catalog, "the culmination of everything good about Asleep at the Wheel."

Asleep at the Wheel, "Write Your Own Song" – A recurrent theme throughout "Comin' Right at Ya" is frustration with record companies, none of whom have really been able to figure out what to do with Asleep at the Wheel over the years. But they're hardly alone in that respect. Even Willie Nelson, as successful an act as country music has ever seen, got irritated enough with Nashville's Music Row to pen this angry ditty addressed to every label guy who thinks that hits are easy to come up with: "If you think it is, Mr. Music Executive/Why don't you write your own songs?" Benson and Nelson did it as a duet on the Wheel's 1985 album Pasture Prime.

Asleep at the Wheel, "Boogie Back to Texas" – By 1974, Asleep at the Wheel had settled down in Texas for good. And like any good Texas band, they've done their fair share of paeans to the Lone Star State, including this uptempo 1987 single. It's one of their more durable live-set numbers, and easy enough to sing that it's been a popular choice for lots of cameo guests over the years -- everyone from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama to actress Florence "The Brady Bunch" Henderson on her cooking show.

Ray Benson, "A Little Piece" – Benson has made a pair of solo albums apart from Asleep at the Wheel, and this ballad was the title track to his 2014 effort. It finds him lowering the life-of-the-party façade to hold forth in a uncharacteristically philosophical fashion, advising listeners to avoid doing anything that might make them "lose a little piece of you." Through all the travails of running a band, that's something to live by.

Ray Benson, "It Ain't You" – Another song from A Little Piece, "It Ain't You" was co-written by the late Waylon Jennings. It's a duet with Benson's old buddy Willie Nelson, 80 years old at the time they recorded it. That adds gravitas to this long-strange-trip rumination. But as they sing of life, "it's the only ride you got to get you through."

Asleep at the Wheel, "Miles and Miles of Texas" – Possibly the ultimate Texas-themed song in the Wheel's repertoire, "Miles and Miles of Texas" is the one I always picture as the finale of the big-screen Ray Benson story. Onstage in triumph, he extols his adopted state's mythical virtues and declares, "Gonna live here 'til I die." Except I can't imagine Ray ever being gone.

David Menconi and Comin' Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel links:

the author's website
the author's blog

Kirkus review
Library Journal review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown
Walter Magazine essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
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Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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