Because Christmastime’s a comin’, Asleep at the Wheel is on the road again for the band’s annual holiday tour. On Friday, the band performs at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette. On Saturday, the show checks into the Manship Theatre in Baton Rouge.
Winner of 10 Grammy awards, the Austin-based band plays Texas swing, country and boogie-woogie roots music. When nights grow longer and colder, the group pulls its seasonal repertoire out of the attic.
“We’ll do the so-called hits of Asleep at the Wheel interspersed with the Christmas stuff,” band founder Ray Benson said.
Even though Benson made light of Asleep at the Wheel’s music sales, 20 of the band’s singles entered the Billboard country charts. The group’s 20 studio albums include three Christmas collections, beginning with 1997’s “Merry Texas Christmas Y’all.”
“We enjoyed doing that so much, but we didn’t own it,” Benson said. “So, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to put out our own stuff and own it.’ ”
The second holiday album, “Santa Loves to Boogie,” debuted in 2000, followed by “Lone Star Christmas Night” in 2016. A sweet blend of artistic and financial motivation inspired Asleep at the Wheel’s December-timed recordings and tours.
“First of all, we love doing it,” Benson said. “Christmas music is really cool. Great songs. Second of all, it’s hard to get regular gigs in December. So, when people asked me if we do Christmas shows, I said, ‘Oh, yeah. No problem.’ ”
Benson formed the first of his many Asleep at the Wheel lineups in Paw Paw, West Virginia, in 1970. Through the decades since, fiddle and steel guitar have been essential ingredients.
Asleep at the Wheel’s album debut, 1973’s “Comin' Right at Ya,” features renditions of Texas swing classics by Bob Wills (“Take Me Back to Tulsa”) and Moon Mullican (“Cherokee Boogie”). Benson and company have been identified with Texas swing ever since.
The band’s three Wills tribute albums ensured the connection. Both 1997’s “A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys” and 1999’s “Ride with Bob” were Grammy-winning hits.
In 2015, Asleep at the Wheel released a third Wills tribute, “Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.” The project features 22 collaborations with guests such as the Avett Brothers, Amos Lee, George Strait and the late Merle Haggard.
Haggard’s 1971 tribute to Wills, “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills),” helped Asleep at the Wheel to learn Wills’ material. The clarity of Haggard’s album allowed the band to decipher Wills’ arrangements.
“Hag showed the way,” Benson said.
Haggard later became a friend of Asleep at the Wheel and frequent collaborator.
“We played shows with him, jammed with him, hung out with him,” Benson said. “He was more than a great singer and songwriter. He was a cultural icon and the common man’s poet. Damn good fiddle and guitar player, too.”
Despite the perception of Asleep at the Wheel as a Texas swing band, Benson wants to revive the band’s origins as an eclectic roots group.
“We’ve done a wonderful job of resurrecting interest in Bob Wills,” he said. “Now it’s time to get back to what Asleep at the Wheel did in the beginning. We were about the roots of American music like Cajun music, honky tonk, swing and jump. A western swing band is defined by instrumentation — fiddles and steel guitar. Under that aegis, you can do any kind of music.”
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL:
"MERRY TEXAS CHRISTMAS Y'ALL"
With Chas Justus and the Jury
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Acadiana Center for the Arts, 101 W. Vermilion St., Lafayette
COST: $30-$47 for members, $32-$49 for nonmembers
IN BATON ROUGE
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Manship Theatre, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge