A new lineup and a cleverly-titled album New Routes -- as in "new roots" -- doesn't mean Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson strayed far from a formula that's worked for going on 50 years. Benson, a giant in physical stature and Ameripolitan importance, and veteran drummer David Sanger and steel guitarist/sax soloist Eddie Rivers join newer bandmates for yet another celebration of the jazz predecessors of the group's patron saint, Bob Wills, and the country, Western and rock offshoots of Western Swing.
As is par with the course, this road map through pop's past features swinging tunes, guest stars and Wheel reinventions of country classics. The contributions of newer members like bassist Josh Hoag, sax and clarinet player Jay Reynolds and pianist Connor Forsyth keep it from sounding just like past albums, but this collection still checks off every box from the theoretical list an Asleep at the Wheel fan might subconsciously consult upon pressing play.
Katie Shore fills the all-important fiddler role alongside Dennis Ludiker while splitting vocal duties with Benson. When she sings lead on "Jack I'm Mellow," "I Am Blue," "Call it a Day Tonight," "Weary Rambler," blues picker Seth Walker and Gary Nicholson's "More Days Like This" and a cover of Johnny Cash's "Big River," it's like having country-jazz powerhouse Mandy Barnett front a modern Americana act. Benson, the group's lead guitar player, lends his comfortably familiar voice to a rockabilly shuffle version of Paolo Nutini's "Pencil Full of Lead," the swinging Buck Trail co-write "Seven Nights to Rock," the self-penned "Pass the Bottle Around" and a true-to-original take on fellow Texas legend Guy Clark's sentimental "Dublin Blues." With either singer on lead vocals, the current lineup stands tall when compared to past configurations of a long-running act that's featured over 100 members since Benson co-founded the Austin, Texas via small town West Virginia band in 1970.
The band's other calling card, superstar collaborations, closes out the album of all-new material. Seth and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers help celebrate the greatest country music icon of them all, Willie Nelson, with "Willie Got There First." Seth Avett's lyrics liken Nelson's songwriting prowess to "an alchemist turning his sorrow to gold." Clearly, the elder Avett brother possesses a similar gift.
In all, the new album, released Sept. 14 via Bismeaux Records/Thirty Tigers, displays the talents and tastes of Benson's current lineup without straying from a time-tested sound that's won 10 Grammy Awards.