Tributee: Bob Wills.
Technically, it's been 16 years since Asleep at the Wheel last saluted Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys -- with 1999's Ride with Bob, recorded for the short-lived DreamWorks Records -- but it's never like Ray Benson's ensemble ever strayed far from Western Swing. Their first album in 1973 was chock-full of Wills standards and their last, 2010's It's a Good Day, showcased former Texas Playboy Leon Rausch, so Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys is squarely in the group's comfort zone. Fortunately, Asleep at the Wheel never sound too comfortable on this generous 22-track tribute. Part of that is down to the decision of Benson and company to construct Still the King as an outright party, inviting old and new friends to sit in and sing both classics and nuggets from the deep Wills songbook. Having star after star take the center stage keeps things lively, particularly because the guest list is sharply balanced between old friends like Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett -- fellow disciples of Wills, one and all -- with newer roots acts like the Avett Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, Kat Edmonson, the Time Jumpers, and Elizabeth Cook. Everybody is welcome, no matter if it's Jamey Johnson slurring his way through "Brain Cloudy Blues" or Brad Paisley running roughshod across "My Window Faces the South," or Carrie Rodriguez and Emily Gimble joshing through "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and it's fun to hear Asleep at the Wheel accommodating each of their styles. This casual versatility points out who the real star of the show is, though: it remains Benson's group, whose way with Western Swing has only grown more soulful over the years. Clearly, Asleep at the Wheel draw sustenance from the music of the Texas Playboys, finding life within these old songs, and their love remains infectious and palpable after all these years. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine