Author: Adam Goldstein

Asleep at the Wheel to Work with CU Boulder Symphony Orchestra to Bring Western Swing to Life

Symphonic music and country and western swing may seem like unlikely bedfellows for fans of either genre.

But according to Ray Benson, frontman of the world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning country group Asleep at the Wheel, the pairing of classical strings and honky-tonk twang isn’t a new combination. The band will join the CU Boulder Symphony Orchestra and College of Music students for an exceptional performance at Macky Auditorium on April 5. Benson says the fusion of strings, guitars and country swagger will draw on a long-established musical partnership.

“We offer audiences a unique symphony show, in my opinion,” Benson said, adding that Asleep at the Wheel has played symphonic concerts across the United States since the early 2000s. “We play a genre of music called western swing which has roots in old-time fiddle music, country music, jazz, country and blues.”

The 1940s saw a rare and ambitious fusion of styles. Western swing artists like Bob Wills, Milton Brown and Hank Thompson melded the folk roots of country music with the lush instrumental expressions of big band music, jazz and other idioms. Asleep at the Wheel continues that approach and—teaming up with the CU Boulder Symphony Orchestra—will bring the full scope of the genre to life for audiences.

The value of the show isn’t limited to ticket holders. CU Boulder students will also play a role in the concert, a collaboration that echoes previous performances by Asleep at the Wheel on our campus.

“Fiddles are a big part of what we do and combining that approach with classically trained string musicians is very special. It’s not often that you get a collaboration of these styles,” Benson said. “We hope music students find this combination interesting and possibly educational.”

Indeed, the value of the collaboration for CU Boulder students is immeasurable, according to Joan Braun, Executive Director of CU Presents and the College of Music’s Assistant Dean for Concerts and Communications. This concert will offer students learning opportunities that aren’t available in a classroom; it gives aspiring musicians the chance to work with award-winning artists in person.

“These are opportunities for our students to be on stage and to interact professionally with an award-winning touring band. That is unique and valuable,” Braun said. “Part of our mission is to bring artists to Boulder that audiences wouldn’t otherwise experience … It’s an opportunity to see a world-class act without going to New York or Los Angeles. You can see it right here at Macky Auditorium. That is a huge value.”

There’s also a benefit to the collaboration for the members of Asleep at the Wheel. Working with students and orchestral musicians on this stop gives the band the scope and framework to fully realize their tribute to an American genre forgotten by some.

“We encourage everyone to come out and check out this collaboration,” Benson said. “We cover lots of musical ground and we’ve had some great charts written for the symphony. We always have a great time doing these symphony orchestra shows.”

Asleep at the Wheel performs at Macky Auditorium on the Artist Series April 5, 2024.