Asleep at the Wheel to play Cumberland Oct. 23

Ray Benson, guitarist and lead singer, is the frontman and founding member of Asleep at the Wheel, who will play in Cumberland on Oct. 23.

CUMBERLAND, Md. — Asleep at the Wheel, the Grammy-winning western swing band that got its start in Cumberland, will return to the city as part of its 50th anniversary tour.

The band will perform at the Ali Ghan Shrine Club picnic grounds on Oct. 23, with several members of the original group returning. The band was formed in the summer of 1969 in Paw Paw, West Virginia, with the group playing their first shows in the Cumberland area in 1970 before garnering national attention and shifting their base to California and ultimately Austin, Texas.

“We love coming back to Cumberland,” said Ray Benson, the band’s frontman, during a recent phone interview. “When we started talking to our agent about a 50th reunion tour, I said we’ve got to get back to Cumberland and Paw Paw. That’s where it all began.”

Born in Philadelphia, a 19-year-old Benson was looking in 1969 for a place to put a country and western band together and rehearse. A friend had a connection to a farm in Paw Paw called the Spring Gap Orchard where they would have plenty of space and no neighbors close by.

“It’s really going to be fun to go back with all the guys and gals to where it all began,” said Benson. “I’m looking forward to Cumberland.”

Benson asked if the “Coney Island hot dog place was still there?” When it was confirmed that Curtis’ Coney Island Famous Wieners on Liberty Street was still open, he said, “I was hoping so. I want to get one of those hot dogs. You know, it really is great to go back and visit all the old places.”

Although 2020 would have been the official 50th anniversary year, Benson had to cancel the tour due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The great thing about this reunion tour happening is a lot of alumni are joining us and will be coming back,” he said.

Benson, who usually tours with an eight-piece band, will now have a group of about a dozen featuring current and original band members. Returning for the Cumberland show will be original band members LeRoy Preston, drums; Danny Levin, fiddle; Floyd Domino, piano; and Chris O’Connell, who sings lead vocals.

“She (Chris O’Connell) was one of the original three singers,” said Benson. “She sang ‘The Letter that Johnny Walker Read’ and ‘Bump, Bounce, Boogie’ and a bunch of our tunes. She was with us for 19 years so it’s great to have her back.”

The band kicked off the anniversary tour by playing the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 2.

“We’re going to be all over the place. We will perform in Philadelphia, where I was born, and perform the theater that I use to see movies at that’s been turned into a music venue,” Benson said.

The tour is also in support of a new album titled “Half a Hundred Years” that debuted on Oct. 1. Benson wrote and sang the title track and recorded a video for it that can be seen on YouTube. “Half a Hundred Years,” is available as a double vinyl album, CD and on streaming services. The album features numerous country stars including Willie Nelson, George Strait, Lyle Lovett and Lee Ann Womack.

Benson said he wants to celebrate the “long incredible journey” of the band, which began in Cumberland in 1970 at the Southern Lounge, which was located on North Mechanic Street between the Knights of Columbus and the former Cumberland Eagles.

“That’s right ... Cumberland was our first paying gig,” said Benson, “We played the Southern Lounge.” Benson, 20 at the time — when the legal age in Maryland to consume alcohol was 18 — got the group booked for $50, a low payday even in 1970.

“We showed up and the guy behind the bar asked if I wanted drinks. So we did. I had a shot and a beer. I guess by the end of the night we went past our quota because I walked out of there with $18 dollars total for the band.”

Benson said the band played in Capon Bridge, Romney, Ridgeley, Cumberland and several times at The Sportsmans Club in Paw Paw. At 6 feet, 7 inches, Benson towers above his big band. “We had long hair in those days and we got in some scraps in the more rural places. I think it was the country music that saved us. They always loved the music.”

Benson said Asleep at the Wheel, which has won 10 Grammy awards and produced over 20 records, will not slow down. “We’re going to keep a good thing going. We’ve been blessed,” he said. “And it all started there in Cumberland. I’m looking forward to seeing our friends again.”

The show is sponsored by the Tri-State Concert Association. Tickets can be purchased by phone at the association box office, 301-876-4880.

Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. Follow him on Twitter

@GregLarryCTN.

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Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter @greglarryctn.