By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — The good news: Western swing supergroup Asleep at the Wheel is steering toward Traverse City. The even-better news: There still are tickets for the band's concert.
"I think the big (reason) is because the show is on a Monday night," said Kristi Dockter, marketing and communications director for the City Opera House, where the band will play at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12. "Otherwise we'd be out the door, on fire, sold out."
The nine-time Grammy Award-winning band based in Austin, Texas, will perform with "new" vocalist Elizabeth McQueen. The wife of Wheel drummer David Sanger, McQueen has been part of the group since 2005 — long enough to learn its hits, but short enough to feel like there's still a lot to learn.
"The musicianship in this band is really high and so is the depth of knowledge of these musicians," said McQueen, also a solo artist who arrived on the Austin music scene in 2001. "I'm not as intimidated as I was, but it's still pretty intimidating to hang out with these guys. Even now there's songs that I've never played. Over 42 years, there's a depth and breadth of music."
Since its inception in 1970, Wheel has toured and recorded continuously with a roster of about 100 different artists. A rhythm guitarist, McQueen is the first female vocalist since Chris O'Connell left in 1986.
"When I joined, I think it was unclear how my role would work," said McQueen, who travels with her and Sanger's two children, 4 and 18 months. "They used to have two fiddle players and when one left, my name came up and the boss said 'Yeah, sure.' Which is kind of crazy, because when you hire someone's wife, it could go really, really bad. Luckily, it was a good fit musically and personally."
After logging more than 25 albums and 20-plus singles like "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," "Hot Rod Lincoln" and "Route 66" on the Billboard country charts, Wheel reinvented the wheel by returning to its 1970s revue-style format.
"It's a revue in that more than just (band leader Ray Benson) gets to sing. I do some numbers and Jason, the fiddler, gets to sing some," McQueen said. "And it's a revue in that we'll do everything from boogie woogie to Bob Wills to older Western swing. Some nights we'll play a jazz Django Reinhardt song. And you may get a little classic country and jazz."
The concept is spotlighted on the band's 2006 album, "Reinventing the Wheel," which features guest appearances by gospel's Blind Boys of Alabama and banjoist Rolf Sieker, and its 2009 Grammy nominee, "Willie and the Wheel," which teams Willie Nelson and Wheel on several well-known Western swing selections.
In its latest project, the band is making a documentary designed to be shown before its concerts. When completed, the movie will take fans on a ride through the band's history in video footage of rare performances, photos and present-day interviews.
"I think it will add a lot of dimension," McQueen said. "You can say that a band has been around for 42 years, but to hear the story and the realities and then to see the music play, to me, is a lot more interesting. There are a lot of sad and weird and funny tales along the way to tell."
The band was formed in West Virginia by what McQueen calls "hippies who wanted to play Western swing," but moved to Austin three years later at the urging of Willie Nelson, with whom it will team for a Nov. 15 concert there called "Formula Austin's The Best of Texas Music with Willie Nelson." The band also is a favorite on the TV series, "Austin City Limits," and is the only group to have played every year at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
McQueen attributes Wheel's longevity to Benson, who doubles as the band's manager, and to the popularity of Western swing, sometimes called the "national music of Texas."
"In Texas, Oklahoma, some parts of New Mexico, it's a living music," McQueen said. "It's not a retro thing, it's part of the culture here. So people will go out dancing to Western swing music as a matter of course.
"Obviously there's a desire out there for people to hear this kind of music, but desire alone doesn't keep a band afloat. We have a really driven boss who works really hard. He loves playing and he loves touring, and I guess he doesn't want another job."
Reserved seat tickets for the band's Traverse City show are $30 at the City Opera House box office, 941-8082, or CityOperaHouse.org.