As much as the phrase Country and Western may grate on Nashville ears — we prefer the moniker country music, whatever that means nowadays — it’s how a good bit of the globe still references what puts the Music in Music City.
At Thursday afternoon’s AMERICANAFEST® Day Stage in suburban Madison’s Art Deco combination-bowling alley and nightclub Eastside Bowl, the Western piece was represented in full force. That’s thanks to sets by a pair of Texas band leaders that have influenced modern American music for generations: Ray Benson and his band Asleep at the Wheel, and the incomparable Lyle Lovett.
Rounding out the afternoon’s lineup, which was simulcast on presenting radio station WMOT-FM (89.5), were Amy Ray of Indigo Girls, Jade Bird, Whitehorse, and Sunny Sweeney.
Oftentimes almost single-handedly keeping the spirit of Western Swing music alive and kicking, Austin-based Asleep at the Wheel celebrates more than 50 years of existence as one of the most thrilling touring bands on the road. Deep-voiced front man Benson, now a gray-bearded age 71, remains in peak form as the band’s only original member.
“How ya doin’?” Benson bellowed in greeting talented singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh, who opened the 45-minute set. “Goin’ bowlin’?”
A Nashvillian by way of her native North Dakota and Austin, Leigh’s new album Obsessed with the West features Asleep at the Wheel. “I’m kind of a fan girl,” she told the crowd, which had already figured that out.
Leigh had been billed as the headliner for the noon show — doubtlessly because Asleep at the Wheel had a Wednesday festival slot at East Side concert hall Riverside Revival —but 15 minutes later, it was all Wheel for the rest of the set.
Immediately Benson, wielding a guitar in his huge mitts, kicked the band in high gear with “Miles and Miles of Texas,” a part of their repertoire since the mid-’70s.
“Are you ready to boogie-woogie?” he asked the midday crowd. We were.
That led to the classic “Route 66,” followed by “Half a Hundred Years,” the title track of an album, the 26th from the band, released last October to celebrate its half-century of existence.
Next came “Take Me Back to Tulsa” — “I cut this song in Nashville in 1972 and it was a big hit … In Tulsa,” quipped Benson. He and band, supercharged by accordion and fiddle, then segued to the Bob Wills Western Swing classic “Milk Cow Blues.”
Set closer “Tiger Rag” comes from the Wheel’s 2015 album “Still the King,” featuring Nashville’s own Old Crow Medicine Show, but the song has antecedents from generations earlier.
“Ketch (Old Crow front man Ketch Secor) asked me if I knew this tune from 1936,” Benson recalled of the cut’s beginnings.
“I said, ‘No … I wasn’t there in 1936.’”
Benson and his sublime Asleep at the Wheel remain timeless nonetheless.
In the mid-afternoon slot at Eastside Bowl, Lyle Lovett and his three-piece band —Nashville’s own Viktor Krauss was a highlight on upright bass guitar — drew a capacity crowd to hear Lovett’s only full set of the festival.
On Wednesday night, he had performed a song and presented Chris Isaak the Lifetime Achievement for Performance award at the Americana Music Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium. Lovett and Isaak recently made a tour stop at the Grand Ole Opry House, so it’s a rare treat indeed to see the likes of Lyle in a nightclub setting.
As such, soundcheck consisted of merely closing the stage curtains for several minutes. Curtain raised, Lovett and band were then unleashed to “Are We Dancing,” one of the many standout tracks from his 2022 album, 12th of June.
The album’s title track as well as its “Pants Is Overrated,” the latter delivered in Lovett’s trademark witty deadpan, also marked the 45-minute set.
Fans ultimately come for the hits, of course, and the 64-year-old Lovett has a bunch of them to his credit through 13 albums in a 40-plus year career.
For the 1980s-era jazz-influenced “Here I Am,” he slows down the song while speeding up just a bit through the droll spoken-word segments, rightly presuming that his tried-and-true fans have heard the tune countless times and know and appreciate its punchlines by now.
No song hit closer to his sweet spot than “If I Had a Boat,” from the 1987 album Pontiac. It made it to the set list thanks to request from a female fan clinging to the stage.
“It’s really nice to visit with you,” Lovett told the fan from the stage, once he extracted himself from the impromptu conversation.
Same here, Lyle. Same here.
AMERICANAFEST® continues at a host of stages throughout the Nashville area through Saturday night. VIEW THE SCHEDULE.