Loyal subjects rarely offer compelling arguments for why their beloved ruler was so wise and just. So the fact that Asleep at the Wheel’s Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys succeeds about two-thirds of the time and soars a good half of that is a testament to good-natured dedication of Roy Benson, who’s been at this since the first Nixon administration. He’s a hell of a bandleader with a hell of a band, and he’s lined up a roster of smart guest vocalists this time out.
Still, the first half of this 22-track collection is often merely solid, burdened with too many young people who like old things: mild folkies like the Avetts, mild cornballs like Pokey LeFarge, Tin Pandering AlleyKat Edmonson. Nor do the grampas quite carry the day. Merle isn’t just being chivalrous when he lets Emily Gimble swipe “Keeper of My Heart” — he finally sounds his full 77 years, and not in the wily way Willie sounds his full 81 on “Navajo Trail.”
Midway through, though, the course is righted by George Strait of all people. Strait hasn’t recorded a song I needed to hear twice in a quarter century, but on “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” his warmly unassertive masculinity demonstrates (as he often has) just how uncrazy a good time can be (or vice versa). Next come three performances that live inside the songs rather than paying tribute to them: Elizabeth Cook digs into “I Had Someone Else Before I Met You” like she really is two-stepping away from a broken heart, Brad Paisley shreds his giddy way through “My Window Faces the South,” and Buddy Miller deliver “Time Changes Everything” with an imperturbable cool satisfaction.
Bob Wills was a pioneer who greedily assimilated popular tastes into a singular yet elastic style. Benson is merely an accomplished revivalist-turned-preservationist. But if there’s something a bit ritualistic about this music’s frisky elegance — it’s the good suit you wear into town on a weekend night — its repeated demonstration that a danceable, straightforward beat needn’t limit a witty virtuoso’s range of invention suggests that rituals are more flexible than they appear. So let them have the obligatory closer, “Bob Wills Is Still the King,” which is sharp enough conceptually, if a little flat rhythmically. Not their fault Waylon couldn’t (and Shooter can’t) swing.