Backstage before the all-star tribute concert to Willie Nelson that took place in January, Asleep at the Wheel frontman and founder Ray Benson had more than a little reason to feel nostalgic. Not only is Nelson a longtime personal friend of Benson's, but the country legend's own rise in the industry also coincides with Asleep at the Wheel's musical success.

"I first met [Nelson] in 1971. We were backing up Stoney Edwards, Freddie Hart and Connie Smith," Benson recalls. "We were backing up people, trying to get a record deal for Asleep at the Wheel. That's when I met Willie."

At the time, Nelson didn't know that the band was called Asleep at the Wheel -- he just knew they were a great backing band. He then reconnected with the group a couple of years later.

"We put out this record in '73. He heard there was this weird band called Asleep at the Wheel playing Bob Wills music and Western swing," Benson goes on to say. "So he came down, and we smoked a peace pipe and became great friends."

Now, Asleep at the Wheel are gearing up for their 50th anniversary in 2020, and show no signs of slowing down. In 2018, they released a new album, New Routes, and Benson explained at the time that he attributed the group's longevity to its ability to reinvent itself, bringing in new bandmates from a whole new generation.

Still, at least one thing about Asleep at the Wheel hasn't changed: No matter what their lineup might be, the group loves to have fun onstage and play music with their friends. That was the case back in the early '70s when the served as Nelson's backing band, and it's still the case today. Case in point: To celebrate their 50th anniversary, Benson says the group is hoping to share the stage with as many of their musical buddies as possible.

"We're gonna have a big old [party]," he says. "We're gonna come up here, at the Hall of Fame or the Ryman or somewhere, and get as many of our pals as we can wrangle in to sing one or two of our songs with us."

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