Entrancing Troubadours

From American Roots To New Folk, Some Old Favorites Rock Tucson.

By Mari Wadsworth

WHEN RAY BENSON and Lucky Oceans picked up their instruments some 27 years ago, western swing, boogie-woogie and jump swing had already spun their courses around American dance halls and been relegated to wallflower status on the popular music scene.

Music "The musical styles we love--roots American music--had been passed over and nearly forgotten when we began reviving them for our repertoire," Benson recalls of his teen years with Oceans, gigging with drummer Leroy Preston and fellow guitarist Chris O'Connell in the Washington, D.C., area. "Today that's not the case," he says. "I'm proud we're a small part of the reason these great American art forms are once again part of the fabric of popular music."

Part of the fabric, indeed. From those early days fueled by the inspiration of Merle Haggard's Salute to Bob Wills, Benson and his band Asleep At the Wheel have followed their muse to 19 Grammy Award nominations, including this year's bid for Best Country Instrumental for "Fat Boy Rag," off their 20th career album, Back to the Future Now, Live At Arizona Charlie's Las Vegas.

Along the way, their energetic, multi-faceted take on country influenced seminal bands like Los Lobos and The Blasters, whose names are inseparable from the '80s roots-rock revival in Los Angeles, and even old-school punk bands like X and The Plugs, who were also a part of that L.A. scene. (And they're still going--The Blasters headlined the New Year's Eve show at the Rialto a couple months ago, and Los Lobos returns to Tucson on March 27.)

On the contemporary front, bands like James Intveld, Junior Brown (whose comfortable feel for western swing and honky tonk recalls another era), and The Derailers, an up-and-coming country roots band from Austin, are all drawn from this same, great well-spring of homegrown talent.

Each has been added to the ranks of Gavin's respectable Americana chart. (The magazine is a trade publication similar to Billboard, which created the chart to recognize bands with a solid sound that wasn't necessarily destined for commercial airplay.) Interestingly, this fringe list has garnered wide attention: Increasingly "Americana" is making its way onto mainstream airwaves, with a sound KXCI program director Michael Hyatt characterizes as "modern country with a strong root connection." Proving they can still hold their own with the welcome competition, Asleep at the Wheel reached the Top-10 on the Americana chart.

The six-time Grammy winners tie up the loose ends of rodeo weekend with a dance party at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, February 22, at The New West, 4385 W. Ina Road. (Benson will also perform the National Anthem at Sunday's opening festivities at 2 p.m. on the rodeo grounds.) Concert tickets are $10 general, $8 for KXCI members, available in advance at Hear's Music and the KXCI station only. To charge by phone, or for more information, call 623-1000. Admission at the door will be an additional $2.

NOT TO BE outdone, March blows in two more stellar talents from the forefront of American music: Cosy Sheridan and Iris DeMent.

Sheridan, a New England native, is a well-regarded presence on the folk circuit. Winner of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival's Troubadour Award and Kerrville Folk Festival's New Folk Award, the sprightly singer/songwriter returns to Tucson as part of the 1998 Primavera: A Celebration of Women in the Arts series. With melodic acoustic guitar backing the fragile trill of her delightful soprano vocals, Sheridan tackles the classic love song, social commentary and everyday life with an approach that's observant, wistful, light-hearted and smart.

Songs from her recently released live album One Sure Thing include the ups and downs of the recovery movement, romantic uses for modern appliances, the finer points of neutering your pet (a.k.a. "The True and Terrible Trials of Waldo the Dog"), and a sardonic take on easing the national debt by revitalizing a failed S&L property, once the site of an infamous Nevada brothel, "The Mustang House." But all is not fun and games--her serious songwriting, including the early favorite "Waltz for Arizona," is also artfully and captivatingly rendered.

A new album, Grand Design, is due out February 23. But Sheridan is at her best in front of an audience, and whatever you miss on One Sure Thing you're sure to find when she performs live at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 7, in the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 406 S. Sixth Ave. Tickets are $10, $9 for students, TKMA, TFTM and KXCI members, available in advance at Hear's Music and Antigone Books. They'll cost $2 more at the door. Call 327-4809 for reservations and information.

And finally, fellow slice-of-life songstress Iris DeMent is one performer who needs little introduction. Her heartfelt songs and authentic stage presence have captivated local audiences a few times over, and her return on March 13 is sure to be a sell-out. The Kansas City-based songwriter (dubbed a "homespun genius") had a quick rise to national attention after 1992's Infamous Angel, and has charmed audiences on tour ever since. Merle Haggard says succinctly, "She's the best singer I ever heard."

Her latest effort, The Way I Should, boasts 11 original tracks. Two were co-written with her husband Elmer, and Haggard backs up his high praise with his considerable talent by co-writing a third. Other special guests on the album include Dire Straits' Mark Knopfler, Earl Scruggs, Paul Franklin and Delbert McClinton.

She performs solo in Tucson, accompanying herself on piano and acoustic guitar, at 8 p.m. Friday, March 13, in Crowder Hall, on campus in the UA Music Building. All seating is reserved. Tickets are $12 and $14, available in advance at Hear's Music and Antigone Books. For information or to charge by phone (for a $1 fee), call 327-4809. TW

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