They don’t make country music like they used to. You know, like Hank Sr. and George Jones did. Heck, they don’t even make country music like baby-boomer country artists used to, like Asleep at the Wheel and Dale Watson do.
Those two veteran acts shared a bill – and the stage for a bit – Sunday night at the packed Minnesota Zoo. The Texas mainstays made for a highly entertaining evening filled with hot licks and easy humor.
Asleep at the Wheel has been purveying Western swing – the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys – since 1969, though cofounder Ray Benson is the lone original member. Watson, who plays honky-tonk music in the tradition of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, has recorded an impressive 30 albums since 1995.
Both acts score high marks for musicianship and showmanship, as they demonstrated separately and together at the zoo.
Backed by his band the Lone Stars, Watson, 54, he of the silver pompadour and deep as big river voice, opened the concert with the kind of clever honky-tonk tunes that have made him a favorite at Lee’s Liquor Lounge in downtown Minneapolis.
There was “Jonesing for Jones,” about missing ol’ George, and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Famous” (though his original lyric was “grow up to be babies”).
Of course, he did an obligatory Haggard song (“Mama Tried,” by request) and a brand new tune about all these things he shouldn’t do. Like be outspoken and eat fried chicken. The verses sounded like Haggard, the choruses like Cash.
Asleep at the Wheel stuck to old tunes in its 85-minute set. In fact, mostly Wills numbers that nicely showcased the top-notch musicianship of the eight players, especially three-time fiddle champ Dennis Ludiker, pedal steel guitarist Eddie Rivers and guitarist Benson.
Benson, 66, a towering figure with a gray goatee, is more a compelling, crowd-pleasing personality rather than a stellar vocalist. Serviceable but enthusiastic, he was especially effective on novelty numbers including “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which was revved up by nifty instrumental passages, and the intentionally out-of-season “Feliz Navidad,” which was prompted by Benson recalling a 1974 gig at the Cabooze in Minneapolis after which Asleep at the Wheel’s bus’ battery froze while they were having a post-concert meal at Ember’s.
Benson also played it straight on a touching version of the late Guy Clark’s sweet, wistful “Dublin Blues.”
Benson, the pride of Austin, Texas, found his sweet spot when fellow Austinite Watson and His Lone Stars joined Asleep at the Wheel to tackle tunes from their duo album, “Dale and Ray,” which was released in January. It was mostly a half-hour of quick comedy by Dos Baritones and smokin’ instrumental solos by their band members.
“Bus Breakdown,” inspired by Benson selling his tour bus to Watson, was indeed a bluegrass-y breakdown for 13 players. “The Ballad of Dale and Ray” was a silly goof with the prize-worthy lyrics: “I like to drink Lone Star (Dale)/I like to smoke pot (Ray)/ It makes us happy/ We do it a lot.”
There was a brief detour into seriousness, with the ballad “Feelin’ Haggard” (about coping with Merle’s death) and Watson’s 2013 honky-tonk favorite “I Lie When I Drink.” But it was mostly about a couple of buddies and their bands -- and the fans -- having loads of fun, which they did on Waylon Jennings’ “Sure Hank Done It This Way?”