NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- When Ray Benson says the idea for his new Western swing album with Willie Nelson goes back a ways, he isn't kidding.

Benson — leader of the Western swing group Asleep at the Wheel, says the project dates to the 1970s when Nelson was recording with famed producer Jerry Wexler (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan) for Atlantic Records.

Wexler wanted to record a whole album of Western swing music with Nelson and even hand-picked the songs, but Nelson left Atlantic for Columbia Records in the mid-'70s and the project fell apart.

Fast forward to 2008. Wexler, retired and living in Florida, contacted Nelson and Benson about resurrecting the project and, viola, the CD "Willie and the Wheel" was finally released this month, its 13 tracks roughly spanning the history of Western swing.

It wasn't quite that simple. Wexler was in poor health and homebound, and Benson and Nelson are notoriously busy guys. But they did finish the album and in time for Wexler to hear it before he died in August at age 91.

"Basically, we collaborated over the phone," Benson, the producer, said recently of Wexler, the executive producer. "I sent him the rough mixes, and he loved it. I called him up and said I was going to send him the finished product with all 13 songs, and he never called me back. Sure enough, a month later he passed away."

"What a great opportunity," Benson said of the experience, adding, "'Thank you, Jerry. It was the greatest gift I've gotten.'"

Nelson, Benson and the rest of Asleep at the Wheel are touring this month in support of the new CD.


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