When Asleep at the Wheel takes the stage on Sept. 11 as the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra opens the 2020-2021 Pops Series, it will be a homecoming for one member of the now 50-year-old, Grammy-winning band.
Fort Worth’s Katie Shore – nowhere near 50, by the way – will be in charge of a key component of any Texas Swing band – the fiddle. They say if you want to play country, you’ve got to have a fiddle in the band. That’s arguable in these Luke Bryan days, but make no mistake, it’s not a Grade A Texas Swing band without a fiddle.
In true fiddle tradition, Katie can trace her love of the instrument back to a family member who also played the fiddle, her grandfather, Jack DeBusk. He was a doctor in Fort Worth and a onetime chief of staff at what is now Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital. Outside of his medical pursuits, he was passionate about violin and fiddle music. When he would visit Katie – Katie Holmes back then – and her family, he would play.
“I just loved it and I wanted to be like him and do that,” she said. Somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 – there’s some dispute between her parents (Mom says 5, Dad says 6) – Katie began taking lessons.
She grew up listening to Bob Wills, the Lightcrust Doughboys and – no surprise – the band that keeps the Western Swing beat rolling, Asleep at the Wheel.
“I grew up on the Texas style fiddling, which is really catered to contest fiddling, but it’s also just old tunes that are passed down from generation to generation,” she said.
Her first tune? Boil Them Cabbage Down, a classic American fiddle tune that like many others can trace its lineage back centuries.
“The tunes themselves are timeless. And they’ve made their way from Ireland and Scotland and are part of a world tradition,” she said.
She also has a fiddle that has lived much of that tradition, in America at least.
“My granddad grew up in Nebraska right where the Pony Express and the Oregon Trail crossed,” she said.
“Somebody was passing through and needed some help, so they helped him. He had a fiddle and they traded for the fiddle. And I have that fiddle to this day. We call it the Oregon Trail Fiddle,” she said.
Katie started taking lessons in Burleson, eventually tying into “the really great fiddle community around Fort Worth.”
In high school, she took swing dance lessons at Southside Preservation Hall, which had a big band bash once a month.
“My teacher was gracious enough to let me put together three or four tunes with just fiddle, bass and drums as a trio. So I was excited to sing Honeysuckle Rose and a couple other just jazz standards – super fun,” she said. She also played some with the Fort Worth Youth Orchestra.
Her grandfather’s influence didn’t stop with Katie – her brother, Ross Holmes, is also a fiddle player and professional musician.
Ross has played with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bruce Hornsby, and produced Katie’s solo album in 2016.
Graduating from R.L. Paschal High School, Katie moved down to Waco and – through McLennan Community College – was offered the opportunity to study not classical violin, but swing fiddle. And it was where she had her first brush with the extended Asleep at the Wheel musical family.
“Johnny Gimble was a fiddle player for Bob Wills and played a lot with Asleep at the Wheel and his son, Dick Gimble, is a teacher there and that’s who introduced me to the program,” she said.
The Gimbles – father and son – have been a big influence.
“I love waltzes, so Tennessee Waltz and Waltz Across Texas were always some of my favorites. And Johnny Gimble wrote a ton. His waltzes are my favorite to this day. I will always choose a Johnny Gimble waltz if asked to play one. They’re so good,” she said.
Katie has also learned some of Johnny Gimble’s fiddle solos by heart.
“We played with Lyle Lovett at the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame a few years back and Lyle came and did Blues for Dixie with us. And I played note for note Johnny Gimble’s Blues for Dixie solo. And it was special because his granddaughter, Emily, was in the band with us at the time. And I was just playing it for her. She knew what I was doing. That was a really special performance,” she said.
Two years after she started the program in Waco, swing fiddle firmly in her grasp, Katie boogied down to the musical capital of Texas and the home of Asleep at the Wheel.
Let’s jump a two-step back and take a trip down Route 66 with The Wheel. Though long based in Austin, the band started back in Washington, D.C. , in 1970, opening for Alice Cooper (the Marilyn Manson of the ‘70s) and Jefferson Airplane offshoot Hot Tuna. Band leader Ray Benson wanted to build a Western Swing band that, like Bob Wills’ many bands, blended American blues, jazz, swing and country. The band found its home in the welcoming cosmic cowboy arms of Austin. Benson, a tall lanky drink of water with a baritone voice to match, calls the music “jazz with a cowboy hat.”
When I first saw them, I was drawn to them by the fact they had a real piano player, initially Floyd Domino. Domino would play boogie-woogie, jazz and rock, seemingly all at once. The Asleep at the Wheel musical family tree now numbers more than 80, with plenty having gone on to long, successful careers in music.
Now let’s back up a few bars to Katie in Austin. “I moved to Austin and started playing, working in fiddle shops, fixing fiddles and stuff like that,” she said.
She sat in with as many people as she could, was a regular member of a swing band called The Jitterbug Vipers, and started a band called Ghosts Along the Brazos before eventually joining the Wheel.
Working with the Wheel has opened many doors for Katie and allowed her to play alongside great musicians such as Lovett, Vince Gill and plenty of others. She’s played alongside Texas legend Willie Nelson a number of times, but one event stands out.
“My very favorite Willie Nelson gig,” she says, was a small one at The Broken Spoke, a timeless little joint in the middle of Austin.
“He was playing like old tunes that he hadn’t played in a really long time,” she said. “Even Ray was really excited about it because he was just playing what he felt like. And we were just hanging on, but it was truly just the most special Willie night that I’ve had with him.”
The results of Katie’s 2016 solo record produced by her brother surprised her.
“Turns out my original songs are kind of all over the place as far as style goes, which I think is great because of that Americana umbrella,” she said.
The Wheel’s last record, New Roots, stepped away from just straight-up swing, which she said was a fun challenge. The Wheel’s repertoire is wide and varied as a roadtrip down Route 66, one of the band’s signature tunes. And Katie likes it like that.
“We do a lot of the boogie-woogie stuff. And Hot Rod Lincoln – is that Western swing? It’s kind of rock and roll, especially coming from Commander Cody. Those guys were so rock and roll back in the day. It’s been quite a journey and we tried to cover the bases on a lot of things, but it all comes back down to Western swing and I do love that,” she said.
Like most businesses, particularly in the entertainment world, hard-touring Asleep at the Wheel has been hindered by the coronavirus pandemic, sidelined from the concert circuit since March.
The band has played a few socially distanced gigs and Benson wrote a COVID-inspired tune the band recorded called I Love You. Don’t Touch Me. They’ve been in the studio working on a record set to come out in February.
But she’s also been … waiting tables? That too has a Wheel connection. Katie explains:
“I live in Fredericksburg and one of the former members of the Wheel, Johnny Nicholas, has a great restaurant and music venue out here in the Hill Country called the Hill Top Café. I’ve been able to play gigs with him and I started waiting tables just to help the business and make a little extra money as well. So the list of things that I’m saying this year that I never thought I would be doing is getting quite long.”
But she’s ready to get back on the road and play with the Fort Worth Symphony.
“I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t even hardly believe we’re having a show,” she said.
Katie certainly has that Fort Worth spirit. She asked me how I was holding up in this difficult year.
Much like bars, restaurants and concert halls, journalism has been hit hard but “we’re hanging in there,” I said.
Katie gave me a little Western Swing pep talk that could have come right from the mouth of Bob Wills himself.
“Right. We’re in it together. In it to win it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, that’s for sure.”
Take it away, Katie.
Fort Worth Symphony opens with Asleep at the Wheel
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will open the 2020-2021 Pops Series with Grammy Award-winning band Asleep at the Wheel on Sept. 11-13, the symphony announced.
The Austin-based Roots/Americana band is celebrating 50 years as a touring guardian of Western Swing. Asleep at the Wheel will be joined by special guests, The Quebe Sisters, who hail from Fort Worth.
“We are excited to get back to playing some music. And it doesn’t get any better than with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra,” said Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. “Our extremely talented friends The Quebe Sisters will be joining us for a few tunes. There’s gonna be a lot of fiddles on stage, so don’t miss it.“
Performances will take place Friday-Saturday Sept. 11-12 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Sept. 13 at 2 p.m. at Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium. Prices range from $35 to $99. Tickets: Call the box office at 817-665-6000 or go to www.fwsymphony.org