Ray Benson called the current edition of his 40-year-old Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel among the best when he played Joe’s Pub last year, and Elizabeth McQueen, who plays rhythm guitar and sings backup, is one of the reasons.
But McQueen, who’s been with the band since 2005, also has an impressive solo recording career, though the title of her third album The Laziest Girl in Town (Freedom Records) is misleading: She’s actually most ambitious, as shown by the recently released disc’s engaging blend of jazzy swing tunes (like the Cole Porter title track) with varied tempos and inventive vocals — a marked departure from her previous outings.
“I’ve been studying a whole different kind of music since my last album, because that’s what I’ve been doing,” says McQueen, whose last album Happy Doing What We’re Doing focused on the British pub rock/new wave in covering the likes of Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.
She means Asleep at the Wheel’s Western swing, of course.
“I now lean more toward the jazz influence singingwise and stylistically, so the songs I’m writing are much more in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and Nina Simone than Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello,” says McQueen, who points to Simone’s version of “The Laziest Girl in Town” as the inspiration for her cover. “That’s what I’m around and that’s what Asleep at the Wheel listens to and talks about: the early to mid-20th century music world — not a lot of Led Zeppelin or post-’60s rock and pop other than some ’70s country.”
Little Rock native McQueen, who sang in choirs and played in progressive rock and folk bands while growing up in the D.C. area, came to Austin in 2000. At first an alternative rock fan of artists like PJ Harvey, The Cure, Jeff Buckley, Depeche Mode and Indigo Girls, she had “no time for country music at all” until she saw alternative country band BR549 open for Bob Dylan.
“I knew they were doing the ‘new traditional’ country and thought if I liked them, I’d probably like the artists they were listening to — and I did,” she notes. “But while I wanted to be a rock or country singer for a long time, my voice really lends itself to vocal jazz. I might have had to mature to get that: Before I was in The Wheel, I thought it was just my grandparents’ music — not even my parents! Standards? Bleah! But the more I listened, I found that standards are where it’s at — and no one sings like Ella Fitzgerald!”
Other covers on The Laziest Girl in Town are indie electronic band Magnetic Fields’ “You’re My Only Home” (“done in a Julie London-era arrangement,” McQueen says), and Dan Hicks’ “Lonely Madman.” She and husband David Sanger — Asleep at the Wheel’s drummer and her co-producer on the album — wrote or co-wrote the rest, with her original lead track “You’re to Blame” backed by a novel one-shot video directed by teen horror film director Emily Hagins.
Sanger produced McQueen’s first album, the country-rock The Fresh Up Club (2003). After releasing Happy Doing What We’re Doing in March 2005, in time for the annual South by Southwest music trade conference in Austin, she tried out for the just-departed fiddler/vocalist Haydn Vitera’s spot in Asleep at the Wheel — and also filled the female vocal spot left vacant by Chris O’Connell.
“I’d sung at Ray Benson’s annual birthday gig at South by Southwest, and it got in his mind,” she recalls. “I give him credit for hiring the wife of one of the band members — which is a recipe for disaster! But it worked out really good; I’d been leading my own band for four or five years at that point and was kind of burned out, and I reveled in the idea of just showing up and singing and going home and they pay me — and traveling with my husband is really great.”
But she had to curtail her own music.
“They have a gazillion songs to learn, and Ray’s level of musicianship as a guitar player and singer is way above what I was used to,” she says. “Guys like [fiddler] Jason Roberts and [steel player] Eddie Vinson are pros and have been in the band a really long time, so you have to know your s**t! And Ray goes to bed after you do, gets up before you do, constantly works the show and delivers every night.”
McQueen eventually “got itchy” to write songs again, and was thinking about recording when she became pregnant with daughter Lisel. “After she was 11 months old or so I was ready to take on another project of my own,” she says.
McQueen, Sanger and their now 2-year-old daughter travel together in a separate Sprinter van nicknamed “the baby bus.”
“We follow the big [Asleep at the Wheel] bus,” says McQueen, who is now expecting her second baby. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence since becoming a mom, so I’ll have to be twice as confident — or sleep deprived!”
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