At one time, Asleep at the Wheel’s steel guitar player Eddie Rivers was a correctional officer in Wisconsin. He worked as a prison guard during the day, and played Western Swing music at night and on the weekends.
“You can’t make a living [playing Western Swing music] up there,” Rivers said in a telephone interview. “The music scene in Wisconsin is not good.”
Then, five years ago, he hooked up with Asleep at the Wheel, and things changed. Rivers quit his day job and moved to Austin.
When we spoke to him last weeek, he was in Williamston, Virginia, promoting the Wheel’s new CD, “Willie and the Wheel,” a collaboration with Texas legend Willie Nelson. Their tour included gigs up and down the East Coast and an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
“Letterman was interesting,” Rivers said. “The place is a lot smaller than I thought it was.”
As for working with Nelson, Rivers has enjoyed the gig.
“He’s a nice guy, a real gentleman,” Rivers said. “Everything’s going good.”
Rivers’ favorite part of each performance is when the band plays the old Bob Wills songs.
“Jason Roberts [the band’s fiddle player] does Bob Wills so well, it’s almost like you’re playing with Bob himself,” he said.
Rivers was raised on the old songs and looked to steel players like Herb Remington for his musical influence.
“I like the old timers,” said Rivers, who plays a Fender steel guitar.
Rivers’ steel guitar can be heard in every number the Wheel plays, but sometimes he gets to shine on the band’s more upbeat numbers like “Choo Choo Boogie” and “Bump Bounce Boogie,” when he picks up his saxophone.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “We enjoy what we do and it comes across.”
Rivers’ favorite cut on the new CD is the 1944 Spade Cooley hit, “Shame on You.”
He shines on the cut. It’s hard to make a scolding joyful, but that’s just what Rivers, Willie and the Wheel do with this tune. They make the blues and a broken heart sound good. And that suits this former correctional officer just fine. He’s doing what he loves and loving what he does.
“I never considered myself a prison guard with a hobby,” Rivers said. “I always considered myself a musician with a day job.”
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