Jason Roberts: My whole life was leading up to this

Fiddle player takes on the role of Bob Wills in ‘A Ride with Bob’ 

BY TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Dec 21, 2007 - For as long as he can remember, Jason Roberts wanted to play in a Western Swing band – and he wanted play like his hero, legendary fiddle master Bob Wills. 

Courtesy Photo

Jason Roberts, fiddle player for Asleep at the Wheel, takes on the role of the late Bob Wills, “King of Western Swing,” in the play “A Ride with Bob,” opening at the historic Perot Theater in Texarkana next month.

Roberts never dreamed he’d be playing the part of Wills on the stage, however.

When he was growing up in the Central Texas town of Lampasas, he was surrounded by the sounds of Western swing. Roberts picked up the fiddle at age 11 and made his professional debut right after he turned 13.

�I�m just really blessed and fortunate,� Roberts said in a telephone interview from his home in Austin. �All I ever needed was a platform to shout from, and now I have that.�

Roberts, now 32, first picked up a bow when he was 11 and recently celebrated his 13th year as the fiddle player for Asleep at the Wheel, the world’s premiere Western swing band. 

Not content to rest on his laurels, the young musician has recently been bitten by the acting bug. He’s been cast as a young Bob Wills in the play, “A Ride with Bob.”

The play, co-written by The Wheel’s front man, Ray Benson, and author Anne Rapp, tells Bob Wills’ life story through his songs. It’s has been playing to sold-out audiences since debuting in 2005. The play begins a two-day run at the Perot Theatre in Texarkana late next month.

When asked if he was pleased with audience response to the play, Benson said pleased is an understatement. 

�We�ve been overwhelmed. I couldn�t script it better if I had written �audience laughs here.� And, we�re finally getting to play Texarkana. Finally!�

When he first came to Texas from West Virginia as an adult, Benson crossed the border at Texarkana.

�It was like, �All right! We�re here,�� Benson said in a recent telephone interview. �I said, �I�m here and I�m going to stay here.��

Although Roberts says he didn’t have any acting experience other than “having to convince my mother why I was coming home so late,”  he is pleased with the way the play has come together. 

�Ray told us, �Boys, we�re going to do a little theater,� and I thought, �Oh, my goodness, we�re a bunch of VFW musicians, beer joint guys,�� Roberts said. �The experience has surpassed my expectations, and it�s turned out to be a lot of fun to play Bob Wills.�

Roberts says he didn’t have to do a lot to prepare for the role.

�I was pretty studied up,� he said. �My whole life was leading up to this.�

His boss agrees.

�He�s a natural. This is the part he was born to play,� said Benson. �When we started this mess, I said, �Well, we�ve got the hardest part done. Jason will play the part of Bob Wills, �cause I don�t know how I�d find someone to do that.��

Of his acting, Roberts says, “It turned out that I had at least a little natural ability to stand where I’m supposed to stand, and remember to say what I’m supposed to say, and to be convincing, rather than sounding ‘like – I – am – reading – the – lines.’”

Although Roberts gets to improvise during a regular gig, he has to walk a tighter line in the play.

�I�m portraying Bob Wills, and he had his own style and his own way,� Roberts said.�

When asked what he’d like for the audience to take away from the play, Roberts mentions two things:

�I would like for them to see the show and think, �Wow! These guys got it right. They look the part. They act the part. The information in the show is accurate.��

The other thing Roberts wants the audience to know is that “Western Swing’s not dying. There are plenty of us out there who love it and are trying to perpetuate it.”

Although Roberts has several favorite moments in the play, including seeing the 25-member cast in period costumes, he thinks the most moving moment comes during the “Misery” scene.

�It�s where Bob Wills didn�t show for the gig and he�s visited by the ghost of one of his mentors who tells him to pick himself up, brush himself off and get back out there,� Roberts says. �It�s a touching scene, and of course, there�s the song. There aren�t very many dry eyes in the house after that scene, I�ll tell you, including mine.�

Other stand-out numbers in the play  include “Faded Love,” a look at Wills’ five marriages, and the finale, when everyone’s on stage for a rousing performance of Wills’ most recognizable  tune, “San Antonio Rose.”

In early January, Roberts will add another title to his list of accomplishments: husband. He’s going to marry long-time girlfriend, Gretchen, a political consultant, on Jan. 9.

�She�s a lovely girl,� Roberts said of his bride-to-be. �I�m truly blessed.�

�A Ride With Bob� opens for a two-day run at the historic Perot Theatre in downtown Texarkana on Saturday, Jan. 25 at 7:30 and on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets for the play range from $6 to $48. Call 903-792-4992 for more information.

The band is booked for a regular concert at the Whatley Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday, Jan. 29. The show has been “sold out for months,” according to Whatley Director Carolyn Franks. To get on the show’s waiting list, call 930-434-8181. 

Editor’s note: “A Ride With Bob” really is a must-see for fans of Bob Wills and Western Swing music. 

The show is funny, sad, touching and guaranteed to make you say “Ah, ha!” as you make your way home. This is the first time the play has come to northeast Texas. Don’t miss it. When it comes to Western Swing, nobody does it better than The Wheel.

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