By the time Asleep at the Wheel rolled into Spokane on May 18, 1980, it was a well-established and veteran band on the country-bluegrass circuit.
And 40 years later, band-leader Ray Benson still has a special reminder of a very memorable concert – a small jar of ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
The band was booked that night to play Gator McKlusky’s, a county-rock club at Hauser Lake. Getting to town was a bit of an ordeal. Getting out was, too.
In an interview this month from his home in Austin, Texas, Benson recalled he was pulling double-duty on that tour. The regular driver was out, so Benson was behind the wheel, he said. They were coming up from California, and after stopping in Portland to pick up a fiddle player, he said he remembers seeing Mount St. Helens in the distance.
“That’s the volcano that’s been in the news,” he recalls telling his bandmates.
After driving all night, they arrived in Spokane around 8 a.m. As they were unloading, he said, he heard a boom, “like somebody doing construction.”
He didn’t think much of it, and headed for his hotel room to get some sleep before the gig that night.
“I wake up at 2 in the afternoon, figuring I’m going to head down the show, and it’s dark outside and it’s snowing,” he said, laughing. “Oh my god, it’s 72 degrees and snowing. What he hell is going on? I was freaking out.”
Soon he learned the boom he heard was Mount St. Helens erupting some 250 miles away.
“So we go to play the show,” he said. “We weren’t going to let a volcano stop us.”
Getting there took some doing. In 2010, the club’s operator, Jim Christensen, told The Spokesman-Review about the challenge.
“The Washington State Patrol closed (Interstate 90) and some other highways; now I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to get the band out of Spokane and to the club. I called on a good friend as devious and hard-headed as I and told him of my trouble,” Christensen said. “He was up to the task and immediately left for Spokane using back roads and cattle trails. He reached the band at the hotel, loaded them up in the bus and set out once again on the back roads and cattle trails through Spokane Valley, around the back side of Newman Lake and through the mountains, and the back way leading them to Hauser.
“I was pacing under the awning out in front of the club when finally I spotted my friend’s red-and-white convertible in a huge plume of ash pulling into our parking lot with the band bus following in his rooster tail of ash.”
According to Christensen, as the night wore on, the ash started to cause problems for the club’s equipment, “but the Wheel finished the show to a very happy but gray crowd.”
Benson said he didn’t have any second thoughts at the time of doing the show. “I was 29 years old, and bulletproof. And the folks were very appreciative.”
Like a lot of visitors to Spokane, the band was stuck in town. When the hotel “started running out of food” after a couple of days, the band decided to try to drive to Seattle. The group headed over the North Cascades Highway to “avoid the cloud. I think it took 10 hours to get to the coast going that way,” Benson said.
They weren’t quite done with Mount St. Helens.
“About a month later, the bus blows up, because all the dust had gotten in and ground it to a pulp,” Benson said. “And all of our speakers starting blowing out one by one, because when the silica gets into the speaker, it’ll tear it apart.
“We figured at that time, the volcano cost us $25,000.”
Still, he has plenty of good humor about the experience. He chuckles as he recalls that somewhere in his photo collection is a Polaroid of the band all wearing masks, “which nowadays looks kinda normal.”
Every time Asleep at the Wheel comes back to Spokane, “it’s really cool,” he said, that when he mentions that gig, there are always a couple dozen fans in the audience who let him know they too were at Gator McKlusky’s that night in May 1980.
“It’s one of the defining moments of my life, that’s for sure.”
So defining that his souvenir jar of volcanic ash is kept by his bedside. He collected it himself as the “snow” was falling.
“I had a mayonnaise jar and I set it on the air conditioner” outside his hotel room. “And it was full,” he said.
While this is the 40th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption, it’s the 50th anniversary for the band, which now includes Spokane-born fiddle player Dennis Ludiker. Benson had big plans for the group this year, including new music and filming with the original lineup. “It all went to hell” with the coronavirus pandemic, he said. “March 7 was the day they were supposed to come in. But we’ll do it eventually.”
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