Ex-Asleep at the Wheel Singer Elizabeth McQueen Mixes It Up With Brothers Lazaroff

Categories: Interviews
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Todd V. Wolfson
One doesn't join the world's foremost Western swing band lightly, and one leaves it even less so. When Austin singer and songwriter Elizabeth McQueen signed up for Asleep at the Wheel in 2005, she had no choice but to throw herself into the role fully, never quite guessing that's she'd wind up with a Grammy nomination and a duet with Willie Nelson to boot.

But her retirement from the Wheel at the beginning of this year hasn't meant retirement from music -- though raising a family when your husband is the drummer in a touring machine isn't a waltz across the sawdust floor. McQueen, one of Austin's finest and most versatile voices, is already working on a new a solo album and continuing her collaboration with St. Louis' Brothers Lazaroff on a recently-released project: The Laziest Remix for her last solo album The Laziest Girl in Town.

As McQueen explains, the remix EP both breathed new life into her own music and pointed the direction for future projects with the Brothers Lazaroff. McQueen returns to St. Louis for a release party with the Brothers at the Demo STL on Saturday, February 22.

Roy Kasten: What triggered the decision to leave Asleep at the Wheel?

Elizabeth McQueen: I'd been in Asleep at the Wheel for eight and half years, and five of those years I was traveling with small children, because my husband David [Sanger] plays in the band too. I always knew that once we took our second daughter out on the road I would be getting out when our oldest was starting kindergarten. It was fun to be a family on the road; it was an awesome adventure. But it had gotten exhausting and expensive. It was time. Creatively, I'd been working on the Laziest Remix record with Brothers Lazaroff, and it had just come out, and it all just happened at once. It was the beginning of a new year; it was time to start a new thing. There were no ill feelings between me and the band.

And I imagine home schooling on the Asleep at the Wheel bus was not an option.

We didn't actually take the kids on the bus. A tour bus is not place for a child. We actually had our own Sprinter van that we would travel around in. So we were driving ourselves to gigs, and that was brutal on the Asleep at the Wheel schedule. They have three drivers and can go wherever they want to. We actually did consider home schooling, but the longer we had kids the less we considered trying to do that on the road.

What one thing stands out about what you learned during your years with the Wheel?

For me there are a ton of things. I went in there as a novice; I'd only been playing music seriously for about seven years when I got that gig. I was pretty young. It was like school for me. I thought I could sing when I joined Asleep at the Wheel, but I really learned how to sing in that band. I learned how to be a prepared side guy. Singers often don't have to learn that. They're in charge, they put the band together, but they aren't necessarily part of the band. I learned to be always ready for whatever was thrown at me.

I also got to watch Ray Benson for eight and a half years. It's really good to have someone like that as a model. He works all the time. He's always trying to create opportunities for the band. You go to bed and he's talking to someone on the phone; you get up in the morning and he's already on the phone. I feel like I learned, not everything, but just a ton out there. My musicianship was comparatively low when I went in and I'm coming out much stronger as a musician.

Asleep at the Wheel had its own identity, following and reputation, and then you joined up. Did you just fit into that or did you have to change or adapt to that world?

Both. I was lucky to find a gig that was a good fit for my voice. I have an old-school, mid-20th-century-jazz voice. That doesn't fit into all modern forms of music. I also do a lot of harmony singing and that's something I love. I went in there as Elizabeth McQueen, roots-rock singer, and kind of had to conform to the Wheel identity, for sure. That's not a bad thing. Because that identity is really high-caliber musicianship. You're expected to be able to do anything at any time.

I'm guessing you met David Lazaroff through your husband, or was that before?

I knew David Lazaroff way before I knew David Sanger. When I moved to Austin with the big plan that I was going to play music for a living, he was one of the first people I started to play music with. We did gigs together. I met Jeff [Lazaroff] and met some cool musicians through David's group, and we would go on tours with Brothers Lazaroff, and they would play on my records and I would sing on theirs. David is the closest thing I have to a musical brother. He and Jeff are my musical siblings.

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