Looking Back: Interview with Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel
Note from the Editor: This interview took place on March 05, 2015, by Nippertown author, Don Wilcock. This comes from Don’s extensive archive of interviews.
Congratulations to Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel for kicking the coronavirus.
“Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down. I don’t know why. Well, I know why. It’s just the way I’m built, somewhat contrarian,” he told me in 2015. “I think that’s part of the deal, and of course (Johnny) Cash was like that. Willie (Nelson) is like that. I’m honored to be named in the same breath with them, but that’s what you do. You stick to your guns, and you either make it, or you shoot yourself in the foot.”
Here’s a piece I wrote on him in 2015 for the Saratogian and Troy Record.
This Is Not Hillbilly Jazz
Ray Benson grew up in Pennsylvania. He went to school in Ohio, worked briefly in New York City as a film editor and formed the western swing band Asleep at the Wheel in West Virginia. Commander Cody convinced him to bring the band to Oakland where they were signed to United Artists in 1972, but Denson’s heart – and now his home – is in Texas.
Forty-five years, nine Grammys, and 20 charting country hits later, Asleep at the Wheel is the only western swing band that matters. He brings the band to Albany Sunday for a show at The Egg Sunday after releasing their latest album in a catalog that approaches 30 CDs in 42 years. Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys is Asleep at the Wheel’s third CD to pay tribute to the Godfather of Western Swing. But if you think the group is stuck in an archival box resurrecting Bob Wills’ hillbilly answer Count Basie, you haven’t been paying attention.
“Sticking to your guns is different than being stuck in a box,” says a man whose new album is a 22-cut tour de force featuring guests ranging from country giants like Willie Nelson, and Brad Paisley to Americana heavyweights The Avett Brothers, Carrie Rodriguez and Tommy Emmanuel. Most of the songs were cut live in the studio. This was not a typical contemporary CD where the big names phone it in.
“We are totally prepared and then get in there and knock it out and re-arrange it and work with it. That’s how it always is. You start out knowing what you’re doing, getting some basic ideas and things work out. Yeah, I’m the band leader, but I want everyone’s opinion, and I’ll ask for it. I’ll say, “What do you think here?” They’ll say, “No, I don’t.” I’m lucky to get to be the last word on it most of the time, but you want collaboration. That’s what it’s all about, team work.”
One of the guests, country giant George Strait, commented to Benson, “You always do some little twist there that’s different,” to which Benson responded “Yeah, that’s the whole idea. You gotta make it your own.” Another guest, country veteran Merle Haggard, sings a sad and lonesome western twang called “Keeper of My Heart.” What comes around goes around. It was a 1970 Hag LP called A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) that convinced Benson to concentrate on Wills’ style in the first place. At that point in time, Wills’ recordings from the ’30s and early ‘40s were only available on scratchy 78 RPM records. Haggard’s release included several musicians from Wills’ band. “It really was a lesson book,” says Benson. “It was like, ‘Ok, guys, this is the music you want to do, and here’s a great way to do it.’”
Benson says its improvisation that keeps the music fresh for him after all these years. “Every day you learn something new and try to interject something new into your playing. That’s what we like about Wills, the spontaneity. All the old folks told me that Bob never did anything the same twice, that it was just not in his DNA. I guess he was the original ADD.
“If we played the same songs every night in the same way, no, I couldn’t do this for 45 years, but every night you try to interject something different and something more creative or something that tickles your fancy because I’m always trying to amuse myself or impress myself first and foremost.”
Bob Wills’ idea was to create a dance band with a country string section that played pop songs as if they were jazz numbers. He died in 1975, but his music is being kept alive by a band led by a man still obsessed by the new nuances he discovers in that music every day. “I still practice my guitar every day. I still work on my singing and songwriting. So, no, when they ask you, “When are you gonna retire,” I say, “Retire from what?” I have this great story. Not that I’ve read any T. S. Elliot really, but I read this interview. A young writer came and said, “I’m tired of the business. I can’t put up with this. I’m gonna quit writing,” and Elliot said, “Oh, you can?”