Songwriter Interviews

Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel

by Leslie Michele Derrough

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Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Shooter Jennings, Lyle Lovett, the Avett Brothers, George Strait, Carrie Rodriguez, Jamey Johnson, Elizabeth Cook, Brad Paisley, Amos Lee, Old Crow Medicine Show, Robert Earl Keen. Those are some of the artists who said yes to Ray Benson when he asked them if they'd appear on his band Asleep at the Wheel's third tribute album to Country & Western legend Bob Wills, Still The King. It's an impressive list and says a lot about both men, Benson and Wills, and how much they are respected.

Benson, the founder and leading voice behind Asleep at the Wheel, knows how to honor his legends, hence the third go-around recording the music of the man who gave Country & Western music its swing during the hardscrabble years of the Depression and beyond. It is a sound that the singer, songwriter and guitar player has brought to the forefront of his own music with the band he co-founded with Lucky Oceans and LeRoy Preston in 1970. They released their first album, Comin' Right At Ya, in 1973, played on the same bill with Alice Cooper and moved down to Austin, Texas, at the behest of Willie Nelson.

In their 45 years of service, Asleep at the Wheel has won the Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental six times, and the trophy for Best Country Performance by a Group twice. Their biggest hit is "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," a song infused with Benson humor.

The band remains a popular live draw, and in September they hit road for a US jaunt. "We're always traveling," Benson told me before the tour while he was spending a few days at home in Texas. "That's pretty much how it is for the rest of the year."

Benson walked Songfacts through some of the songs he has written for Asleep at the Wheel and several solo albums.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): When you're writing a song, how does it happen for you?

Ray Benson: Well, words I write on paper. Sometimes they have a melody and sometimes they are just words.

When I pick up a guitar and I'm writing down on pieces of paper, without the music, it's different. So sometimes if there's a form or story or something I've already conceived, then yeah, I'll sit down there and do it. But the form part will come when I pick up a guitar and strum and have a melody in mind and start putting words to it. In terms of lyrics, that's the unconscious kind of thing where you've just got to trust it, and sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn't.

Songfacts: You started playing guitar at a very, very young age. Did writing lyrics come around that same time?

Benson: Oh, I started writing lyrics when I was 6. You know, poems. I always liked to rhyme so I always wrote couplets and poems and all that kind of stuff.

Benson plays a unique leather-covered Gibson J-200 guitar. "A fellow in England covered it for me probably 10 or 12 years ago," Benson explained. "Elvis had leather-covered guitars but it's a tradition that goes back to the 1930s, 1940s, where you take leather and cover the guitar and then hand-tool the leather. It usually ruins the sound but in my case it actually helped the sound because now it's an electric acoustic so it plugs in."
I've played the guitar and performed and sang since I was a kid, 9 years old, but the songwriting, not until I was probably about 15 or 16. I started writing rock n' roll songs for a little band and then I started writing country songs and it just sort of happened. Around 18 years old I started doing it full time.

Songfacts: You were in a rock n' roll band early on?

Benson: Oh yeah. The first was a folk music group I did with my sister. We were very successful. We actually sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra one time at a concert for 5000 people.

We did hootenannies. This was 1961, 1962, so we sang "This Land Is Your Land" and Peter, Paul and Mary songs. We were very cute - we dressed alike [Laughs]. So that was my first.

But then I played everything. I played in the high school symphony. I played bass, string bass, and I played tuba in the marching band and in brass ensembles. I played classical music. I played upright bass in jazz bands. I played everything, but guitar and singing was always my strength.

Songfacts: What do you think is the biggest mistake someone can make as a songwriter?

Benson: To stop writing and consider it over. I know a lot of guys and gals that say, "I'm just dried up." And I say, "Don't stop." One of my old dearly departed friends, Tiny McFarland, said, "If you write a thousand songs, they can't all suck." For crying out loud, just do it. One of the greatest feelings you can ever have is to have a finished song. Now it might not be a hit, it might not make you a penny and it might not even be good. But to have finished a song is such a wonderful accomplishment for anybody. So take joy in doing that. That would be the biggest mistake: people not having the joy of their creation because it didn't do what they thought it was supposed to do.

Born in 1905 in Texas, Bob Wills was originally a barber, but having come from a musical family his fiddle playing eventually won out. "San Antonio Rose" is his best-known song, recorded in 1938 with his Texas Playboys. Wills has been inducted into the Country Music, Rock and Roll and Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fames. He passed away in 1975.
Songfacts: You are a great admirer of Bob Wills. What is it about him that you love so much?

Benson: He was an original. He set the standard for Western music and contemporary rock n' roll.

If you play Western swing music, you're always at some point imitating or influenced by Bob Wills. If you play rock n' roll, you owe a great debt to Bob Wills. If you play modern country music, you owe a great debt to Bob Wills and what he pioneered. But the reason I really like him is because he moves me. His music has got a spirit that moves me and that's what music is all about.

Songfacts: Do you remember the first song you heard by him?

Benson: "Brain Cloudy Blues." I had probably heard "San Antonio Rose" but it didn't register with me. I knew the song but I didn't even know it was Bob Wills. But I had a 78 rpm record - I collect 78 rpm records - and "Brain Cloudy Blues" was like, "Oh, this is it."

Songfacts: On your latest record, Still The King, your third homage to Bob Wills, you have such a big array of guest stars. What was the song selection process like?

Benson: Well, I always say, "Hey, we're doing this album, would you like to do it?" and they go, "Yeah, we'd like to." So I said, "Do you have an idea what you'd like to do?"

Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers wanted to do "Faded Love" and I was like, "Go for it." So we did that. Merle Haggard wanted to do "Keeper Of My Heart." But the other folks said, "Do you have any suggestions?" and I'd send them two or three.

The Avett Brothers knew what they wanted to do. They'd been doing that song in their show, "The Girl I Left Behind Me." So that was the process.

Songfacts: Was there someone in particular you were really excited to be able to work with this time?

Benson: There wasn't any I wasn't excited to work with [Laughs]. Every one of them was, "Yeah, we'll come and sing with you." Man, really, it was so cool. Every one of them: Willie Nelson, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Amos Lee – what a singer. Carrie Rodriguez, Buddy Miller – one of my oldest pals that I've never got to work with.

Songfacts: Shooter Jennings performs his daddy's song, "Bob Wills Is Still the King."

Benson: Yeah, I knew Shooter and I knew Waylon. We used to tour a lot with Waylon so it was very special. He is a good guy. He's tough and he's no bullshit and he's what he is.

Songfacts: I want to ask you about a few songs and I want to start with one of your first singles, "Daddy's Advice," which LeRoy Preston actually wrote.

Fun Facts About Ray:

First Concert as a Teen: Canned Heat in 1967.
Second: Grateful Dead.

First Purchased Music: the Fats Domino single "Walking To New Orleans"; first album was Pete Seeger.

First Guitar: A $12 Stella from the want ads when he was 9.

When Not Playing Music: He's in his garden or on the golf course.

Height: 6'7".
Benson: Correct, and he also sang it. That was on our first record. When we started it was me, Leroy and Lucky, and me and LeRoy wrote and he did most of the writing. I would always contribute a song but he was the main songwriter. He's such a great songwriter. He was always so clever and so original.

Songfacts: The song has a 1950s vibe to it.

Benson: Yeah, 'cause it was what we called a shuffle beat. But that's what Western swing is, and that was it. That's why I say rock n' roll owes a debt to Western swing, because that feel, that bounce, became rock n' roll in the '50s and early '60s. It was kind of combining Western swing with R&B jump blues, which is what rock n' roll was. So yeah, that's what that is all about.

Songfacts: "Lonely Avenue Revisited" has a bluesy feel to it.

Benson: Yeah, that's an interesting story. I wrote that as a tribute to Doc Pomus. He had written a song called "Lonely Avenue," and I know Ray Charles had done it and Albert King, but Doc Pomus, who wrote "Little Sister," "Save The Last Dance For Me" and all those, he was a good friend of mine so I took his line "Lonely Avenue" and I called it "Lonely Avenue Revisited." Then I got Bonnie Raitt to sing it with me and that was cool.

Songfacts: You always have a little sense of humor in your songs and "Don't Go There" is a perfect example.

Benson: Yeah, the movie The Alamo was coming out and this guy said, "Hey, you'd be the perfect band to do an album called The Alamo and when the movie is a big hit, it'll be a big hit."

So we did it and then of course the whole Ozzy Osbourne thing was happening so Dave Sanger and I co-wrote it. [Ray is referring to the not-so-great moment in rock when Ozzy got arrested for urinating on a monument near the Alamo.] It's what I call a novelty song, and novelty songs can wear pretty thin when they leave the moment [Laughs].

Songfacts: What about "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read"?

Benson: That's our only Top 10 hit record, actually. Me and LeRoy and the late Chris Frayne wrote it. Chris Frayne was a fantastic artist, who was Commander Cody's brother, and Chris came to me and LeRoy and said, "I got a great idea for a song and this one's called 'The Letter That Johnny Walker Read.'"

We went, "Yeah, that's hilarious, okay. We'll send it to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton." So me and LeRoy wrote it and sent the demo and never heard back from them. We didn't know them, they didn't know us, you know. So we recorded it and we turned it in and we got dropped from Epic Records because they said the material sucked [Laughs].

So we got signed to Capitol Records and it was a Top 10 record. It was our first and only Billboard Country & Western Top 10 record.

Part of why I love country music, especially songwriting, is that it has the most wonderful play on words. My favorite is Roger Miller's "The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me." That's a great play on words. So "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" was the same thing and we made a great country & western song out of it. And then I did that recitation in it imitating Porter Wagoner.

Songfacts: You co-wrote "Let's Get Lost" with Willie Nelson but it's not what you'd expect from two country guys. It's very jazzy.

Benson: That's part of what I do, you know. It was funny because Willie had no idea. We were on his bus and I told him I had an idea for a song and started messing around and he started messing around on the guitar and he wrote the music while I fucked around on it.

Then I went and finished the words - he didn't even write the words to that, which is the opposite of a Willie Nelson song. But he had done something funny on the guitar and went, "Oh, that's really cool if I do this," and then we smoked a bunch of dope and he forgot about it [Laughs].

Songfacts: Whose idea was it to make this jazz?

Benson: He loves jazz, I love jazz. I practice my damn guitar every day to try to play better. Jazz is the highest form of songwriting.

Songfacts: And you had Stanley Jordan play on "Hands Of Time."

Benson: Yeah. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever seen. I have a very unique recording studio. He had come over to check out some of our analog gear and he said, "What's that?" I said it was a song I'm working on, and he says, "Mind if I play on it?"

I went, "Mind? Shoot, man, sure. But I got to go." The bus was warming up and we were leaving on the road and I said, "Well, I got to go. But go ahead." I came back and that was there. What a great present.

Songfacts: Tell us about the song "JJ Cale" that you did on your 2014 solo record, A Little Piece.

Benson: You know, I don't get to play rock and blues stuff as much with my band because our band is a concept, so it was a great thing.

I had never played a wah-wah pedal before and they gave it to me and, "Oh, this is what it's all about, what a cool deal." So I'm only about 45 years behind the times.

But it was to evoke JJ's "Crazy Mama," which has a guy named Mac Gayden on wah-wah guitar. It was such an incredible cut and I loved it to death.

I was a good friend of Cale's. I didn't get to see him much but we were friends for sure - I had called him up to play on the record a month before he died. When he died, I just sat down and wrote that song because I thought so much of the guy.

Songfacts: Another song from that album is "Ain't Looking For No Trouble."

Benson: Yeah, I like that song. Larry Campbell showed me this new tuning. We had been touring with Bob Dylan and Larry was in the band and he showed me this new tuning. It's great to get out of your rut, you know. Same thing with piano: I have to work on my piano playing 'cause I am not a piano player but I can play enough to write some stupid songs [Laughs].

So that's what happened with that. It was a time in my life when a lot of shit was happening and I was a target of a lot of energy in relationships and in business and on the road, and it all came to a head on that song. I was able to kind of put it all in that song what I wouldn't say directly to people.

September 30, 2015.
Get more at asleepatthewheel.com.
Group photo by Wyatt McSpadden; solo photo by Kristy Duff; live photo by Amy Harris.

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