Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel

by Corey O'Flanagan

Ray Benson is the leader of the legendary Americana band Asleep At The Wheel. He has won multiple Grammys and collaborated with artists from all over the musical landscape, including Willie Nelson and The Chicks.

At the end of October, Ray and Asleep At The Wheel were honored by Austin City Limits with an hour-long special showcasing many of the band's memorable performances on that stage. In this episode, Ray reflects on his career and explains why ACL has been so important to the band. He also tells us about the new album he is wrapping up that will come out in early 2021.


Early Stuff

We spent our first couple of years in West Virginia, then we moved to the Bay Area in California. At the end of 1972, beginning of '73, we came to Austin, Texas, and that is where I've been since.

We are so well suited to playing "Take Me Back To Tulsa." It was our first commercial single back in '73 and it's a lot of fun to play. I didn't discover Bob Wills until I was 16 or 17 and I just fell in love with the approach to the music and the style. That was certainly a big influence for me.

"The Letter That Johnny Walker Read" was originally rejected. Commander Cody's brother, Chris Frayne, came to me and said, "Hey, I got a great line for a Country & Western song." We wrote it, then we sent it to Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in the mail. We didn't know them, we just sent the cassette in the mail. They didn't do it, so we did.

We did a demo for the record company CBS and they didn't like it and dropped us, which is funny because it ended up being a Top 10 record [on the Country chart]. It was the only Top 10 record we did.


Collaborations

My goal as a young musician was to play with better musicians or with people that I admired. Boy has that come true and that is great.

Every day I'm pushed to get better. Where I'm sitting right now there's a guitar over there, a piano over there, a ukulele over there. I'm always trying to get better. Having the ability to collaborate is just the biggest compliment that anybody could give to anyone. It's the greatest feeling for me.

I couldn't say if I feel more comfortable touring or in the studio. We've only played six shows since March, so I really miss touring right now. When I'm on the road, however, I miss being able to create in the studio. On the road I also have less time to write because you're always getting ready for the next show.


Instrumental Music

Unfortunately, with the music business being filled with such "upstanding people," it was decided to eliminate all of the awards for the instrumentals of country music, rock and roll, etcetera, so we will no longer win any of those awards.1 Not that I care because we have our fair share of awards.

It really disturbs me because instrumental music is the lifeblood of music. You can't play a song without instruments. Instrumental music also puts a premium on melodies and structure as opposed to lyrics. Lyrics are absolutely very important, they're the lifeblood of popular music. But fact is, on every radio format in today's world, you will not hear an instrumental. "If you go back to the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s and even '80s, you will hear instrumental music on the Hit Parade or on the Top 40. To me it's a crime that the music business has done away with this.

In terms of writing, it's the simplest thing for me to do - melodies just come out of my head, hands and ears all day. Words are a little harder. They're poetry and/or communicative, so to me, that's the hardest part: writing really relevant and hard-hitting lyrics.

Ray onstage with bandmates Katie Shore, Dennis Ludiker and Josh Hoag

Roots Americana Music

When we formulated this band back in 1969-1970, so much of the past - what we call "Roots Americana Music" - was being forgotten and discarded. In the mid-'60s the English were very adept at bringing back music that America had forgotten about. The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, they revitalized popular music by their look back, and by reinterpreting what they had experienced before. That seems to me to be the case with us. We wanted to bring roots American music - the roots of the popular music of the day - and reinvigorate them with our own personality and talent.

The Band was a prototypical Americana band. They were one of the greatest bands I ever saw. I knew a few of the fellas and they were friends of mine. They were amazing and one of the greatest bands of all time. Their collaboration with Dylan had a huge imprint of what they were, but they went back to Ronnie Hawkins and roadhouse bands.

We were a roadhouse band for many years, even still occasionally, although the scenes have certainly changed. We do play more concerts, festivals and performing arts centers now than we did back then.


Canadian/US Music Ties

There's a huge country and folk music scene in Canada. The US and Canada are separated by this nebulous border, and with Canadian content laws,2 Canada was smart enough to protect their Indigenous musical community. Well, the border doesn't block radio waves, so CKLW carried over to Detroit from Windsor. Both Canadians and Americans are very much distinct in their view of who they are, but musically we're one big country for sure.


The Chicks

I knew The Dixie Chicks before Natalie joined them. They used to work in my studio and indirectly we were responsible for the current lineup because Lloyd Maines, Natalie's dad, used to work in our studio and he took my engineer up to Dallas to do a record. He brought Natalie with him and that's how she met The Chicks. They did "Roly Poly" as The Dixie Chicks, so when I did the Bob Wills tribute album I said, "Hey, let's just do that one, y'all already have an arrangement, it's really unique and we will just add our little thing to it."

I helped get them their agent when they were just getting going, and we would put them on shows opening up for us. We had a good friendly, family relationship with them.



ACL Hall of Fame

We did the first show at Austin City Limits in 1975. Willie Nelson had done the pilot. Over the years we have done so many appearances, so we feel very comfortable there.

Austin City Limits has meant so much to me. All of the shows we did in the '70s were the introduction, and later on we were able to do these really special shows and tribute shows. They gave me a real palette to be able to showcase all of the different crazy ideas I had.

The whole concept of ACL was to get up on stage and just do what you do every night. I remember Willie Nelson saying to me, "We just wanted a show where we could get up and play music for 30 minutes or an hour and not have to tell golf jokes with Bob Hope." That's it. This is what we do every night. Turn on the camera, start the tape machine, and let it roll.


Cotton Eye Joe

We played this song every night in the dancehalls. Here in Texas everybody knows that dance, and it's not a line dance, it's a partner dance. So that's why we played it. It's who we were and it's who we are when we play at a dancehall. When I heard the Rednex electronic version, I was like, "What the hell is that?"


What's Coming Up

We're almost done with a new album. The new singer is Katie Shore. I say new but she's been with us for six years. I wrote a song called "Half A Hundred Years," and that's also the title of the album. The new single and video should be coming out in the spring. We're waiting for some sort of a better situation in regards to COVID, so that when we release the record we will be able to go out and play it.

We understand we are in different times, but we are hoping that by Spring 2021 we will be back to some kind of normal, and large crowds will be able to gather again for us to perform. I've still got plenty more to do and my goal is to stay healthy, and get on out and keep playing.

December 2, 2020

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More at asleepatthewheel.com

Some interviews you might enjoy:
Carlene Carter
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek
Jerry Douglas

Photos: Mike Shore (1), Patrick Carnahan (2), Nathan Edge (3)

Footnotes:


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