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50 years later, legendary Ray Benson is still making music

Jack Morgan
Ray Benson in his Austin studio

There are many metrics in the world of music: popularity, Grammys, live performance. A musician up the road in Austin has achieved them all. He’s the legendary Texan Ray Benson.

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But one of the biggest, most genuine voices in Texas music isn’t from Texas at all. He’s from Philadelphia.

“My family always encouraged my music. They got me started with piano lessons, and then my sister had guitar lessons and she brought home a guitar and I taught myself the first few chords to play,” Ray Benson said.

His sister and neighbors’ kids then formed a singing group.

“And we got pretty good, we're called The Four Gs and we played all over the Philadelphia suburbs and in town and we got uniforms from the Sears Catalogue,” he laughed. “And we played with the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was 11 years old.”

From a young age, he got comfortable with making music on the stage. Then in his teenage years, he came under the influence of something that would open up new worlds of music.

“In the ‘50s, it was the radio and that was like Fats Domino and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis,” Benson said. “I played in the big band in high school and I loved jazz.”

After attending Antioch College and a short stint on a West Virginia farm, he and his band became friends with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, who invited them to move west.

“He said, ‘Come on out. You can open the show for us, and stay in our backyard.’ And that's what we did. I went to Oakland and Berkeley,” he said.

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His career was starting to explode, with a recording contract and his first album. That love of the various ingredients that made up the stew of American music was his starting point, and even with that first Asleep At The Wheel album in 1973, his love of Western Swing was clear.

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“The Western swing was so appealing, it was like, I love Count Basie, I love Bob Wills and I love Hank Williams,” he said.

Western Swing was wildly popular in the southwest, but for most of the artists making it, the streets of swing weren’t exactly lined with gold.

“No, as Vince Gill once said, ‘There ain't no pot of gold at the end of the Western swing rainbow, you got to love what you're doing to do it.’”

And he did. His work with Asleep at the Wheel has continued through the decades, 62 albums’ worth. His knack for bringing new life to many of the classics virtually re-branded them as his own.

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In 1973, a pair of legendary Texans had a capital idea: move to Austin. Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson were those Texans.

“Doug was my pal and he said, ‘Yeah man you oughta move to Austin,’ It’d be really cool!’ And then Willie said, ‘Hey, I'll put you on shows!’ you know, at $100 a show!” Benson laughed. “We were happy to get it.”

And so the 6-foot-8 Jewish Philadelphian moved to Texas to, oddly enough, make Texas music.

“As soon as we hit Austin and San Antonio and found out, we could play both the redneck joints and the hippie joints. None of the other bands could do that,” Benson said.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.

Texas couldn’t get enough of him. He quickly became one of the standouts of the mid 1970s music boom in Austin, propelled by the brand new PBS music show Austin City Limits, and music venues that popped up like mushrooms after a thunderstorm.

“The geographical imperative that you must be from the South to play country music is just so false,” he said.

In 1993 Benson started work on his first Bob Wills tribute album. The idea was simple: take songs from Bob Wills and find the biggest stars to sing them.

A cut from the album won him his second Grammy. His next paean to Wills was nominated for a whopping six Grammys. He took home two.

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Over the years, Benson and Asleep at the Wheel produced three of these looks back at the Music of Bob Wills. Each time it was a labor of love, matching artist to song and then creating magic in the studio.

“After I finished, I remember sitting there listening, going, ‘Hey, man, I'm a lucky son of a b*tch. I get to hire the best talent in the world for scale,’” he laughed.

Benson kept on creating music. An album with Willie Nelson. Hits compilations. Solo and Live albums. Christmas albums. The awards kept rolling in and he’s now won more Grammys than the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel.

“I'm glad that he's gotten recognized with awards. It was always a very high quality musicianship,” Music Curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University Hector Saldaña said.

Saldaña has created a large exhibit there honoring Benson for his contributions to music.

“It's called Ray Benson: 50 Years. There's a lot of history there, but there's also a lot of things, you know, eye candy, I would call it. We've got his Harley Davidson that he used to ride in the 1970s,” Saldaña said.

Benson himself is pretty tickled at being the focus of such a large exhibition.

“It's the coolest thing I could ever imagine. From an entertainment standpoint, it is pretty cool because I got all the shirts that I used to wear in movies and on the road and the first guitar that I got when I was a kid, my sister gave me,” he said.

Saldaña said the exhibits really come to life. Large video walls show career highlights and sound domes are narrated by Benson himself.

“The exhibit is at the Wittliff collections, which is on the seventh floor, the top floor of the Alkek Library on the campus of Texas State University, and it'll stay open through Jan. 30,” Saldaña said.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Benson kept working, putting out a love song of sorts to better times before the pandemic.

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The next time and place you can see Benson and Asleep at the Wheel locally is Oct. 15 at the Waterloo Amphitheater in Austin, with a reunion of former members of the band.

“And then we have a big time special guest that I’m not allowed to tell you about, but it’s pretty cool.”

Perhaps this even signals a return to better times.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii