At this year’s South By Southwest Festival Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson was once again a big presence. TPR’s Arts and Culture Reporter Jack Morgan talked to Benson at his South Austin studio.
As one of country music’s most performing bands, Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel is also one of the least likely of legendary Texas music stories. He’s Philadelphia raised, but after hearing Bob Wills’ Western Swing music as a teenager, Benson focused his musical efforts on keeping Swing alive. He moved to Oakland, California to play, and in so doing, met several players from Wills’ band.
"Meeting the old guys was so valuable because they taught us how to play this music. Johnny Gimble, Eldon Shamblin, Herbie Remington. And a dozen others. Guys we have the greatest respect for. And two of ‘em are on this album."
The album he’s talking about is his new one—Still the King. 92 year-old Billy Briggs plays saxophone and singer Leon Rausch sang the Texas Playboys theme on the album. Still the King is Benson’s third Bob Wills tribute album featuring dozens of legendary as well as young performers who join with Asleep At the Wheel to play Wills tunes.
“Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett have all been on all three of the albums. It’s sort of a great continuity, but the idea was to bring the new people on, so everybody from the Avett Brothers, The Old Crow Medicine Show, The Devil Makes Three, Brad Paisley, Kat Edmondson. That’s the other half of the equation is how do we keep this music going for another 40 years.”
Being an eclectic event, South By Southwest creates some odd musical bedfellows.
“Yesterday I did a panel with two big time producers, John Aglia and Alex Da Kid. John does John Mayer, the other does Rihanna, Eminem.”
But South By Southwest is also about live music, and Benson's passion was all over the place.
“At one o’clock I performed in Waterloo Records parking lot, and Robert Earl Keen sang with us and then we did our own set. Before that I did the Bismeaux Records showcase over at the Saxon pub. Dale Watson, Brendon Lee, Cindy Cashdollar and friends, and last night I sang with Dale Watson for the Ameripolitan Showcase.”
Benson’s forty-year love affair with Texas might never have happened, were it not for two Texas notables who encouraged him to move to Austin.
"Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, both. They kept saying 'what are you doing in California?' And I said ‘got a record deal.’ ‘You oughtta be in Texas’ ‘Really? You think I could work here?’ And Willie said if you can play Fraulein, Cotton Eyed Joe and Bob Wills music, you can work all week."
Benson moved his band to Austin and in the years since, has grown deep roots into its limestone cliffs.
"You’re sitting in Bismeaux Records, and out back is the recording studio. We produce other artists; we try to help them with their careers, because people helped us, like Commander Cody, Doug Sahm, Dolly Parton, These people went out of their way to help us, and many others. And so I feel obligated to do that, for folks you feel have something to say or do in our field."
I remarked "What a life!"
Benson laughed and replied "Beats workin’!"
At that the six-foot 8-inch musician stood up headed out to hit the road to the next gig. Over the last 40 years of playing in Texas he’s cast a long shadow, and in the process become a music legend himself.
We've more on Ray Benson here.
We've more on Asleep At the Wheel here.