After 25 years in the driver’s seat of his Grammy award-winning honky-tonk band, Asleep at the Wheel, you’d think Ray Benson would be ready for a pit stop. Instead, the 44-year-old seems to be everywhere. You see his long, hairy face and his hulking six-foot-six-inch frame in television commercials and the occasional movie, at fundraisers for pet causes like the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve in Travis County, on the streets of Austin hustling support for a new triple-A baseball stadium, playing golf at tony Barton Creek Country Club, and of course, performing all over the country. Asleep at the Wheel spends an average of two hundred days a year on the road; Benson ended his most recent tour just in time to rehearse for two live concerts (one in Austin and one in Fort Worth) that reunited some of the original members of his band. Between those shows, he did an Austin City Limits taping—the Wheel’s sixth—with pals Willie Nelson and Delbert McClinton.
And that’s not all. This being an anniversary year, Benson is spending much of his time with reporters, reflecting on the band’s history and promoting a new album, appropriately named The Wheel Keeps on Rollin’. “It includes a version of Eric Clapton’s ‘Lay Down Sally,’” Benson told me in mid-September at the Wheel’s cluttered office in South Austin, a 1930’s-vintage house rich with dust and the debris of 1970’s Austin hippiedom. When I said that I was surprised he chose such a blatantly commercial number, he stretched his legs halfway across the room and yawned. “Frankly, I put it on there hoping it would get a lot of radio time,” he said. “In some perverse way, I love radio. I grew up on it. The critics beat me over the head on this point, saying I’m selling out and all that crap, but this is one more chance to get a song in the Top Ten. We still have to make a living.”
That’s the dirty little secret about Asleep at the Wheel: Although the band has won five Grammys, more than Willie or any other Texas musician, it has never had a number one hit. Its only Top Ten country hit, in fact, was “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” which was written and recorded twenty years ago. “Ray has kissed a lot of ass to keep the band alive,” says Chris O’Connell, who was the Wheel’s female vocalist from 1970 to 1986 and also Benson’s lover for part of that time. “But he has maintained his integrity despite himself. It’s a crippling experience for most artists—refusing to compromise, telling record companies to get screwed. To Ray, it’s a trump card.” In an industry that measures success according to albums sold, notes Floyd Domino, who played piano for the Wheel from 1972 to 1978, Benson’s real achievement has been his survival. “A record label would drop us and Ray would pull out his little book and flip to the phone numbers of two or three other labels,” says Domino, whose real name is Jim Haber. “When somebody would leave the band, Ray would find a replacement, and three hours later we’d be back onstage, sounding just like we always sounded.”
In the case of Asleep at the Wheel, that sound is something approaching Western swing, though to look at Benson’s crew over the years, you’d never think they could pull it off. How did a group of pot-smoking hippies led by a gawky, straggly-haired Jew from suburban Philadelphia get to be the ultimate Texas band—the spiritual heir of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys? “I think part of it is we didn’t grow up in Texas,” Benson says. “There was a time in the early seventies when it wasn’t cool to like country music. Bob Wills was all but forgotten in Texas. Maybe it took an outsider to appreciate what he was all about.”
Ray, whose real name is Ray Benson Seifert, grew up in a family of Eastern European immigrants who believed that playing at least one musical instrument was key to a well-rounded life. He learned piano, guitar, tuba, and bass fiddle and absorbed the music that he heard on radio: Paul Anka, Patsy Cline, Ferlin Husky, the Four Freshmen. At age 9 he formed a neighborhood band, the Four G’s (as in “guitars”), whose signature song was “This Land is Your Land.” At 16 he heard Hank Williams and copied his distinct style on “Hey, Good Lookin’.” By 21 he had expanded his repertoire to include Count Basie and the black music he heard at hip clubs like the Showboat Lounge in Philadelphia.
In January 1970 Benson and two friends, Lucky Oceans and LeRoy Preston, moved to an unheated mountain cabin in Paw Paw, West Virginia, and started Asleep at the Wheel. (They liked the name, Benson told me, because “it was something you couldn’t be, like the Grateful Dead.”) Benson played lead guitar and sang; Oceans (real name: Reuben Gosfield) played lap and pedal steel guitar; Preston wrote music, sang, and drummed. By summer they were playing the hippie clubs of Washington, D.C., and the beer joints of West Virginia, though they sometimes had to prove themselves in fistfights with the audience. “We were hippies, but we weren’t pacifists,” Benson says. “We smoked dope, but we drank too, and carried on with the best of them.” O’Connell, who joined the Wheel that year, recalls the first time she saw the band, at a club in Washington, D.C.: “They were goofy as hell. Ray had this long red hair, and his feet were so big that he couldn’t get them into a pair of stock cowboy boots. He wore giant tennis shoes that made him look like Coco the Clown.”
One day in 1971, Benson assembled the members of the Wheel and said, “Bright lights and country music!” He had heard that unknown acts were getting $100,000 record contracts in Northern California. By August the Wheel had arrived in Oakland, and although there