Evan Smith: Let’s do the most important question first: How tall are you, actually?
Ray Benson: I was six seven, but now I’m six six and a half. I shrunk.
ES: Who can tell?
RB: When I put on my cowboy hat and boots, I’m seven feet tall. That’s what really matters.
ES: Practically speaking, has your height ever been an issue for you?
RB: Absolutely. I did a movie of the week with Dolly Parton in 1991 called Wild Texas Wind. She’s five feet tall. They had a problem shooting us—you know, dig a hole for Ray or put Dolly on a box.
ES: Is it ever a problem for you from a music standpoint?
RB: Just hitting my head onstage.
ES: Were you tall as a kid?
RB: Yeah. I was a starting basketball player at a fancy Philadelphia prep school where most cowboy singers come from. I quit my senior year because I had broken four fingers and two thumbs—it was killing my guitar playing.
ES: Music was more important to you back then.
RB: I had been playing professionally since I was eleven. My sister and I had a folk group, the Four G’s. We played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. They had young people’s concerts, and they said, “Hey, folk music’s happening!”
ES: This would have been in …?
RB: Nineteen sixty-one. We did “This Land Is Your Land” and “On Top of Old Smokey”—those kinds of songs.
ES: Who taught you to play?
RB: I taught myself. My sister was taking guitar lessons, and she brought home this baritone ukulele—it’s a four-string guitar, basically. I picked it up. I played the song from the Ballantine beer commercial because it was on during the Phillies game.
ES: Are you still learning after all these years?
RB: Absolutely. I practice. I’m a personality and a singer—that’s how I make my living—but I’m always a guitar player.
ES: You make your living as a personality?
RB: My friend J. J. Cale once told me, “I was a really good guitar player, the best guitar player in Tulsa, and I was making two hundred bucks a week. Then I wrote my first song, for either Eric Clapton or Lynyrd Skynyrd, and my first royalty check was twenty-five grand or fifty grand. After that, every time I went to practice, I said, ‘I’m going to write a song.’ ” You have to be more than a guitar player. And when you recognize it, you go, “Okay, I can be that guy.” So I’m a quasi-celebrity.