Ray Benson

On Wills, weed, and the Wheel.

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.

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