For a quarter century Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson has kept alive the sound and spirit of Texas swing legend Bob Wills. Not bad for a tall, gawky kid from Philadelphia.
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 were about a thousand other acts looking for work in the Bay Area—among them Commander Cody, the Doobie Brothers, and Van Morrison—the band managed to land its share of gigs. Benson was into country blues and the roots sound of country the way Hank Williams played it. Oceans loved the blues of Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Preston dug Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. O’Connell could do Etta James or Patsy Cline with equal fervor. Domino, a West Coast addition, specialized in boogie-woogie piano and Oscar Peterson-style jazz. “When I auditioned,” Domino says, “LeRoy asked if I could play ‘Hey, Good Lookin’,’ and the bass player added, ‘In F sharp.’ I knew right away I could work with these guys.” Within a year the Wheel was producing a unique blend of jazz, blues, rock, Cajun, and Western swing. “I had never been around such energy,” says country star Emmylou Harris, a longtime fan. “It was like one of those old-timey cartoons where they show the building shaking.”
Still, Benson wasn’t satisfied. There was a sound that he hadn’t been able to replicate, one that kept ricocheting around his brain. Although he had heard Bob Wills in the sixties, it wasn’t until 1970, when he heard Merle Haggard and some of the original Playboys on A Tribute to the Best Damned Fiddle Player in the World, that it hit him with glorious clarity. In retrospect, precisely what he heard, coming as it did in the supercharged climate of Vietnam War protests, rampant drug use, and club-swinging cops, was a landmark convergence of politics and music. Back then Haggard was hated by the counterculture, which believed that his hit record “Okie From Muskogee” spoke disparagingly of getting high on marijuana and tripping on LSD. Benson knew otherwise. From the times he’d met Haggard—and smoked with him—he knew that “Okie From Muskogee” was a way of tweaking the establishment and making the charts at the same time. As for the music of Wills, Benson remembers that it was “like discovering the Rosetta stone.” He listened to every Wills recording he could find and even researched the artists who had influenced him. “Do you know that Bob Wills once rode a mule twenty miles to hear Bessie Smith?” Benson asked me. “He loved black music. That’s why he was so great. You can hear it clearly in that funky, gutbucket, jumping, swinging sound. If he hadn’t come along, Western swing would be a footnote in history.”
The same might be said of Benson’s decision to move the Wheel to Austin in 1974. He’d heard from Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, and Kinky Friedman that it was laid-back and tolerant—a musician’s kind of town—and he’d met Eddie Wilson when Wilson was in the Bay Area recruiting talent for the Armadillo World Headquarters. “Eddie told me that the Armadillo was the world’s biggest beer joint, a place with hippies and rednecks all together,” Benson says. “That was a slight exaggeration but essentially true.” The Armadillo was the key stop in a circuit of progressive-country music clubs that popped up in Texas in the early seventies, and in 1973 the Wheel played them all: Mother Blues in Dallas, Liberty Hall in Houston, the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio, the Armadillo in Austin. Domino remembers turning on Austin’s KOKE-FM and hearing, in order, Bobby Bland, Ernest Tubb, and Bob Wills: blues, country, and Western swing. “I thought we had landed in heaven,” he says.
A few months later the Wheel ended a show in San Jose, California, at two in the morning, packed up, headed to Texas in a caravan led by a double-decker Greyhound SceniCruiser, and never looked back. “Austin was incredible,” Benson remembers. “Pot was ten dollars an ounce and it was good. Rent was sixty to a hundred a month. An incredible lake, great audiences, great clubs, Kenneth Threadgill at the Split Rail. It was like coming in out of the wilderness.” Benson asked Willie Nelson if the Wheel could make a living in Austin. Willie told him, “If you learn ‘Under the Double Eagle’ and ‘Fraulein,’ you can work Thursday through Sunday, week after week.” It came to pass just like that: The Wheel would open for Willie or Jerry Jeff Walker at an Austin club one night, then travel to a dance hall outside of town the next.
In 1972 the Wheel had cut its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, which included Wills’s classic “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” When United Artists executives in Nashville heard that cut, they put out the word that the Wheel was a swing band. “We hadn’t really thought of ourselves that way,” Domino says. “But if we sounded like a swing band in Nashville, so be it.” Two years later, while in Austin, the Wheel recorded Texas Gold, an album that hit the Top Ten on country charts and gained the band its first Grammy nomination. Wills died soon after the album was released, but the surviving Texas Playboys appeared with the Wheel on a memorable Austin City Limits the following year. By 1977, when the Academy of Country Music named the Wheel one of two top touring bands in America, the band had grown to eleven members, all of them excellent musicians and innovators. In their arrangement of Count Basie’s thirties standard “One O’Clock Jump,” for instance, fiddle, sax, guitar, and steel sections substituted for the traditional trombones, saxophones, and trumpets. On every Wheel album, in fact, there was at least one high-energy, wallpaper-ripping instrumental. Later, after the band had won several Grammys, Benson realized that instrumentals were the quickest and surest way for a country band to get a nomination.
Around this time, drugs, alcohol, and burnout began to creep into the equation, and the Wheel showed signs of wear. One by one, the band’s original and early members—Domino, Preston, Oceans, O’Connell—drifted away, and the parting was not always easy or pleasant. “We had a big blowout when I left,” recalls Domino, whose then-wife managed the band and had frequent differences with Benson. “When you battle with Ray, there are no time-outs. But there are also no hard feelings. We’re close friends today.” Benson and O’Connell are also still good friends, though the breakup of their romantic relationship in the mid-seventies wasn’t pretty: She became an alcoholic and he got hooked on cocaine (both are now clean). To make matters worse, by 1980 Benson owed the Internal Revenue Service $180,000 in payroll taxes. This was a period he calls “that great dark age of disco.” Although he put together a new band, most people had lost interest in country swing. For five years the Wheel played mostly Nevada lounges and recorded TV commercials.
Luckily for Benson, in 1980 he began to turn things around. He married his current wife, Diane, who today runs the Wheel’s office and production company. (They have two children, Sam, who is eleven, and Aaron, who is eight.) In 1986 he negotiated a new contract with CBS-Epic. He cut a version of the 1948 hit “House of Blue Lights” and made the Top Twenty. The Wheel was rolling once again, and the momentum carried over into the next few years, during which time the band toured almost constantly. Then, in 1993, Benson put out what will surely be his greatest album: He recruited an all-star lineup—including Willie, Dolly Parton, Lyle Lovett, George Strait, Chet Atkins, and Garth Brooks—for A Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It was nominated as album of the year by the Country Music Association and was included in Still Swingin’, a 1994 boxed set featuring a quarter century of the Wheel’s music.
Now comes the new album, which was recorded in a million-dollar state-of-the-art studio behind the old house in South Austin. Future Wheel albums will be cut there, as were the albums of artists like Don Walser and Wylie and the Wild West Show, who asked Benson to be their producer. “I’ve managed this band, produced its records, played lead guitar, sung, driven the bus,” he told me. “I’m a bandleader, an organizer. I have a knack for pulling things and people together. I do what the Ellington Band and the other swing bands of the thirties and forties used to do. They used books so that they could change personnel without losing that consistency. My book’s up here—in my head.”