Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson Talks Country Music Today, Austin City Limits and Western Swing
I had the privilege to sit down and talk with Asleep At The Wheel leader,Ray Benson, Thursday September 1, before their show at the Cactus Theater. I grew up with the music of Asleep at the Wheel and foamed at the mouth when I was granted the honor of doing the interview with the Texas legend. Ray talked everything from Western Swing to Austin City Limits to the state of country music today.
Here is the interview, in its entirety, from that evening.
99.5 The Bear: How does it feel to be back in Lubbock?
Ray Benson: It feels…warm.
99.5 The Bear: Warm may be an understatement. Has it been tough on the road with the heat of the summer being country wide?
Ray Benson: No, not everywhere. We were in Colorado and Ruidoso, New Mexico, very nice. It’s been one of those years. If it ain’t hot it ain’t Texas.
99.5 The Bear: In two weeks you’ll be playing at the Austin City Limits Festival. You hold two records for that festival; you’ve played the festival more than anyone and you’ve played every single year. How does it feel to be a part of Austin City Limits still after all these years?
Ray Benson: Yeah, it’s quite an honor. We did the first scheduled Austin City Limits; Willie [Nelson] did the pilot. So we did the first one and when Charlie and them got it all together saying they wanted to do a festival they came to us and asked if we’d like to open it up every year. It’s quite an honor.
99.5 The Bear: You’ve been doing country for 40 plus years now, how much has changed from then to now?
Ray Benson: Everything has changed from the beginning to now. That’s life I guess, everything changes.
99.5 The Bear: Everything changes including the music. Could you ever imagine a rebirth of traditional country and western swing?
Ray Benson: Oh yeah. That’s what it was all about. That’s exactly what we imagined. It’s great and it’s been through a couple of different incarnations but it’s got a wonderful young crop of folks. Even in the mainstream country they all know about it or participated in it. That’s the thing, I don’t care if everyone plays it, what’s nice about western swing, bluegrass and Cajun music is that the mainstream country musicians know about it and sometimes incorporate it in what they do.
99.5 The Bear: At the same time do you think they could be veering too far away from it?
Ray Benson: Well it’s been that way for years. When Patsy Cline came out, they thought she was a pop singer, and she was. Now she’s hardcore country. To me it’s the quality of the music and the originality and the emotional content of the music. Some things will happen and some things don’t. There will always be good music and there will always be music that people buy that isn’t great.
99.5 The Bear: How does it feel after all these years to still see such a great crowd such up to every show knowing western swing wasn’t as big as it was years ago?
Ray Benson: Well when we first started it wasn’t big at all. It had already been out of style for 20 or 30 years. So to see its resurgence is quite satisfying and great to see the folks interested in this unique kind of music.
99.5 The Bear: You guys have been keeping Bob Wills alive with his music in your shows and the fantastic play you put on stage. Do you think there could ever be a guy like Bob Wills in country music?
Ray Benson: Haha, simple answer…no.
99.5 The Bear: How about another Willie?
Ray Benson: No. There will be people who are popular and people who are talented but these are just such big individuals that you can’t compare them with anybody. They set a style and a tone that was their own. It was a time in the era for them. The way it’s done these days, it can’t happen. If you had to have good looks to be a star in 1970, Willie would have never made it. Willie made it because he was real different. Now it seems to be that you have to be the same. It’s kind of pop music oriented but there is some good country music all over the place.
99.5 The Bear: A couple of years back you did the album with Willie and it seemed like a long time coming? What did that album mean to you?
Ray Benson: What an honor to play with Willie and do the TV show with him. It doesn’t get any better than that. I spoke to him today. He’s a force of nature.
99.5 The Bear: Will you guys be back in the studio in the near future?
Ray Benson: We do some little stuff but right now we aren’t doing any recording. We’re working on a documentary film about the band and that’s taking up a bit of time. We’re also doing the play, Riding With Bob, in Oklahoma and Richardson, TX, the week after Christmas. We have a lot to do this year and not enough time.
99.5 The Bear: Do you ever see an actual band, like an Asleep at the Wheel, doing well in main stream country again because it seems to be just a duo or trio or single artist?
Ray Benson: Yeah it goes through those cycles. Our first recording was in 1972 and at that time bands didn’t make it in country music. It was Merle Haggard and the Strangers, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Jack Green and the Jolly Green Giants. So we were one of the first bands to chart country music. Then Alabama came along and boom it all happened again. Now they have these duos and trios and stuff. Country music will be alright though.
99.5 The Bear: How nice is it going all across the country and finding more and more country music fans?
Ray Benson: Well you’ve got to remember that country music was big in Canada in the 1940s. Hank Snow was Canadian. East Coast, where I’m originally from, has a lot of great singers. Country music has been identified with the south but it’s been all over the country for many years; maybe not in the big cities except for the last 30 years. I was from the suburbs in Pennsylvania and I was playing square dance music. That’s where I learned it from.
99.5 The Bear: You’re extremely busy but do you see some time to do some more producing on the side?
Ray Benson: Yeah, I produced some rock and roll records with Carolyn Wonderland. Dale Watson and I have a project we’re working on. I’m busy enough.
99.5 The Bear: I’m a big James Hand fan, do you see any more work with James?
Ray Benson: I haven’t seen James in a while, he sometimes disappears, but we made two fantastic records together and the last one I’m real proud of. I also did Aaron Watson’s records. The TV shows keep us real busy now so the Texas Music scene is doing really well right now.
99.5 The Bear: You mentioned the documentary, what can we expect from it?
Ray Benson: We’ve been shooting stuff going back to West Virginia and California and talking with the exmembers. We’ll see what we get together. It may take longer than I think. We’re filming the TV show every other week and we’re just keeping busy.