By Richard Skanse
It may have been Waylon Jennings who officially declared that Bob Wills is still the king in Texas, but there’s no getting around the fact that a Yankee transplant from Philadelphia has had a lot to do with keeping things that way.
Mind, you wouldn’t want to call Ray Benson a Yankee to his face, and not just because you’d need a step ladder to do it. Between the 30-odd years of living in Austin, and nearly as many albums of the best Western swing music this side of Wills’ original Texas Playboys, the 6’7″ frontman of Asleep of the Wheel has earned his bragging rights as an honest-to-goodness Texan many times over. In fact, next year he’ll begin his year-long stint as the official Texas State Musician.
As befits the holder of such a title, Benson has been in even more of a Lone Star state of mind that usual lately. Hot on the heels of his recent solo debut, Beyond Time (which features a fine, fine cover of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” featuring Flaco Jimenez, along with other guest appearances by the likes of Jimmie Vaughan, Delbert McClinton and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas star Dolly Parton), Benson is back behind the wheel for two — make that three — new Asleep at the Wheel releases packed with more songs about Texas than the entire recorded works of Pat Green, Cory Morrow and Kevin Fowler. First up is Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo, which breathes new life into classics like “Remember the Alamo” and “Davy Crockett” and even immortalizes in song the infamous night in the early ’80s when an inebriated, nightgown-wearing Ozzy Osbourne relieved himself on the shrine of Texas liberty. Then there’s a new live album (and companion DVD), Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, which captures the Wheel in the act performing fan-favorites like “Big Balls in Cowtown” and “Miles and Miles of Texas” alongside covers like Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and the George Strait hit “Amarillo by Morning.”
“This is our very first time doing a combination live DVD and CD, and I’m just tickled pink because if there’s one place that typifies where you should see Asleep at the Wheel, it’s Billy Bob’s,” says Benson. “It’s as purely Texas as you can get.”
Spoken like a true native son.
So, Hollywood makes a big budget movie about the Alamo, and Asleep at the Wheel makes an album about the Alamo at the same time. Coincidence?
Oh, the movie was the whole idea. A friend of mine from L.A. said “They’re not doing a soundtrack record …” Or, if they do it will just be the score — you’d think with an Alamo movie, some prominent Texas artists might be used, but they didn’t ever call anybody up. So we thought, well, if they’re not going to do it, we will! Because there’s such great music involved. And I knew all the songs.
They didn’t call any Texas artists for songs, but Stephen Bruton did get a small part in the movie. Did you ever have any interest in trying out for a bit part yourself?
They never called for that either … and I don’t need bit parts. Besides, I’m way too tall. They’d have to edit me down at the knee. No, they didn’t want me in the movie, so … screw ’em. [Laughs]
Did the movie getting bumped from a December release to next spring throw you off track?
Not us … the record company, though. But that’s showbiz. It would have been nice if the movie came out closer to the album, but we’re not that concerned because we’re still building a lot of stuff around the March 2nd date — Texas Independence Day. And two weeks before that is the anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo.
So the record should have a healthy shelf life. Which is fitting, because you’ve got some pretty old songs on there. Can you talk about where they all came from?
One of them came from Austin: “Remember the Alamo,” by a songwriter named Jane Bowers. I’ve run into a lot of her old friends since I recorded it. It was first recorded in 1953 by Tex Ritter, and the Kingston Trio in the ’60s. Then there’s a couple from the other Alamo movie that was made in 1961 with John Wayne: “Green Leaves of Summer” and “The Ballad of the Alamo,” which was originally done by Marty Robbins. And of course “Ballad of Davy Crockett” is self-explanatory. That was the most watched TV show when I was growing up, other than Leave It to Beaver. Most everybody had a coonskin hat. And we did “New San Antonio Rose” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo” because they both mention the Alamo, and “Yellow Rose of Texas” because it’s about the alleged prostitute who allegedly entertained Santa Anna and helped win the battle of San Jacinto. “Stout and High” is a Monte Warden song about the Alamo that I just really like.
And the instrumentals?
“Deguello” was the “no quarter” song that the Mexican army played at the battle, though some people now are saying it was never actually played there. Whatever. And Davy Crockett was a fiddler, so I researched the fiddle tunes of that era and came up with three that he most definitely would have known: “Eight of January,” “Soldier’s Joy” and “Billy in the Low Ground.” We put them on the album to give a feel of what Davy Crockett may have played at the Alamo. Whether he did or not, I have no idea.
And then, of course, there’s the soon to be famous song David Sanger [AATW drummer] and I wrote about Ozzy Osbourne’s trip to the Alamo, called “Don’t Go There.” We were doing the album and said, “We’ve got to do a song about Ozzy.” So David went home and thought up the title and most of the words, and I finished it.
You do a pretty good Ozzy impression on that song, bleeps and all.
Yeah, that was fun. We sent a copy of the song to Sharon Osbourne, but nobody has called back. Goofy motherfuckers. [Laughs]
The album is called Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo. Clearly you do. But do you remember your very fist visit to Texas?
Oh yeah. 1958. My family was driving Route 66 and we came through Amarillo.
Cowboy hats and Mexican sombreros. Everywhere. That was my childhood impression of Texas. Of course before that my first impression of Texas was from the television and movies, but when I got here, we all got either cowboy hats or sombreros. I got a sombrero and my brother got a cowboy hat. Of course after that I had to get a cowboy hat, too. We were all about cowboys growing up in the ’50s, and we were all into cowboy music, through Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first heard Western swing.
Not too long after that, you formed the band and headed West — not for Texas, but for California. San Francisco, right?
It was Berkley, actually, but the whole Bay Area had a real strong country scene from all the Texans and Oakies who had moved there during the Dust Bowl. Bob Wills had lived out there — he left Texas for California because that’s where the audience was, and he didn’t come back until the ’50s. So California’s where we really blossomed as a Western swing band, because the people remembered Bob Willis. And the young people dug it because we were so different. It wasn’t cheesy country music, it was cool music.
So who finally talked you into moving to Austin?
Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson. It was a one-two punch. Doug said — in that real fast way he talked — “Man you gotta go down there there’s a whole scene down there you gotta check it out!” I asked Willie, “Do you think we could make it down there?” And he said, “Hell, if you can play ‘Fraulein’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe,’ you can work all week.'” And then Eddie Wilson, who used to run the Armadillo World Headquarters, he said we could be the Armadillo houseband. [Laughs] We never were, but we played there a lot. So we got to Austin and opened up for Commander Cody at the Armadillo, and there was no doubt in my mind. We had a “band meeting” — there was no vote or anything — and I said, “Come on guys, we’re moving here.” And we did; we rented a house in ’73, played some shows and got to know some people, then went back to California to pack up and moved back here for good in ’74.
Do you ever get tired of playing Western swing?
You mean do I ever want to do other stuff? Sure. Every day. We started out as a roots band, and Western swing was just one of the kinds of roots music that we did. But the demand for Western swing is what really moved us in that direction. Of course we love to play it, but we are really a Western swing band by instrumentation — fiddle, steel guitar — and by look, with the cowboy threads and boots and stuff. Within that context, you can play any music. That’s what Bob Wills did. He had a style, but the music was whatever the people wanted; he would play Glenn Miller stuff, Bessie Smith stuff, Jimmie Rodgers stuff, whatever they wanted. But the instrumentation defined the sound. And that’s what Asleep at the Wheel is: we took Bob’s model, and then made it our own.
But earlier this year you put out your first solo album, Beyond Time. Surely that came from wanting to do stuff you just couldn’t get away with in Asleep at the Wheel.
Yeah. Anytime I would do something too outside of the box with Asleep at the Wheel — no matter how big that box was — it was a failure. For me it was always fulfilling, of course, but a failure commercially and to our fans.
Can you give an example?
We did an album in 1981 called Framed. Ironically, the guy at the record label said, “Look, I’ll give you X amount of dollars to make a record that’s anything but country or Western swing music.” And it was more money than we’d ever been given to make a record before. We went, “Ok!” Because they’d reached a plateau and figured everyone wanted to cross over — Urban Cowboy hadn’t hit yet. So I thought it was a great chance, and I wrote a lot of stuff, just different shit. Bonnie Raitt and I did a duet, but Bonnie wasn’t famous yet so nobody cared. We did “Midnight in Memphis,” a tune that Bette Midler later covered, a real R&B tune with horns. It was a fantastic record, really. But people went, “That’s not Asleep at the Wheel!” I remember we were playing in Waco, and this old lady walked up and said, “You don’t sound a bit like Bob Wills!” [Laughs]
So it was like, ok, whatever. It took another couple of years of stumbling around to realize that, not just little old ladies in Waco, but people all over wanted to hear us do Western swing because nobody else did it, and we did it well. So I kind of pulled back from that kind of experimentation with Asleep at the Wheel. But when I got offered this opportunity to do a solo album I went, ok, here we go, I can do anything I want. It just gives me the freedom to define myself.
Do you have enough stuff for another solo album yet?
Oh yeah. But I’m not in any hurry. But I’ve got tons of material, but I’ll wait a few years, because I’ve got so many Asleep at the Wheel projects I want to do. I never run out of ideas — that’s the good news.
What’s next for AATW? After the Alamo album and the Live at Billy Bob’s CD and DVD?
Don’t know. I know that down the road — and I mean down the road, maybe another two years, I want to do another Bob Wills tribute project. Because I haven’t finished, and I don’t think anybody can do it as comprehensively as I can. The reason I wait is I don’t want people to think it’s strictly a commercial thing. I hate the sequel mentality, because to me it’s a life’s work. I’ve somehow been entrusted with the legacy of Bob Wills, for whatever reason, and I’m proud to have it. And I want to do it justice. Part of that is to make sure it continues on from generation to generation, and that has been probably the most important thing we’ve been able to accomplish with those tribute albums. The guys we worked with in ’93 are now in their 40s, but they were the young guns then. The guys we worked with in ’99, same thing. But to have been able to do that and leave that legacy is really cool. I feel honored to be the guy that’s been given this mantle. I feel a lot of responsibility, but I love doing it.
Either through Asleep at the Wheel or by listening to the original recordings, it’s easy to fall in love with Western swing music without fully appreciating what it was exactly that made Bob Wills himself special. How would you define his genius?
First and foremost, charisma. The guy was unbelievably charismatic. In a time when singers and bandleaders just stood on the stage and didn’t really move, he strutted around like a peacock and hollered like a Mexican grito. That’s one thing. The second thing is, his music was improvisational, jazz-blues-based, funky, raw, unpolished and totally dynamic and unpredictable. And he was the greatest bandleader, which is something I’ve always strived to do, to lead a band. He gave all his musicians and singers the room to be featured by giving them solos and mentioning their names every time they played. Johnny Gimble told me the first time he went out with the band, it was one guy’s turn to play a chorus and he played the melody. After the show, Bob turned to him and said, “Son, when I point to you, I want you to play everything you know. And if you want to play the melody, well, that’s all right too!” [Laughs] And that’s an amazing thing, as opposed to “don’t play anything that upstages the star,” which is what most people will tell you. I always make it very clear to my guys, “If you can outshine me, go for it. Because we’re here to entertain the people, and you need to be the best that you are at every moment, and I’m going to holler your name and feature you every night.” And that keeps me on my toes too, because you’re only as good as the people around you. That’s my mantra: if I have good people around me, working with me, then I’m gong to do great.
You’ve been a Texan for 30 years now — more than half your life. Do you still ever feel like a Yankee in a strange land?
Not anymore. But it took about 20 years! I’ve always been very sensitive to the fact that I’m an immigrant. I have a friend I went to college with who was from Texas. I saw her again about seven years later, around 1977 after the band had already gotten kind of successful. She told me, “You know, it really pissed me off when I heard about your band, because I knew who you were. You were from Philadelphia, and all of a sudden, you’re supposed to be this big Texan? But then I started listening close and I went, ‘Gosh, not only is he the only one doing this, but he’s doing it better than anyone else could do it.’ I finally realized, you were made to do this.”
So, that felt good, and it felt good when Willie Nelson or Coach Darryl Royal or the old Texas Playboys would compliment us and say how much they appreciated what we were doing. I would still get asked questions like, “How can someone from Philadelphia play Western swing music?” To which I’d say, “That’s like saying, how come Van Cliburn plays classical music?” Give me a break. It’s what’s in your heart and head. Van Cliburn grew up in Fort Worth, but does that mean he has to play Western swing? No. His talent was to play classical music. Me, I grew up around classical music and some of the greatest classical musicians in the world, but my heart and ears were always somewhere else. I’ve always considered Texas to be a state of mind. Some people grow up here and leave because they don’t like it, but I liked it and came here from someplace else and became a Texan.
That’s worked out pretty good for you.
It worked out great. In fact, I was named the Texas State Musician for 2004. The lady on the committee told me, “You know Ray, when we evaluate people for this, one of the criteria is that they be a native Texan. It’s not required, but it’s one of the criteria we put a lot of weight on. But even though you’re not a native, and that took away a lot of points, we still voted for you because of your achievements.” It’s like being the poet laureate.
That’s huge. Do you get a special parking space? Any special powers?
No, no parking space. In fact somebody asked me what it really means, and I said I think it means I have to sing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas” every week somewhere. [Laughs] And I think I’m going to do the Christmas tree lighting at the Capitol this year though. Seriously though, it’s just the greatest honor … and very cool.