By Holly Gleason
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
With his 6’7” frame and long ponytail, Ray Benson is one of the most recognizable figures on the American roots music scene. Even without the boots, cowboy hat, and spangled clothes that are part of his role as leader of Asleep at the Wheel, he is a man you can’t help but notice.
But it’s not just because of his appearance that Benson has always stood out in the crowd. In the years since he started his hippie Western swing band on a commune in West Virginia and soon after found his way to Texas, he has won nine Grammys, been a founding member of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, produced artists ranging from Aaron Neville and Merle Haggard to Dale Watson and Carolyn Wonderland, and even written an acclaimed stage musical, A Ride with Bob, honoring — like so much of his Asleep at the Wheel repertoire — the legacy of Bob Wills. He’s also the host of TV and the Internet’s The Texas Music Scene, a world-class golfer, and “Friend of Willie.”
As prolific as he’s always been with Asleep at the Wheel and myriad other projects, though, there’s one area of Benson’s resume that’s long been left curiously sparse: his list of actual Ray Benson albums. Hard as it is to believe, the recently released A Little Piece is only his second solo project. And it’s substantially more revealing than his first one, 2003’s Beyond Time. Co-produced by friend Lloyd Maines and Benson’s son, Sam “Lightening” Seifert, A Little Piece draws on the longtime band leader’s quest to find love — and the difficulties inherent to maintaining a relationship even under the best circumstances. Beyond a duet with Willie Nelson on the Waylon Jennings/Gary Nicholson co-written “It Ain’t You,” there’s the need for refuge, “Give Me Some Peace,” a thoughtful rendition of Randy Newman’s vintage “Marie,” and the sweltering “JJ Cale,” which celebrates the late slide guitarist with juicy playing. Of course, there’s a lot of that all through the album; always one to draw the best and most diverse musicians to him, A Little Piece merges Benson’s past with fellow Wheel founding member Floyd Domino with current Wheel-er Dave Sanger, A-list Austin bassist Glenn Fukunaga, Latin rockers Del Castillo, and progressive bluegrassers Milkdrive, who’ve also done some road work with Benson in support of the album.
With its varied influences — from hot Latin-tinged rock to contemplative singer-songwriter fare to basic country — A Little Piece isn’t what people might expect from the man who has now dedicated more than 40 years to carrying on the Western swing tradition. But departures are good. Whether taking his music to New York City and Los Angeles or reaching musically past the obvious, Benson is always looking for ways to broaden his influence, refine his playing, and connect with his fans. That said, though, he doesn’t take such risks lightly.
“This is scary stuff,” he says of setting aside the persona he’s inhabited for almost four decades. “People don’t have to like it, and that sets you up for all kinds of rejection.”
You’re getting ready to put out what seems to be a very serious solo record, something that is anything but what people expect from Asleep at the Wheel. Does that mean — after all these years — that the Wheel is starting to get old?
[Laughs] Well, we go to Florida a bunch. We play all the old age homes, the villages where old golfers go to die! I make jokes about it, but actually, they are really good audiences. They want to listen, know music on a lot of levels — and appreciate what we’re doing.
So how long’s it been?
Forty-four years! We just added a new girl singer, 24 years old and plays fiddle. Totally brings a new energy, and continues the tradition we established over the years.
But does the Wheel ever feel like a trap?
I keep telling people Asleep at the Wheel is a concept. First, it was about roots American music, then it morphed into a Bob Wills tribute band. But it’s … I created the character of the Long Tall Texan, and I’ve worked very hard to inhabit that, to be that guy. But it’s a persona. When people come on the bus, they have a definite notion of who I am. They think I’m gonna be watching Duck Dynasty and eating chili. And it’s not; it’s NPR and sushi, which really throws some people.
That must be a little disorienting.
When we did the play about Bob Wills, Ann [Rapp, his collaborator] was like, “You have to address that.” I mean, I guess it’s a valid question: How does a Jew kid from Philly come to play Western swing? Right? I’m not some white hayseed from the Texas panhandle come to play jazz. But it stuck. In the ’80s, I was in Nashville to play one of those bars (on lower Broadway), and Marty Stuart comes up. He was like, “Man, I thought you were this big Texan and you were my hero! And then I found out …”
That makes it sound as bad as finding out the mall Santa is a child molester.
My intention was to infiltrate. That’s why we went to West Virginia, and we did it the way we did. Heck, I was the 2011 Texan of the Year and a friend of Willie Nelson.
And now …
You emerge from behind that persona to stand, well, naked.
I’m 63 in February. The craft of songwriting took me 40 years, as well as the playing guitar and producing. All that allowed me to have “managed intimacy.” I could control what I showed you, and there was a nice context for me to exist in. But now, I’ve got all that experience — and I figured it was time. How naked do you wanna be after all that? It’s been 12 years since the divorce, got that out of my head. Another relationship, too. You suddenly find yourself here, and you start asking, “What are relationships about?” For many years, it was hard to write from that deep place because there was so much conflict. Remember how Rosanne (Cash) and Rodney (Crowell) used to write songs to communicate with each other? Well, I’m not like that. It was much easier to play the 6’ 7” cowboy!
Then why now?
That’s why I got into this business. I was going to Antioch to be a filmmaker, and I went to New York to try and do it. But I started going to open mics in Greenwich Village, but never got onstage. You had to sign up, and it would get so late. And I hated the people who were all emotion and no craft … and there were the ones who were all craft.
And now 40 years later, you think you’ve got it figured out. Was there something that shifted?
[Laughs] Actually, the song “A Little Piece.” I had it for six years, unfinished, and I’d play it for my girlfriend. She was like, “There’s so much there …” Lloyd Maines said, “That’s the one …” You listen to the people who know you and know music who think, “there might be something there.”
I had a 3-foot pile of lyrics and songs, just this huge pile of bits and pieces. I’ve been writing poems since I was 6 years old — and songwriting is the only place where iambic pentameter is still in use. But it’s a little like Rosanne says about putting the catcher’s mitt in the air: you’re holding your hand up, hoping to catch something. It’s like that sometimes … But you still have to pay attention, really look at what you’ve got, because your sense of what you’ve got, you can’t always trust.That’s why Lloyd and Sam were so helpful. They had more perspective. Sam has always been what Khalil Gibran calls a “Child the Father to Man” kinda deal. He called Lloyd after he heard the song, and said, “Let’s get this done.”
And then you were off?
It became a very creative time! I’d come home and pour through this amount of music, seeing what’s here … or I’d be on the bus, writing songs, playing the guitar and looking for the right part.
And yes, something changed. My sense of the craft, I’ll never get away from that: those classic song structures, the idea of finger-picking, jazz … But now I was asking: where does it touch me emotionally, cerebrally? How does it work there?
Hayes Carll, he’s cerebral. It’s why I love Guy Clark, whose writing is all those things to the point where it’s almost philosophical.
In the standard — Irving Berlin, “Blues in the Night,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — I will always be comfortable. But “Little Pieces” is like you’re talking to God, something else again. There are no frills to it; it’s very bare bones. And I don’t like the line “What you give comes back to you,” but that’s the point!
So you’re taking the writing deeper.
I do a lot of charity work. And you see all these people who do it for all the wrong reasons, for how it makes them look! And that to me speaks to the dichotomy between truth and untruth in politics and religion. It bothers me. I went to a Quaker school and Quaker camps from the time I was 13 until around 18. I believe in humanity, in the human condition. That’s what songs should consider.
Rick Perry is a friend of mine, and I have to love him as a human being, but it’s hard being in the belly of the beast. The VP of Exxon is a golf buddy of mine. I pulled into some country club with a Clinton sticker on my car, and they were like, “We didn’t know you were one of them …” [Laughs]
But you, as a person, and now as an artist, are seeking higher ground.
You’ve got to! Otherwise, it’s just “moon, June, balloon” … songs from the ’30s. I really believe songs (that matter) are about humanity. I believe in that, and always have. When I produced that Darden Smith album, it was because he had that song “My God is a Loving God.” It said so much.
You also really seem to like working with unrecognized talent.
Sure. You recognize talent and you help ’em. That’s what Commander Cody did for us, and Willie, too, for us and about a 100 other people, too. You reach out, you share what you know.
Is that risky? Sometimes after you help them, people move on, often without understanding the investment in terms of time, contacts, money, and relationships you’ve brought to the table.
Chet Atkins and me were having lunch at this meat ’n’ three in Nashville, Arnold’s, (talking about) this artist I’d helped who wouldn’t call me back. Chet heard me out, then said, “That happens to me all the time.” I was like, “You, Chet?” Just totally nonplussed, he says, “You do favors for people because it’s the right thing to do, and you don’t know if it’ll ever come back. You just have to — in the interest of (the bigger picture) — not get worried about that, and keep doing the right thing.
What attracts you, intrigues you?
To me, what’s interesting is great singers, songwriters, and unique voices. To hear something unique in a voice is my greatest thing. And look at who we’ve worked with. Junior Brown to Larry Franklin; Tony Garza when he was with Dylan; Wayne Hancock! Carolyn Wonderland, who we discovered — and who as a voice just tears into you. She’s been incredible to watch grow, evolve as an artist.
Sam, my son, is 30 now. He understands (music) and cares, and it isn’t about money. He went to sessions forever, went to Belmont (the leading music business program in Nashville) for six months and came home. He’s a very good guitar player, plays steel, but he won’t get onstage for anything. He’s incredible in the studio, though. With my record, he knows me so well; it’s different for him to sit there, and tell me “It sucks.” It’s even harder to hear. But (A Little Piece) is so good because of him! He’s the one who grabbed that Waylon song, and said, “Let’s bring in Willie.” He was like, “This’ll tie it all together.” Gary (Nicholson) had to send it to us, but man, Sam was right.
Was it weird singing about women, really engaging on that topic, with your son co-producing?
When you’re trying to explain men to young women entering the dating game, there’s a lot there (going on) … and it’s the same with boys! How to survive a broken heart … how do you do those things, and find your way? The great mystery is relationships. The one thing I think we all strive for and have been through is our search for connection, for love. And yeah, a lot of these songs are about therapy, in a way.
Can you be a bit more specific?
I’ve had three loves in my life. That’s for real. And you know, who gets that? It’s a lot, really.
But you’re single again, right? For a while, were dating news anchor Michelle Valles.
And Michelle was a gift, especially coming along when she did. She’s a truly amazing woman …
You guys seemed so in love. Is it naughty for me to ask what happened?
Mostly just the age difference … not in terms of getting along, but the family and what we were trying to get out of life. She’s now the morning anchor on one of the networks in L.A.
So, is your take that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all?
More like that Chet Baker song — “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” … But, there’s always Emmylou.
[Laughs] My rescue Corgi! She even came with the name Emmylou Harris, so how could I say no? She even travels with us (on the bus), which is great. She’s a great road dog.