Last Man Standing: Ray Benson
Asleep at the Wheel doc debuts at the Long Center Sunday
By Kevin Curtin, 4:20PM, Fri. Sep. 6
Leading Asleep at the Wheel for over 40 years hasn’t been easy, and Ray Benson’s got a new documentary to prove it. A 35-minute teaser for Then & Now debuts at the Long Center on Sunday, followed by a performance from the local Western swing juggernaut. Here, Benson talks about his Texanality and how the Wheel might someday roll on without him.
Austin Chronicle: How did you assimilate so effectively to Texas?
Ray Benson: I think it’s my natural ability to be a chameleon to my surroundings. I got a basketball scholarship when I was 11 to a private, all-boys prep school. They were kinda patrician and all spoke fancy. After only a year, one of my old friends said, “You’re even fuckin’ talking like ‘em now!”
It’s sort of the “when in Rome” thing. I’m not gonna lose who I am, but when I got to Texas the whole idea was to become a Texan, and we’d already done that musically. Being named Texan of the year was a double honor because Pennsylvania has basically rejected me. My sister nominated me for a musician walk of fame in downtown Philadelphia. She never even got a call back.
AC: Was Asleep at the Wheel your first band?
RB: Yeah, except for high school bullshit.
AC: It’s amazing the band has lasted so long.
RB: It’s miraculous. When we get the whole documentary done we’ll go deeper. When Leonard Maltin was in town, I sent a copy to him and his take was, “Wow, I never knew all this about y’all!” It’s a good lesson of what we’ve done, because it’s certainly never been chronicled in the mainstream, so to speak.
AC: You call it miraculous, but the film shows you have a fierce dedication when you say you put the band before your family and personal well-being.
RB: Yeah, I was a little embarrassed about that. Let me say this: my kids are great. Sam runs Bismeaux Studios and my other son is a trailer editor out there. We have a very tight relationship. But it was a decision: you’re gonna miss birthdays, school events, athletic events. At the same time, you’re gonna make some, because I didn’t have a 9-to-5 job so, when I was home, I’d take my kids to school in the morning and pick them up and spend all this time that other dads don’t get.
And there were a lot of money issues. In 1983, when my first son was born, we’d won a Grammy, had a Top 10 hit record, and seven or eight albums out. I owned a house that was worth $20,000, an old car, and I made $18,500 that year. So it was like, “Why don’t you go get a job?”
AC: Man, you should have been Asleep at the Wheel’s bus driver! You would have made more than that.
RB: Yeah, some of the musicians who I later hired did that. One fantastic steel guitar player was the bus driver for Charlie Daniels because he made more doing that than as a guitar player. There were some tough times, but I was never down about it. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, which some people don’t get to do.
AC: How did it feel when you became the only original member of Asleep at the Wheel – the last man standing?
RB: I was determined. I never felt betrayed. With so much going on, I never blamed them for leaving. I just said, “Okay, fine. Next.” It entered my mind to quit, yeah, but y’know, it was always too much fun playing.
I remember reading about Jerry Lee Lewis. He was my hero, my favorite. After the scandal with marrying his cousin or whatever, there was an article in Rolling Stone, I think in 1969, where they asked him, “What happened after that, you disappeared?” And he said, “Disappeared? I was playing 200 shows a year in a station wagon dragging a trailer and playing honky-tonks!”
That’s what we did. So I thought if Jerry Lee Lewis did it and made a comeback, it’ll happen. We just gotta keep playing.
But it’s still difficult. I just drove 22 hours home from Wyoming after being on tour for five and half weeks – and the bus broke down in Colorado. The difference is we have the money to fix it now.
AC: Speaking of that, the tour bus gets a lot of attention in the doc. What does it represent to you?
RB: Without the tour bus there wouldn’t be the band. We’re on our sixth one. We have to get rid of them after a million miles or so. But it’s the only way to do it for a mid-level band in terms of money and getting around. We have 12 of us on the road. I could never see going down to a three- or fourpiece band where you fly and rent equipment. You gotta have a bus make those 300 to 600 miles a night so that you get there with your equipment, well rested. It’s a bitch, but when you’re on it, it’s home.
AC: Speaking of that, I liked how when the documentary described all the things in your office, they failed to mention the vaporizer that was sitting in front of you.
RB: Yeah, I figured those who know, will know.
AC: What if Asleep at the Wheel became an institution that continues to play after you’re gone?
RB: I’d love it. My oldest son, Sam, he runs our studios. He plays guitar and sings, but he doesn’t get on stage. Basically, I put in the will that it can go on under his direction if he wanted and if the guys who are left wanted. You know [drummer] David Sanger’s been with me for like 27 years. It’s a conceptual band.
What’s so cool now is all the young people playing Western swing. When I started the band, we couldn’t find a fiddle player who even wanted to attempt the style. They’d play bluegrass, but not Western swing or honky-tonk. Now, there’s dozens of wonderful young musicians who are capable of playing this, like the Marshall Ford Swing Band and Ghosts Along the Brazos. I mean I just got some music by a Western swing band from Belgium! The music is doing really well, so if Sam and some of the guys want to do it they can. But I’m gonna live for long time.
AC: Anything special in store for Sunday’s performance at the Long Center?
RB: Yeah, we have a horn section that’s so cool. It includes Billy Briggs, who’s 90 years old. He played sax with Bob Wills in the early Fifties and he played on our records in the early Seventies. We’ll have a whole horn section, but with this amazing guy. Also there’s some friends of mine down the street. I’m gonna see if they want to come down and play.