As detailed this week in Off the Record, the new Western swing collaboration between Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, fittingly titled Willie & the Wheel, has been more than 30 years in the making. In preparation for the album’s release this week, and the Wheel’s appearance at Antone's on Saturday (with “a very special guest” in tow), OTR spoke briefly with Ray Benson.
Off the Record: People often forget how deep Jerry Wexler’s connections to Austin were. What was your first encounter with him like?
Ray Benson: My first encounter with him was in 1971 when I demoed Asleep at the Wheel for Atlantic Records. I was 20 years old. We sent it in and I got it back and the guy said, "It’s very nice but the lead guitar player needs work." He was right. So I went to work. The next time was after I had been in the business a while and he wanted to sign Lou Ann Barton. I basically handled her negotiations with him until she needed a lawyer. And then I got her a lawyer, because I take care of the business for Asleep at the Wheel. That’s when I started talking to him on a regular basis.
OTR: Do you have a favorite memory of your time with Wexler?
RB: I think it would be from that time with Lou Ann Barton. I always argued with him about her first record. Although they made a great record, we did some demos with Vince McGarry, who just passed away, with the Thunderbirds. I had gotten the Thunderbirds their first record deal with Tacoma Records through a friend of mine. Vince and them went in and recorded four of five sides with Lou Ann Barton and the Thunderbirds, and we sent it up to Jerry and he flipped. He said, "This girl is incredible." But he wanted to cut the record in Muscle Shoals, so they did. There are some legendary tracks there, although no one knows where the multi-tracks are. It was done over at Third Coast. It’s a shame because the Thunderbirds were at the peak of their game, but anyway.
OTR: What was Willie’s involvement with the new album like?
RB: I sat down with Willie on his bus, and we went over the list of songs and how we wanted to do them. Then we cut the songs in then studio and when he came off the road we had him sing ‘em. We did one totally live, “I’ll Have Somebody Else.” That’s going to be on the bonus version of the album. “Red Wagon” is a Rex Griffin song that Willie has been doing for many years in many different styles, so I thought that we should go back to the original version and have Willie sing this song that’s already associated with him.
OTR: Was there much of a learning process involved?
RB: There were tunes he didn’t know at all, and I think that was part of why he liked it. Some of it he’d go, "Man, I’d forgotten all about that song." He really fell in love with the stuff, and I was pretty amazed. He’s usually the type guy that goes in, knocks it out, and moves on to the next thing, but he really took the effort to learn the material.
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