Surviving COVID-19: Ray Benson Lives to Tell

Asleep at the Wheel turns your living room into a dance floor

2020 began as a banner year for Asleep at the Wheel. Entering the rarified arena of bands lasting a half century uninterrupted, Austin’s Western swing legends planned a year-long celebration. Then COVID-19 happened.

Ray Benson, backstage at ACL Fest in 2018. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Nonetheless, the irrepressible country torchbearers livestream into living rooms on Saturday. Their “At Home Dance” encourages fans to roll up the rug and two-step. Frontman Ray Benson phoned in last week to discuss the landmark year few predicted.

AC: You’ve been a working musician for over 50 years. Safe to say you never experienced anything shaking up your profession like COVID-19?

RB: No. Nothing. We used to joke about Asleep at the Wheel being the disaster band because we got stranded when Mount St. Helens erupted, we were playing a gig outside of Three Mile Island when [the nuclear reactor melted down], and we were scheduled to play the White House when 9-11 happened.

“I was dizzy, nauseous, and deadbeat tired. It took 12 days before I was well enough to function. I’d lost 35 pounds. My right hamstring was so messed up I couldn’t bend over.”

They were all very temporary in terms of the effect on the existence of a band or venue. This has shut everything down.

It started as the best year ever. We were playing shows with George Strait for 15,000-20,000 people. We were also celebrating our 50th year and had all these events planed.

The entire band – Tony Garnier plays with Bob Dylan, Chris O’Connell is in San Francisco, Lucky [Ocean]’s in Australia, Leroy [Preston]’s in Vermont, etc – was coming in to make an album and we were filming that. Then in October, we had this huge, two-day concert planned, with all these guest stars at the Long Center – outside and inside.

That all went away... In one day.

AC: What does that mean for a band in a financial sense, having all those opportunities go away?

RB: The old joke was, “What’s a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.” The truth in that it’s been awful tough in Austin to be a working musician and even a successful road musician. Now, not only are wives and girlfriends out of work, but the venues are closing and the income streams are narrower.

Nobody’s buying physical products, not compared to what it used to be. Now, there’s nothing we can sell but ourselves. That’s what’s left.

When this happened and all our things got cancelled, the fundraising people said we can do this online and we did all that. So we have the technology down and we’re gonna start figuring this out. Here’s my assessment of what needs to happen:

“We used to joke about Asleep at the Wheel being the disaster band because we got stranded when Mount St. Helens erupted, we were playing a gig outside of Three Mile Island when [the nuclear reactor melted down], and we were scheduled to play the White House when 9-11 happened.”

Everybody needs to understand how to take their damn phone and project it on a flatscreen television. That way there’s a larger than iPad-sized image to enjoy and also some kind of interconnectivity between the audience and the bands. We have that technology, but it’s not everywhere.

AC: When you yourself got COVID-19, did you do the mental contract tracing, thinking, “Who gave this to me?”

RB: Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. I just knew I was sick.

Katie Shore from my band and her husband both had an episode in the end of February and just figured they had colds. About a week and a half ago, they tested for antibodies. That could be where I got it, but we were in Arkansas and Kansas before that.

It was everywhere, so who knows?

I did the Luck [Reunion livestream] on March 19, and on the 20th, I went down. I was just in bed. The 21st, I dragged myself to Austin Regional Clinic. I didn’t have a fever or cough, but I was sick. They gave me a flu test and sent me home.

Four days later, I’m still feeling really bad. I went to my doctor and I thought I had anemia or something, and she stuck this thing up my nose. I said, “What’s that?” She said, “It’s a COVID test.”

Twenty-four hours later, they said, “You’re positive.”

I was dizzy, nauseous, and deadbeat tired. It took 12 days before I was well enough to function. I’d lost 35 pounds. My right hamstring was so messed up I couldn’t bend over.

You know, Christopher Cross couldn’t walk, but I’m pretty sure it’s the same thing – just laying in bed too much. Him and I are both 69. At this age, your muscles get too fuckin’ tight if you stop doing stuff.

Benson and Katie Shore leading Asleep at the Wheel at ACL Fest 2018 (Photo by Gary Miller)

AC: Was going public with having COVID-19 intended to be a message for people who weren’t taking it seriously?

RB: The last line of what I said was, “Don’t believe that right-wing bullshit.” I’d been watching TV and it was the same old bullshit: “Oh we have all the tests we need,” but I couldn’t get a fuckin’ test!

I would have stayed silent and said nothing, but it was at the exact same time as [John] Prine came down with it, so everybody thought I was gonna die. To be honest with you, I got more tired because I had people calling me who hadn’t talked to me for 10 fucking years! It was heartwarming.

“Fifty years ago, I went to a lecture by Paul Ehrlich, who wrote that book [The Population Bomb] and said, “We have one problem. It’s not the environment. It’s not war. It’s too many people.”

The thing is this, why does this all happen? Because there’s too many people and people go to places they never did before. Fifty years ago, I went to a lecture by Paul Ehrlich, who wrote that book [The Population Bomb] and said, “We have one problem. It’s not the environment. It’s not war. It’s too many people.”

This is when the world’s population was a lot smaller, so that’s what’s up.

AC: Asleep at the Wheel presents the At Home Dance livestream this Saturday, July 25. What does that entail?

RB: We decided to do something online and I said, “Well, let’s have ’em dance.” We’re gonna play dance music. You can push back the furniture, roll up the rug, and have a dance with your wife, girlfriend, or significant other. Some of the songs you can dance to and some of the songs you can smoke a joint, drink a beer, whatever.

That’s why I said earlier about the big screen TV. I don’t want to encourage group gatherings. Some other acts are having people in the audience while they do their livestream. That’s fine, but I think it’s still a little early for that.

We’re doing it out at the Starlight Ranch, this little old town they built that looks like Fifties Texas. We wanted to tape it outdoors, because some of the guys have compromised respiratory systems. Then, we’ll do virtual meet-n-greet with me and Katie for X amount of dollars on Zoom.

I never wanted to monetize interactions, but at this point, what else are we gonna do?

“I was on the Marijuana Policy Project board for a number of years. I kind of equate it to horse racing and how stupid we’ve been on that when we’re surrounded by Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. For God’s sake, Oklahoma has medicinal marijuana!”

It’s not so much for me. I’m not well off, but I’m not gonna lose my home or starve. The band, though; it’s so hard to keep a band together, and financially, it’s tough right now.

AC: The state is going to have to go through a massive economic recovery to get past this. Do you see this time as an opportunity for the legalization and recreational sale of cannabis in Texas?

RB: Absolutely. I’ve already done a little bit of politicking on the medical side. I was on the Marijuana Policy Project board for a number of years. I kind of equate it to horse racing and how stupid we’ve been on that when we’re surrounded by Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. For God’s sake, Oklahoma has medicinal marijuana!

The biggest obstacle, from my research, is the man named Dan fuckin’ Patrick.

I’m dealing with a very sick person who is dying right now and who’s benefitting from the use of marijuana. I have another friend who’s an epileptic and moved to Oregon to get her medicine. It’s ridiculous.

And that’s not even taking into account law enforcement. The last thing the police force wants to do is arrest pot smokers. The only people who want that are the bail bondsmen and attorneys.

We’re going to have a big economic crisis and this is one thing that will help out. If they want me to testify, I’ve been using marijuana for 52 years and have a pretty good track record of community service, family, etc. So fuck you!

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel, Katie Shore, Lucky Tubb, Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan, Chris O'Connell, Lucky Ocean, Leroy Preston, Christopher Cross, John Prine, Paul Ehrlich, Starlight Ranch, Marijuana Policy Project

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