There’s no denying that in the pantheon of country music, Asleep At The Wheel has been a paragon, a Texas-shaped bastion of Western Swing and warm tradition. In that time, the band has romped, stomped, and wrangled throughout the world, spreading the fiddle & telecaster gospel and becoming synonymous with the Lonestar State. The band is an institution, a marvel of music history and endurance, and with Half A Hundred Years, generations of Asleep At The Wheel alumni pay homage to the past while charting the future, embracing old friends and family, picking up where the last solo ended, and never missing a beat. Featuring the return of Wheel progenitors, Half A Hundred Years also swells with appearances from Willie Nelson, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and more. Ray Benson, a tall tale come to technicolor life, has been the 6’7 piston driving The Wheel since the outfit’s declaration 50 years ago. Calling from his home in Austin, it was a thrill to listen as Ray shared details on the new album, his latest projects, whether or not he’ll shave his pandemic beard, and stories from half a hundred years of being Asleep At The Wheel!
AI- It’s been quite the odyssey to get to this 50-year celebration of Asleep At The Wheel. How you feelin’, man? I saw your halftime performance this past weekend. You’re lookin’ good, you’re soundin’ good– are you finished with COVID physically?
RB- Oh, that was March 2020, so yeah, I’m fine. I had no long-term things and got over it in a month or so. That’s so far behind me! I’m very fortunate.
Around that time, you were gonna celebrate with the big birthday celebration at SXSW. Was this album, Half A Hundred years, had that been planned to be released around then?
We planned to record it then! March the seventh, they were all headed down here from all over the world– from Australia, from Italy, from Canada, from back east, from California, Vermont– where alumni have all scattered. And that just never happened! We were planning on recording it and filming in March and April and then putting it out in the fall of 2020. Of course, everybody’s plans were waylaid, so that’s where we were left when 2021 started!
When did you get into the studio with everybody to make it happen?
Well, it was a long process. I had COVID and Katie [Shore] our other singer and fiddler in the band had COVID. So we were kinda bulletproof. When most people were quarantining, we were fine. My studio’s in my house, so we started recording because the one thing that the COVID isolation did was I got to write a lot of songs (laughs)! Bein’ in my house, we were very fortunate in the studio is bi-level– there’s upstairs, downstairs, and they’re separate rooms, separate entrances. So people who were wary of COVID could be isolated and yet still be recording. We started cutting stuff with the current band, and the concept was current band’s gonna do the hits from the original band, and then the original band– Chris [O’Connell], Leroy [Preston], myself, Lucky [Oceans], Danny [Levin], Floyd [Domino] and [David] Sanger– were gonna cut new tunes. That’s what we did!
Luckily, Tony [Garnier], was able– Dylan was not working, he works for Bob Dylan– to come down. Me, Floyd and Sanger, the drummer, and Tony recorded the basics, and then the people who were in town, who were able to, came in and did their overdubs. But I had already recorded “Half A Hundred Years” with just me, bass, drums, and guitar and piano. We finished all that– then it got interesting! We got the tracks that we had and started sendin’ them out. We sent Lucky’s tracks to Australia. We sent Flavio’s [Pasquetto] tracks to Rome. We sent Chris’s tracks to California, Leroy’s to Vermont, Larry’s and some of the guys to Nashville then had other folks come in. And somehow we got ‘er done! Lee Ann Womack was in L.A., where she cut her duet with me, and then George Strait and Willie Nelson… With Willie, he was always quarantined, so we sent it out and we were fortunate they put his vocal on, but George was vaccinated and everything, so he came and sang the track up here.
“Take Me Back To Tulsa”, a long history with that song and Asleep At The Wheel. George Strait, Willie Nelson guest-starring on that one. I saw a story, you talked about landing in Austin back in 1972, and you talked about how all the Western Swing guys, like all the old school guys, had basically hung it up at that point. Rock n’ roll had come in, changed things up, and when you got there, there wasn’t any Western Swing to be found. What about today? Pandemic notwithstanding, of course, what’s the tradition look like? And do you feel responsible for keeping it or rejuvenating it?
Well, I feel part of that rejuvenation. There were dozens of people in that! But yeah, you’re right. There are a lot of bands– not touring bands (laughs), we’re still the only touring band! The Time Jumpers in Nashville are phenomenal! Vince Gill used to be with them, but even without him, they’re just ridiculously talented. They’ll occasionally go out and do a show, but mostly, they do a residency at a club there. [Western Swing players] are all over the place. There are great players! It’s a testament to that, that whenever I need to replace somebody in the band, there’s always somebody available!
Let’s talk about the people in the band. I started goin’ back and lookin’ at some of the folks that have been associated with and played with Asleep At The Wheel over the years. There’s that great, big collage picture with you in the center and has all the alumni spread out behind you. What’s it been like to play such a role in so many careers over this 50-year adventure?
To me, they’re just peers and friends, you know what I mean? It’s very satisfying. It’s kinda like havin’ a bunch of cousins and brothers and sisters, really, is how it feels to me. That’s how I relate to them– as family and friends. It’s very satisfying. What can I say, guy? You know, I’m the luckiest guy in the world! I’ve got to play this music with a hundred different musicians and a hundred different guest stars! It’s what I set out to do, and that’s pretty amazing when you’re 18 years old to just go, “This is what I wanna do,” and then got to do it!
Speaking of friends, I love Bill Kirchen, and the duet on “Word To The Wise” is just spectacular! As you say in the song, you go back a long, long way with Bill and with Commander Cody– and this is the first time that you’ve recorded together? Is that right?
Yeah! Yeah. Bill, over the years, he went left and we went right. I’m talkin’ geographically! We tried to [record] a number of times and it just didn’t work out. But we finally did! You know, I met Bill when I was in college (laughs) for my one year! Commander Cody came through to play in 1969 and they stayed at my apartment. Bill taught me my first really important guitar lessons on the kind of music that he did and does. When I started the band, I had gotten their numbers, Cody’s number and Bill’s and their managers’. Bill came to our farm in West Virginia! He’s the only musician other than band members that ever came to the famous farm outside Paw Paw, West Virginia! We had hoped to get Cody [George Frayne] on [Half A Hundred Years], but Cody, obviously he passed away [September 26]. He was very ill and couldn’t make it. And of course [“Word To The Wise”] was co-written with Dan Hicks, who was such a great friend and influence on us!
Does Half A Hundred Years mark any other firsts for you or for Asleep At The Wheel?
I’ll have to think about that… You know what? This is our first double album!
It is massive!
It’s two vinyl records. So I guess that is a first. There was a one that they did with us and the Texas Playboys, but it wasn’t us and us (laughs)! I’d never even thought about it! Other than that, I’ve never had an album with so many people on it. Of course, there’s a bunch of people who are very pissed off at me! “Hey, I was in the band!” I know! But we just couldn’t fit that many people!
You said you’d been writing a lot. That leads me to believe that there has got to be another project somewhere on the horizon. Maybe you’ll have an opportunity to get all of them involved there?
Oh dang, Aaron, I got too many– well, not too many– but so many projects that are backlogged! We already have a whole ‘nother album that we did when we thought we were gonna have to abandon the 50 year project. We started recording stuff ’cause that’s what we do. There’s a bunch in the can already! And I’ve done a lot of producing. I just co-produced a record with Brennen Leigh, a fantastic songwriter! I don’t know if you’ve heard of her?
I love Brennen and have spoken to her and look forward to talkin’ to her again about that project!
Yeah! Chris Scruggs came down and it was a fantastic session! Last week, I was in Ohio co-producing a band called The Shootouts. They’re a very cool little band and this new record is really interesting. There’s a collaboration with Asleep At The Wheel on one or two of the cuts. So I’ve been busy! I figured I was recovered from COVID in April 2020, and I also turned 70 the week before I got COVID, so I said, “You know, I’m gonna get everything done here every day and just keep puttin’ one foot in front of the other!” That’s been what I’ve learned from this whole deal.
I was recently talkin’ to James McMurtry and we had a short discussion about Bill Wittliff and The Wittliff Collection over at Texas State University. You’ve currently got an exhibit there. What is being showcased in the Ray Benson exhibit?
Listen, Aaron, I feel so humbled! Bill was a good friend of mine, and I remember when he set it up, I went to see all they had because it’s incredible, all this stuff from the Lonesome Dove mini-series, all the great photography… Bill was such a great photographer! When they asked if I would donate my papers, I went, “Sure, I’d love to!” Well, they also got my motorcycle, my 1969 Harley Davidson (laughs)! They got costumes from the Dolly Parton movie (Wild Texas Wind), from years of touring, but the most important thing that they have are my calendars from 1972 ’til I got a computer and the office did in ’85, I think it was. They’ve digitized it and there’s actually a wall where you can touch it and go into it. It shows where we played, when we were rehearsing, how much money we made– which was nothin’– and it just shows the progression of a band in the most intimate ways. It shows the grueling schedules that we had in those days! From a sociological point of view is what they told me. They said, “We want somebody to be able to go into the archives and say, ‘This is what was happenin’ in Austin, Texas in 1975.'” And they certainly will from our perspective!
You’ve got 31 albums? Or does a Half A Hundred Years make 32?
I couldn’t tell you to be honest (laughs)!
My question, being that with over 30 albums to your credit, is how in the heck do you make a setlist? Or do you? Do you just let it ride and see what happens?
For this tour, with the original band combined with the old band, there will be a setlist with some variations. But when it’s just the regular Asleep At The Wheel band that’s been playin’ together, whichever generation, we usually have a starting number– and that’s about it! The band knows which songs I’m probably gonna call, but on the other hand, I might call somethin’ else!
Is it fun tryin’ to keep everybody on their toes? Dan Baird told me one time that he started doin’ the no setlist thing because it really helped keep everybody busy and on their toes and paying attention. There was no room to slide!
Absolutely! Now, when I do the symphony shows, no, because I gotta it keep straight as an arrow there. Bob Wills’ thing was that he just pointed when he wanted you to play the solo and it was different. Sometimes it was always the same, sometimes it was always different! That way, they were all lookin’ at him! And I agree, 100%. I want everybody to be on their toes and to not expect, not get complacent.
The “Spanish Two Step” on the album… Jesse Ashlock and Johnny Gimble appear on that. How did that come about? What is behind that track?
We were recording and it was 1974 and much to the chagrin of the record company, I said, “I wanna record a record that sounds like a 78.” And that means just the band playing in a big room into a tape machine. No EQ, no nothin’, just make the sound. We found a room that had been used for big band broadcasts back in the ’50s in Dallas. Ol’ Jesse was a good friend and he stopped by. Not only was it Jesse and Gimble, but also Billy Briggs, one of the greatest Bob Wills sax players! He’s 95 now– and still playing great! He did an Austin City Limits with us five or six years ago. And Bob Wommack, the one-arm trumpet player from Dallas, who was a great Western Swing trumpet player, and Mike O’Dowd the clarinet player from San Antone.
We had 16 pieces. We went in and we recorded for the Texas Gold album. We did a boogie woogie tune and somethin’ else… Oh, “Fat Boy Rag”! So Jesse was there, and I said, “Hell Jesse’s here! Let’s go in and cut!” So we did! And I’m so glad we did! Now, it never got on the album and it was lost for years. I found it in L.A. in a very strange place. A friend of mine called and was like, “Yeah, I’m over at this studio and there’s a 24 track of you. You want it?” (Laughs) And I was like, “Damn straight!” So we were able to rescue that one– and good God that’s history! I mean, all those folks have passed on except Billy Briggs. And so many of the band even!
Was that like findin’ an old friend with that record?
Absolutely! My son, Sam, took over producing the band and managing with me, and he found all this stuff and I was like, “Oh, wow!” That’s the same thing with the cut “Marie”. That was from the Willie and the Wheel album. It never got used, and I was like, “I can’t just let these things sit here!” And bein’ the 50th anniversary, I figured this is the appropriate time to do it.
So dare I ask, is there more of that archived material?
Oh yeah! We found stuff… “The Road Will Hold Me Tonight” is another one, the song I did with Willie and Emmylou Harris. The story on that song is even more Byzantine! We were without a record deal from 1981 to ’86. Just disco and whatever Nashville was goin’ through, they didn’t want Asleep At The Wheel. We’ve always recorded because Willie had that studio and just said, “Come on out whenever I’m not here and you can record.” We finally did have an album put out with all that stuff back in the ’80s sometime. We mixed that record, and somewhere along the line, the engineer erased Emmylou’s vocals! I don’t know if she even remembers this! Luckily, I went back to Nashville with the tapes and she did it again. We mixed it and it was done on a system– I don’t know if you know anything about DBX? Dolby was a sound reduction. Well, this was done with DBX and nobody has ’em anymore (laughs)! So I couldn’t decode the multi-track! We found a tape in the barn (laughs) and rescued that mix. That was exciting!
Reuniting on the record with Lucky and Chris O’Connell, and Leroy Preston and so many other folks, that has got to be one of the most satisfying things about celebrating 50 years in the band. It’s almost like a cross between a family reunion and the best night at the bar!
We’ll start on Friday, goin’ on the road with all those guys! Except Lucky, unfortunately, who can’t get back from Australia. Or he can get here, but they don’t know if he could ever go home! It’s like a family. We’ll have the same fun, we’ll have the same struggles!
You gonna shave your beard?
Sheesh, I never thought this thing… (Laughs)
Don’t do it, Ray! It looks good!
I’m enjoying not shaving! Certain people in my family give me shit about it all the time, so I, bein’ the contrarian that I am, I might just keep it! I did say, “I’m not cuttin’ this thing ’til this COVID’s over,” and frankly, it’s never gonna be over (laughs)! It might get tolerable! So I don’t know? But thank you for the encouragement. I need it!