Ray Benson cofounded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 and is the only remaining original band member. When he isn’t playing with the Wheel, he’s producing records, TV shows, and commercials; acting in movies; doing voiceover work; running a studio; and raising funds for numerous charities. He was named Official Texas State Musician in 2004 and Texan of the Year in 2011.
A former contributing editor for No Depression magazine, David Menconi has been the music critic at the Raleigh News & Observer since 1991. He is the author of Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown and coeditor of the American Music Series for the University of Texas Press.
Ray Benson and David Menconi
University of Texas Press
978-0-292-75658-8, hardcover, 200 pages, 23 b&w photos; $24.95
Brad and Michele Moore Roots Music Series
“Ray Benson is something—creative, fun, entertaining—you’ll love this book!” —Dolly Parton
“I’ve known Ray Benson for over forty years and never could figure out how he does all he does while asleep at the wheel! This book, however, tells how it all went down!” —Willie Nelson
“It's hard to miss big Ray Benson in Austin, TX. And there is no missing his love for the music of his adopted state of Texas. Enjoy his improbable story.” —Richard Linklater
“A pleasure for fans of Benson and the band.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Benson has a treasure trove of outlandish anecdotes, assorted nuggets of wisdom, and a deep and vast wealth of musical knowledge to share.” —Jeff Strowe, PopMatters
“The man is a trip, literally and figuratively . . . a real relaxin’ ride with a mellow fellow.” —Library Journal
“Full of humor and humility and a truly iconoclast outlook on life . . . since Benson started Asleep at the Wheel as a working-class country band, it's one helluva ride worth telling.” —The Austin Chronicle
Ray Benson: “So many other great stories of life in the road, and we ain’t done yet”
2015 has been quite a year for author Ray Benson, founder and leader of the legendary country/western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. In June the band was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame alongside Loretta Lynn, and in October Benson was among the nation’s leading authors invited to the Texas Book Festival.
On a Wednesday morning in November, despite the fact that his book launch was set for that evening at BookPeople, he took time from his busy schedule to answers our interview questions by email.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ray, why and how did you and your bandmates decide to start Asleep at the Wheel those forty years ago in Paw Paw, West Virginia?
RAY BENSON: We wanted to escape the craziness in the cities at that time — race riots, pollution, crime — and live in the country to farm forage and live a simpler life while playing country western and roots American music. Lucky met two bothers in Maryland who were caretaking a 1,500-acre former peach and apple orchard in West Virginia who invited us to live in this 150-year-old log cabin there outside Paw Paw and help with farm work a little and get our act together.
Texans — especially of a certain age — will remember Wheel as being at the forefront of the Cosmic Cowboy movement in the 1970s. What was it like to play at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters and to be in the vanguard of the Austin music scene when the city had a population of 300,000 and had more tie-dye than techies?
Well, when we hit Austin in Feb 1973 and played the Armadillo it was like finding home. Heretofore we always had to explain to the hippies we didn’t play rock and had to somehow win over rednecks that even though our hair was long and we opposed the Vietnam war, our music was solid C&W. Also, young Texans our age were looking for different musics to discover and we were able to present music that both they and their parents liked without the glaring “generation gap” gettin’ in the way. The great thing about Texas then was how all the people were so supportive of live music. Also, the authors artists creative folks in Austin all were hangin’ out and collaborating.
How would you describe the band’s evolution through four decades?
Well, for one the playing has gotten much better. We practiced a lot, honing our skills and learning from the older folks, and anyone with something to help us be better musicians, songwriters. etc. Ya see, in 1970 it was hard to find folks our age who could play real Texas country music and Western swing. Now there are four generations of musicians who have mastered these musics. The evolution has made AATW more of a Western swing band then we were at the beginning. In the ’70s we were more of a country-Western band who played roots American music that included Western swing as well as other roots musics.
What is it about Bob Wills’s music that resonates with Texans and Wheel?
Well, to Texans Bob was Elvis in a cowboy hat, before there was Elvis. He was a superstar before there were superstars. His charisma was legendary, and his combination of Western fiddling with swing and jazz and blues was something that had not been heard before. So it was pure Texas and yet very worldly! Also it’s funky and yet technically complex and challenging.
Why and when did you decide to write a book?
I’d been writing for fifteen or twenty years and had amassed 70,000 words of recollections and observations, so when UT Press approached me I told ’em, What took ya so long!? No, really, timing was right. I'll be sixty-five in March and figured, better do it now.
How did you and coauthor David Menconi arrive at a collaboration? How did you write together?
David took my writings and then we hung out for months on the road, in Austin at studios on the bus, and he organized the book and wrote the chapters in my voice using my manuscript as a guide.
Now that the book is finished, how would you describe it?
How are the processes for writing songs and books similar? How are they different?
Well, you don’t have to rhyme in a book, and iambic pentameter ain’t the common rhythm of prose. Also songwriting fits my ADD. Three to five minutes and you can go back and forth to finish. Of course, melody is such a big part of songwriting.
Would you like to attempt more books?
Yes — I plan to write another. So many other great stories of life in the road, and we ain’t done yet.
What’s next for Asleep at the Wheel and you?
More music a new band album, with our newest members, all who are thirty years or younger, lookin’ forward to fifty years in 2020 a full-length documentary someday. Do the Bob Wills feature film, produce some other artists, got two solo albums, one just me and acoustic guitar do a jazz record do a duet CD with Dale Watson.
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