Interview: Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel on 50 years of western swing

How a little hippie boy and his friends helped preserve and enhance Bob Wills’ legacy.

.Asleep At Wheel have been keeping the western swing genre alive ever since a little Jewish hippie boy named Ray Benson Seifert and some friends formed the band fifty years ago. This means that Ray and The Wheel have been playing western swing for longer than their idol, Bob Wills. Ray Benson has been the one constant driving force in their long career that has seen the band win nine Grammy Awards and have 21 hit country singles. Not only have they kept western swing alive, but they have recorded with everybody who is anybody in country and roots music. With Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen and Dan Hicks And His Hot Licks, they brought traditional country and swing music to the hippies of California and then helped establish Austin as the music capital it is today. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ray Benson at home in Austin over Zoom to discuss the recording of The Wheel’s new album ‘Half One Hundred Years’ that features Wheel tunes old and new, past and current members of the band and guest artists like Bill Kirchen, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and George Strait, together with original Playboys Johnny Gimble, Jesse Ashlock, Bob Womack and Billy Briggs. Ray Benson explains how the band learnt their craft and why his current steel player comes from Rome, Italy. He also shares his view that western swing is healthier than it has ever been, including fifty years ago when he first picked up the gauntlet.

How are you?

Fifty years, yeah, that is what it is, haha.

What would that hippie boy of 50 years ago have to say to Ray Benson in 2021?

He would probably say nice beard, haha. I couldn’t grow one of these back then. I was only 19 and if I had this beard back then I could have ruled the world. When you are 19 you have big dreams for sure, and I told my friends we are going to make some records and tour the world.

What attracted you to traditional country and western swing which was already on the wane at the end of the ‘60s?

It certainly is not the route to quick riches, that is certainly true. There are two parts to that question, the lifestyle was one, hey, I want to be a musician and play honky-tonks and concerts all over the place, travel and be a gypsy. So that was one thing, the second was that we were going to learn how to play this music, if we are going to get good at it we are going to have to practice, we are going to write, we are going to learn our craft, that was the deal. The lifestyle was the thing, this is what we do, I’m not going to work in a factory, I’m not going to go back to school and become anything, I’m just going to play music.

You certainly achieved that objective. You went out to the West Coast and Asleep At The Wheel, Commander Cody And The Lost Planet Airmen and also Dan Hicks brought real roots music to the clubs of the West Coast and influenced subsequent generations. How easy was it to get established there?

It was great. We were the only ones doing country music, you know, western swing. Van Morrison called us up when he was living in California, he had heard us and loved it, and he got us on shows with him and mentioned us in Rolling Stone, and it was boom, it was like instant career, haha. People loved it, man. Nobody else did the blend of music which was traditional country, western swing, jump swing with a western swing band. If anyone wanted to hear that kind of music, we were it.

You mentioned earlier you learnt your craft, but how did you do it because it was a dying art even then. Who taught you?

First off we would go to attics and get 78 rpm records of the stuff, and then we would go and meet the people. We met all the Playboys, all of Bob Wills’ players, and hundreds of unknown but just great musicians who played in those kinds of bands who were still around in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and even into the ‘80s. The other thing was, as a friend of mine who was working with the Grateful Dead said, “Well you guys go practice every day.”, haha and I was well we have to, we suck, we weren’t any good, we were just kids. We had rudimentary skills, and luckily I had a voice, but we worked at it and the arrangements needed to be refined and the songs written. It was a full-time job, every day, and we had to be out hustling as well. When we went to California we would put up posters, and go out in the streets around the University Of Berkley and hand them out so people would come to the show, maybe.

You cut a record for United Artists and then you went to Austin. Why did you leave the West Coast?

We came down here to play with Commander Cody, and it was Cody who had invited us out to California, and we played at the Armadillo World Headquarters with Commander Cody in February ’73, and it was the most inviting town and the most cordial and like-minded people we had ever seen around America. All the people there said you would fit right in, and our good friend Doug Sahm from Sir Douglas Quintet said “You need to move here.” And Willie Nelson came to see us and he said “Yeah, you can open the shows for me, for $100.”, haha. That was just heaven.

In the ‘70s you did become a successful country band, with records on the Country Charts?

We certainly fooled them, and we proved it is not where you are from, it is what is in your heart and your talent, as is evidenced by one of my good friends and one of the best country guitar players ever, Albert Lee from the UK. It is like I said, Hank Snow, one of the great country artists is from Nova Scotia, who cares where you are from. At that time though it was difficult because of our generation. I grew up on The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, Bob Dylan and rock’n’roll, but I also have big ears and listen to everything. I really gravitated towards this, and then Bob Wills really opened up an idea which was a western swing band with fiddles, guitar and a certain styling, but that can play any kind of music. He would play Tommy Dorsey songs, he played old blues songs but it was done with fiddles, guitar, sax, maybe a trumpet, and it is a unique kind of music that is just so much fun to play.

Did you manage to record with him in the ‘70s?

We went visiting with him in the ‘70s, but we never recorded with him, but with all the Playboys, yes, Leon McAuliffe, Eldon Shamblin, Johnny Gimble and Jesse Ashlock are this new record ‘Half A Hundred Years’ doing ‘Spanish Two Step’ with Billy Briggs on saxophone and Bob Womack the one-armed trumpet player. These are all great western swing players, and they are all gone now. On this record, we discovered a Leon Rausch cut from 1974, all kinds of fun stuff.

You had the country hits, and you had some of your songs covered by other artists if I remember right Roseanne Cash did one.

Those royalty cheques were much appreciated, haha.

As an aside, do you know what has happened to The Wheel’s ‘70s Capitol records?

I don’t know, it is such a mess out there in the record world. The good news is you can always find music, unfortunately, we don’t get compensated much like we used to, but maybe that is OK. Our goal is to get the music out, and everything else will take care of itself.

The ‘80s were a quiet time for the band. Why did you keep going and why did it start to come good at the end of the decade?

That is a good question, and I will tell you why, two reasons. I read about Jerry Lee Lewis, and they said after the kerfuffle when he married his cousin and everything, he went away and then came back and had a country career in the late ‘60s, and they said where did you go and he said, “Where did I go? I was on the road playing 300 days a year playing places nobody went to, playing honky-tonk for 200 people.”, and that is what we did. The reason we just kept doing it was the people kept saying nobody is doing this, a band that plays jump, swing, western swing, and country music, on the road, town to town, and improvising solos every night. It just hit me, they are right, there are people who say you are right, if I don’t do this the best that can be done would be locally by local musicians, and that is not what it is about. Going around the world, playing everywhere, it is a whole other thing, and it makes people play better and gives you a world view and an appreciation of what you do. It also gets the music out there.

You’ve covered a couple of swing R&B tunes and gave them a new life as well.

That is what western swing was all about. Bob Wills always did St Louis Blues, he did Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon’s ‘Fan It’, songs from the New Orleans catalogue. So that is what we try and do, just play songs I can sing well, and the band can play well.

Your new album features a host of guest artists and various members of Asleep at The Wheel both past and present and features new and old material. Who designed the format and managed the logistics?

Me and my son Sam, we have been working together now for about eight years and he co-produces everything with me. My other son, Aaron, does all the video work, and I’m very fortunate that my two sons are really good at what they do. By the way, I became a grandfather this morning for my son Aaron.

Congratulations.

Thank you, I don’t look that old, haha.

How did you record the record? Was any of it recorded pre-COVID?

We were planning to record in March 2020 when all that stuff came down and we couldn’t travel. We didn’t know what to do, so we waited and then we started cutting another album after I had COVID, as did Katie Shore and some others in the band, and we got better, so we said well, come over to the studio, and we started recording stuff. Then we just went let’s do the album, the pandemic had sort of peaked. Bob Dylan wasn’t playing so Tony Garnier, who plays with Bob, came down, Floyd Domino was in town, and we were able to separate Floyd from the others. The studio is here in my house, and there are ways to separate people with different entrances. We did that, and then we cut the old songs with the current band, ‘Route 66’, ‘Miles And Miles Of Texas’ and ‘The Letter That Johnny Walker Read’, then the new guys and Leroy Preston and Chris O’Connell had ideas for songs, and with remote technology, we were able to have them listen in while we cut tracks. It would be that’s a little fast or if we could just change the key here, all that stuff you do, and then we sent tapes to all these people. We sent tapes to Australia, Vermont, Nashville, and then some of the people were here and we finally got it done.

What did you think of the experience of recording under COVID using internet technology?

It was a little cumbersome, but it got the job done. Every ten years or so there are different technological advances in the studio, and now we know we really can record remotely. Eventually, we will be doing it in real-time, you will be over there, and I will be over here. We are close but not just quite yet. It is making the world a smaller place for musicians and our relationships.

How do you keep finding musicians to play this music, musicians who can swing and understand where the music has come from?

They are all over the place. My last steel guitar player, Flavio Pasquetto, is from Rome, Italy. He plays the most beautiful western swing steel and learnt on YouTube. He actually learnt with one of my former steel players, he was an excellent guitar player and decided he wanted to play steel, not that anyone in Italy would hire him, but we did, haha. He is meant to come back in November. They are young players, and they are all over the place, Katie Shore has been with me for eight years started when she was 27. They listen to the radio, they listen to us, they learn the music, they are such wonderful players, and all I have to do is stay alive and I will have a band, haha.

You’ve been recording for 50 years, and I think Bob Wills was active for about 40 years, you’ve beaten him, haven’t you?

I know, I know, if longevity is worth anything I’ll get a prize, haha.

You have quite a record as a producer, what do you enjoy about production work?

Over the years I have, yeah. I have just finished this Brennen Leigh record, a band from Ohio The Shootouts, I’ve just done their new album. It is a lot of fun, and it takes a lot of time which is why I don’t do a lot of it now. Luckily my son Sam handles some of it, it is a different role, let’s put it that way. I enjoyed the product, the final product, I’m just impatient to hear it. The payoff is listening back to something you have done that sounds great.

You’ve released three Bob Wills tribute albums, and you always seem to have featured some of the then-current generation of country artists. Do have to ask people to record with you or are they knocking on your door to do it?

Both, haha. I was surveying the current crop of famous country artists and I don’t think any of the ones up there now could do it. I’m glad I got those three done with some of the best singers and musicians around, because modern country music may have a little problem with figuring out how to do this, haha.

Are you still a member of The Rhythm and Blues Foundation?

No, that has kind of dissolved a long time ago, they are not active now, but for 13 years we did incredible work, we righted a few wrongs and presented a lot of great music.

It may be a bit morbid, but when the Wheel finally stops turning, what will happen to Western Swing?

There are always going to be young bands playing it. It is challenging music, and it will be around. No doubt about.

Are your sons purely on the technical side?

No, Sam plays guitar and all that, but I won’t let him on stage because he is better looking than I am, haha. The future is bright, there are more people playing this music and are capable of doing it than when I started the band, and that was close to when the music actually existed. It will be around.

You’ve played with Willie Nelson on and off for nearly fifty years.

I will be missing him someday, that’s for sure. He is going to be 89 years old in April. He has started to feel it finally, but he is still out there, sitting down on stage now instead of standing, but he is still there. There will never be another Willie Nelson, period.

Willie is another reason western swing is still around, I think.

Absolutely, it is the music he grew up on.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

Today, well Brennen Leigh because I just love her voice. I like some of the Texas red dirt guys like Cody Jinks, I like Sunny Sweeney who is a great songwriter. Those are who I listened to this morning, and then I listened to Leonard Cohen.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

We are planning on coming to the UK one of these days when the country opens up a bit and travel gets easier, we will be up your way. The last thing I think we did in the UK was the Bob Harris Show.

Asleep At The Wheel’s ‘Half A Hundred Years’ is out now on Home Records.


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About Martin Johnson 149 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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