On the Beat

Ray Benson is ‘Comin’ Right at Ya’

Ray Benson at 6'7'' and 190 pounds in 1976.
Ray Benson at 6'7'' and 190 pounds in 1976. Courtesy of Ray Benson

For the past two years, News & Observer music critic/arts reporter David Menconi has been working with Ray Benson of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel to co-write his memoir, “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.” This excerpt is from the “Prologue” section of the book, which has just been published by University of Texas Press.

Asleep at the Wheel started out as a bunch of college friends on a quest, and while we did have some lofty (and naive) ideas about being accepted as a working-class country band, there never was anything like a long-term plan. It was always close to the bone, figuring out how to get from one gig to the next. When you’ve got a twelve-piece band on the road, it’s hard to contemplate much more than the latest bridge you’re about to jump off of.

About a hundred people have passed through Asleep at the Wheel over the years, which isn’t really that many when you think about it. Twelve-piece band that’s been around more than forty years, you do the math. People have left, retired, even died. But most who left did so because we play a very specific kind of music that people maybe don’t want to spend their entire careers playing. Maybe that’s why Asleep at the Wheel has been sort of like a catch-and-release talent incubator, with a bunch of people coming through and going on to play with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Shania Twain, Alabama, Ryan Adams and a lot more.

Not me, though. I’ve stayed with the Asleep at the Wheel finishing school all these years while also producing records, TV shows and commercials, acting in movies, doing voice-over work, running a studio. Keeping a lot of irons in the fire is a must, and I do. But leading the band has always been my main thing, and it always will be. For better or worse, I’m still the kid mugging for the camera: “Hey! Here I am!!”

It’s been a circuitous route. We started out in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia, playing for hillbillies there and hipsters in Washington, D.C., before moving to California; got Nashville’s attention while backing up semi-famous country singers; moved to Texas just in time to be part of the mid-’70s outlaw-country thing with Waylon and Willie and the boys; survived disco (barely); had a few mainstream country hits in the late ’80s and started winning Grammys; and hit our stride in the ’90s as America’s pre-eminent modern-day Western swing band carrying on the sound and style of our kindred spirit Bob Wills. Asleep at the Wheel has done three Wills tribute albums, but in a way everything we do is a tribute to him.

I’ve always played retro music that’s out of step with the mainstream, but that hasn’t kept me from being ahead of the curve on a lot of things. Seems like I always get there before someone was famous or something was hip, and not just with music. When I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, one of my early playmates from the neighborhood was a foreign-exchange student named Ben – you might know him nowadays as Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.

In 1963, I was 12 years old and my family was visiting England, and I got to see the Beatles six months before Beatlemania came to America. In 1971, when Asleep at the Wheel was still based in West Virginia, we were hanging out one night in Washington, D.C., with a duo called Fat City and they played us something they’d just written for a still-unknown singer-songwriter. It made me laugh, a song likening West Virginia to “almost heaven” – but John Denver did okay with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” A few years later, a guy at our record company told us, “We’ve got another act like you guys, sells well in Texas and New Jersey. We haven’t figured out how to get him, or you, out to a wider audience.” While they never did figure us out, they did fine with that other guy, Bruce Springsteen.

George Strait, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Kacey Musgraves and countless others opened for us on their way up. Some of them, like George, I’d like to think we helped pave their way. You know what they say about pioneers taking all the arrows, but it’s worked out just fine. There were times when getting there first had some advantages. We got to be the very first band to play “Austin City Limits” (after Willie did the pilot, of course), episode number one in 1976. Been back there a bunch, too.

Looking back as my career closes in on the half-century point, I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, except for mistakes I’ve made and some dumb-ass things other people have done. Take those out of the equation, and it probably would’ve been a smoother ride. But a less interesting one, too. I was probably destined for the hard road.

Whatever anyone else wants to say about me, I’m just about the least-likely success story there is. Asleep at the Wheel is a Texas institution and I guess that makes me one, too, since I’m the only one who’s been there the whole time. I’ve always said that Asleep at the Wheel has to change to go on, and the band is bigger than any one individual – yours truly excepted, of course. One monkey don’t stop no show, unless it’s this monkey. I may not be larger than life but I fill it up pretty good, Texas-style, which is funny considering that I grew up in Pennsylvania going to synagogue. But if a Jewish guy from Philadelphia can reinvent himself as a country-western star from Texas, what could be a better example of how the American dream is alive and well? Or as my buddy Terry Allen once put it in a song:

Gone to Texas

All I need is the ride…

Dream it, be it, follow your bliss. And if you keep at it long enough, maybe catch a break or two, you never know what fate might throw your way. A quarter-century after Asleep at the Wheel won that first Grammy Award, I was appointed “Official Texas State Musician” of 2004, an honor that has also gone to Willie Nelson, Flaco Jiminez, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and other native sons over the years.

Then in 2011, the 170th Texas Legislature up and declared me, Ray Benson – real name Ray Seifert, a Jewish Yankee born and raised seventeen-hundred miles and five states north of Austin – “Texan of the Year.” House Resolution 844, which somehow passed unanimously. That also gave me the juice to get a burial plot in the Texas State Cemetery (a place reserved for legislators and “significant Texans”), where I will someday be laid to rest alongside Bud Shrake, Ann Richards, Sam Houston, Tom Landry and other notables.

It was a tremendous honor that left me deeply, deeply humbled, but also amused and confused. I found myself asking the same question, then and now:

How the hell did I get here?

Hell if I know, but let’s find out.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

This excerpt from “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel” (copyright 2015 Ray Benson) is used by permission of University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com.

Meet the author

David Menconi will discuss and read from “Comin’ Right at Ya” at the following events:

5-8 p.m. Thursday at “Books & Brew” with Eddie Huffman at The Roost, 270 Market St. in Fearington Village, Pittsboro. fearrington.com

7 p.m. Oct. 21 at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh. quailridgebooks.com

See the band

Asleep at the Wheel’s next North Carolina performance will be New Year’s Eve, opening for the Avett Brothers at Greensboro Coliseum. greensborocoliseum.com