Even folks that don’t necessarily appreciate Western Swing music have respect for the band Asleep at the Wheel, if for no other reason than the determination that it has taken bandleader Ray Benson to keep the group going over the years. Celebrating their 45 anniversary this year, Benson is the one constant in a band that has had a revolving door of talent since forming in the wilds of West Virginia, before moving their operation to the friendlier confines of Austin, Texas.
Along with being the band’s anniversary, Benson celebrated another milestone this year, releasing his first autobiography. Co written by local News & Observer music critic David Menconi, Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel was released this past October to both critical praise and murmurs around Nashville, as Benson doesn’t shy away from calling the city to task on its hypocrisy toward the country music genre.
2015 also was another banner year for industry recognition for the band, as they received a Grammy nomination for their latest release, Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Wills’ music casts a long shadow over the Western Swing genre, and embracing the obvious influence of the legend has worked well in the long run for the group, as they have amassed nine Grammys over the years.
We had an opportunity to speak to Benson before the band’s show on Thursday at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. On the road currently with their “Merry Texas Christmas, Y’All!” show, we were able to ask the bandleader about his experience writing an autobiography; the key difference between an eight and a twelve piece band; and music industry changes that the band has experienced over the past 45 years.
Isaac Weeks: Congratulations are in order for the success of your first book. Many local readers will be familiar with the name of your co writer, David Menconi. What was it like working with David on this project?
Ray Benson: It was cool. I had been writing things for about twenty years, and over that time I had amassed over 70,000 words of recollections and stories. I sent it all to David and said, “Hey, can we make a book out of this?” Then he came out on the road for a couple of months and kept interviewing me, just asking me questions and all that. That’s how it went down.
IW: Was there a defining moment that made you decide to go forward with a book?
RB: The University of Texas Press actually came to me and said, “Hey, would you be interested in writing a book,” and I said, “Well, I’ve definitely been writing, I just don’t know if it’s a book.”
Also, I’ll be 65 years old in March, and I think I have enough stories and enough behind me that warrants telling this very unusual story. And it is a very unusual story.
IW: Besides the obvious, what are the biggest differences between an Asleep at the Wheel Christmas show, and one of your shows in the middle of the year?
RB: About forty minutes of Christmas music. We’ve done two Christmas albums over the years, because Christmas music is really just fun and incredible stuff. And we do a Texas Christmas show. It is a Christmas show, so we do Christmas themed songs, but in traditional Asleep at the Wheel style. We do Hawaiian Christmas songs, R&B Christmas songs, other types of Christmas songs, so in that respect it is different from most of the other shows out there.
IW: You currently have eight musicians on stage for this tour, but you have had as many as twelve at one point over the years. What are the biggest differences in being the bandleader of a group with eight members, as opposed to twelve?
RB: Well eight and twelve is about the same, to be honest with you. The biggest difference I found with having a twelve piece band was that I went broke with twelve. I wound up owing the IRS $180,000 back in 1980. Plus we were all traveling on the same bus back then. But we loved what we were doing, having a great time, and we were young.
IW: With the success of the first book, have you given any thoughts to writing a second one?
RB: Oh yeah. There were so many stories that I didn’t get to tell. I’ve definitely been thinking about it; it’s not going to happen right away, but I’ll give it a little look and start working on it. It’s going to take another three or four or five years.
IW: With the band starting in 1970, this year marked your 45th anniversary. What do you wish were around when you first started that new musicians take for granted today?
RB: That’s a hard question to answer, because it would be a lot easier to answer if it were the other way around: what do I wish were around today that we had in 1970. At this point it is very difficult for anyone to sell records at all. The record industry lost over 50% of all sells during the last ten years, so from that standpoint it is very difficult. Mainstream country radio has become very difficult. When we got our first record, the country music charts had 65 albums that they played; now it’s, I don’t know, twelve to eighteen. I’m all for blurring the lines of music, but it appears to me that country radio has gone way over the deep end, just playing stuff that doesn’t resonate like country music from years past.
Now the technology has accelerated at an exponential rate, so everything from recording studio and equipment to the way you can distribute music and access music has totally changed. In some ways it’s been good, and in some it’s been detrimental. It’s hard to answer that question without really going through specific areas. I mean, yeah the bus we had in 1970 would break down every day, and our new bus that we drive today only breaks down once a month, so I guess in those respects things got a whole lot better