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Ray Benson steps out from behind the Wheel.
Everybody knows Ray Benson: the big guy with the big hat, booming baritone, and Ernest Tubb disposition. How can you miss him?
He is Asleep at the Wheel, the merry (revolving) band of musicians from both coasts who moved to Austin 30 years ago on the heels of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, just in time for the birth of the modern Austin music scene. Smitten with an archaic, hip regional sound called Western swing, they had the good fortune of arriving before the crowds did.
Striking a responsive chord with the preslacker longhairs who dug their mentors and cohorts Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as with the two-stepping old-timers who hadn't heard Bob Wills' music played like that since Bob Wills, the Wheel has since become a musical institution. The scores of Texas Playboy alumni who have sat in, recorded with, been produced by, or produced the Wheel at one time or another, plus the Grammy Awards lining the shelves of Benson's office validate that.
Yet while Asleep at the Wheel has evolved into a Texas-sized tradition, the cult of Ray has been quietly building to the point that at 52, Benson has finally gotten around to releasing his first solo album, Beyond Time. It makes sense, since he's always been more than a frontman. As much a hipster as Willie or Doug, he can hold his own on T-Bone blues and do Basie jump like an alum. He's always been a deal maker, hustler, a mover, and a shaker.
Benson's still all that. Like Willie, he's one of the few bridges between old Austin and new Austin, and far more accessible than the Red Headed Stranger ever was. The consummate glad-hander and back-slapper.
Who do you think made the introduction between Denny Bruce and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, putting in motion the record deal that put Austin blues on the map? Who hooked up Stevie Vaughan with manager Alex Hodges? Who brought together Lance Armstrong's management and the folks who made the Austin City Limits festival happen?
And he continues to move and shake in music circles from New York to L.A. as easily as he does in South Austin or Spicewood. Yep, that was Benson sitting in with Paul Shaffer and the band on Letterman a few weeks ago.
Squint a little harder through the bifocals, though, and it's easy to see the changes in el mundo del Ray go beyond his solo debut. And it isn't the white overtaking the red in his goatee, sideburns, and ponytail or the tour bus with the "For Sale" sign parked outside his office.
Which raises the larger question: Who the heck is this cat under the hat?
State Musician of Texas
Surrounded by guitars and loads of pictures of Benson with the likes of Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Snow, and Laura Bush, Benson is in his element at Bismeaux Productions, his business and recording studio complex on Manchaca Road.
The geegaws and souvenirs such as golf trophies, a Spade Cooley album cover, Austin Sun music awards, and a "Shalom, Y'all" sticker on his computer, Benson instructs his faithful assistant Bridget Bauer to hold all calls (sorry, Mike Levy). David McGee, who's doing a phoner for Barnesandnoble.com, and his mom from Philly manage to get through.
Taking stock of his life thus far, Benson first clears the air about recording under his own name. The band, he says, is alive and well. In fact, he's currently mixing another live album, this one from Billy Bob's in Fort Worth. The bus with the "For Sale" sign is merely being retired. At this pace, the Wheel will roll on forever. Going solo is merely realizing what he set out to do 45 years after writing his first song. It doesn't hurt that he owns the studio, a tricked-out, tube-amp, old-school environment "and a mixing board Elvis once sang through."
"I'm just trying to express myself and do what I know how to do," explains Benson. "Asleep at the Wheel's concept has narrowed and crystallized over the years to what it is, and I didn't want to mess with that."
It hardly ends there.
In 2004 Benson succeeds classical pianist James Dick as the State Musician of Texas. He's been co-producing a duet of Willie Nelson and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals on Willie's "Still Is Still Moving," an occasion that finally resulted in his signing Trigger, Willie's beat-up Martin guitar. That came on the heels of hosting a pilot for the CMT cable channel at Gerald Mann's Riverbend Church last October. He won a regional Emmy Award for a PBS documentary he co-produced on the making of Ride With Bob, the Wheel's most recent album to Wills. There's also the T-Bone Walker Texas blues all-star tribute album he's dreaming up ...
At the same time, his civic profile has been steadily rising. He tried bringing baseball to Austin before there was a Round Rock Express. He sits on boards including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and KLRU. He talks to business groups trying to explain where music fits in to Austin's big picture. He could be mayor if he wanted the gig.
His running buddies are an eclectic albeit well-connected bunch, including writer Bud Shrake, football coach Darrell K. Royal, Clear Channel czar Steve Hicks, former Dell vice-chairman and philanthropist Mort Topfer, and Beavis and Butthead/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who happens to play a pretty mean bass. He's on a first name basis with Republicans and CEOs. He raises money for Wild Basin. He's a star on the Celebrity Pro-Am golf circuit.
He's also newly divorced, though he continues to share a West Lake home with his wife of 20 years, Diane Carr. One son, Sam, is learning the music business and improving his golf at Belmont College in Nashville. Aaron is a high school senior. So what exactly is going on inside that Caledonia-sized head of his?
"All I can say is, everyone's got to find their way," laughs Benson. "I cherish my family. We went through the initial throes of the divorce and realized, was I going to pay an attorney everything I owned to get ... whatever? So we worked it out.
"Yeah I see some other girls. Is it easy? No. Is it smooth? No. We all come with a lot of baggage. I don't have the answer to the whole thing, but I'm trying to keep my family somewhat intact. Diane raised those kids and did an incredible job. I did as much as I could when I was home, but I was gone a lot."
This, of course, is well-documented.
"You're That Guy"
It all started when "three Jews" -- Benson, Floyd Domino (ne Jim Haber), and Lucky Oceans (ne Ruben Gosfield) -- a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O'Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson's from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. Another Antioch student named Ed Ward brought Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen to campus, wherein the musicians saw the light. The rest is Austin music history, as Benson tells it.
"We cut our hair to do all this, so it looked right," laughs Benson. "We wore Nudie suits. We basically said we were going to pass. We were kind of like black people. Over the years it's been unreal. One time down in Louisiana, we played a Ku Klux Klan hall.
"I became Ray Benson the day before I started the band. I had read the Ray Charles biography, and his name is Ray Charles something or other. Jerry Reed is Jerry Reed Hubbard. I said to myself, those guys are smart; they've got stupid last names in terms of show business, I'll do the same thing. Seifert just wasn't going to make it, but Benson is great."
The woodshedding took place in a 200-year-old cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va. They backed Stoney Edwards, one of two black men on Earth with a career as a country singer, and singers Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. They followed Cody and his big band to Berkeley, Calif., where they met Eddie Wilson.
"Eddie Wilson came out to [manager] Joe Kerr's and just sold us," recalls Benson. "All he wanted was to book the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] and Cody at the Armadillo. Joe told him about us. Eddie hears us and says, 'You could be the house band.'
"Greezy Wheels was already the house band, but he was right. We were exactly what he was trying to do. Redneck hippies was his thing. We finally got a record deal, so we came down and played the Armadillo with Cody in '73. Once we hit town, we went, 'Whoa!'
"Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and the songs that they did, to me that was like cool, cosmic-cowboy, electrified folk music. That's not what [we] were about. We loved the New Riders from a lifestyle point of view but not their music. We loved the Burrito Brothers for doing what they did, but we didn't like them because they were too slick. They were so L.A.
"Texas had it all. Willie and Doug were the two reasons. Willie had said to us, 'What are you doing out there? You sound like you're from here.' Doug had given me one of his raps, and it made perfect sense. We figured out that we could get more gigs here than in the Bay Area, and it cost less to rent a house. And there's chicks! And guns!"
A lot has changed since the Wheel found their mecca. Which leads to the inevitable question: Whither Austin?
"We're mostly pricing ourselves out of the market," states Benson. "I did one of those 360 summits, when the high tech boom was booming, and they asked me to come speak with Michael Dell and two other people. They asked that question: 'What's the difference between Austin then and where we're at now?'
"I said, 'Well, in 1973 we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now, we drop antacid.' Michael Dell turned three sheets of white.
"Obviously, the baby-boom generation has aged," laughs Benson.
And so has Benson. Which is why he's made the move he's never made before.
"Lots of people come up to me and say, 'You're that guy.' And as much as I enjoy that, I'd like them to know Ray Benson is that guy who does this stuff, because I've hidden behind Asleep at the Wheel for many years and behind incredibly talented people: Floyd, Chris O'Connell, Leroy Preston.
"What's sad is that Chris O'Connell is a veterinarian's assistant in Winchester, Va., and Leroy Preston is a data processor in Vermont. They don't play at all. This business burns you out. It chews you up and spits you out. You've seen it a hundred times, and I don't want to be one of those people.
"I want to play guitar -- sing and write and make music. I know that. I don't want to walk on the red carpet. I don't like limos; I like buses. I don't want to be a superstar at all.
"I want to ply my craft and make my music and have people love it."
[The Cult of Ray in the Austin Chronicle]
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