Ray Benson Interview
(Asleep At The Wheel)
Their music is often described as Western Swing.
They’ve released more than 20 albums, charting more than 20 singles in the process on the Billboard Charts.
Far from being “Asleep At The Wheel”, group leader Ray Benson is fully in charge!
Ray spoke with us about his group.
Q – Did you like performing at the 2008 New York State Fair?
A – Oh, it was great. It was hot. (Laughs). We had a great crowd.
Q – I take it you haven’t been through Syracuse before.
A – Oh, yeah, but a long time ago. I don’t even remember, but, I played all the Upstate cities. Thirty-eight years of playing.
Q – You formed this group in 1970?
A – Correct.
Q – Where did you debut this group?
A – We got a job in Paw Paw, West Virginia at the Sportsmen Club And Lounge for pass the hat. And that – was the beginning.
Q – Did you do well?
A – Yeah. Made $100 a night.
Q – How many guys in the group?
A – Five.
Q – The cost of living was much less in those days?
A – We went to West Virginia. It was at the end of 1969. Three of us went up there with what little equipment we had and found a PA system somehow. But, don’t ask me how. A friend of ours was caretaking a farm in West Virginia and said we could stay there. So, we went up there and started rehearsing, writing songs. We started in this little club in Paw Paw. This guy came by and we played in Washington D.C. opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper. So, we had both sides of the thing working.
Q – Now, how did you get that gig?
A – We were trying to get people to play with us. We were calling people saying, ‘Hey, want to move out in the sticks out on this farm and play with this band that doesn’t have any gigs’? (Laughs). So, we’re sitting there one day and these 2 Hippie buses pulled into our yard, which was in the middle of nowhere, outside of Paw Paw, West Virginia. They said, ‘We heard there was a band here. Wanna come play? We’re the medicine Ball Caravan. We’ll be playing in Washington D.C. and you can open up the show, at 12 noon’. We said, ‘Who’s on it’? They said, ‘Hot Tune, Stone Ground and Alice Cooper’. Alice hadn’t made a record yet. I think they made it, but, it hadn’t been released. We said, ‘Sure, but, we didn’t have a bass player, (Laughs), although all of us played bass. We called up this guy in D.C. and then we had my brother and we did a set. That’s how we got started in D.C. It was a big, big concert, you know. Last of the traveling Hippie Fests. The Medicine Ball Caravan, the guys who did it, were the guys from Ken Kesey’s bunch. Tom Donahue, the legendary FM disc jockey from San Francisco was the head of it. This band Stone Ground was new. They were some guys from ‘The Beau Brummels’. They were a San Francisco area band, Maria County. Anyway, that’s what we got our Washington, D.C. cred. Then we played these little joints up in the panhandle of West Virginia that were honky tonks, little hillbilly honky tonks.
Q – Prior to “Asleep At The Wheel”, were you in any other groups?
A – Well, I was a kid performer. I had a group called ‘The 4 G’s. That was my sister and me. We played all over the Philadelphia area. We were a big, little kid band. We sang folk music, Kingston Trio, Carter Family.
Q – You were born in Philadelphia, correct?
A – Correct.
Q – You put a band together that played Western Swing music.
A – Right.
Q – Being from Philadelphia I would’ve thought you would have put together more of a rock ‘n’ roll band, that would’ve appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.
A – Well, I loved all of that. I loved music. Basically, when people ask me this question and, it’s a very valid question, I say there’s no geographic comparative on what you play Tex Williams was from Indiana. Roy Rogers was from Ohio and his name was Leonard Sly. If that’s the case, Van Cliburn who was from Shreveport and Fort Worth, should be playing Hillbilly music. Obviously not. How it came about, was interesting. Music speaks way across cultural boundaries, let alone state boundaries.
Q – Rolling Stone has it that you were dedicated to reviving the Western Swing pioneered by Bob Wills.
A – Correct.
Q – Was that in fact your goal?
A – At the very outset it was to play roots music period. What we found was, there were dozens of kinds of roots music that we could play and one of them was Western Swing and that’s one that we did very well. When we recorded a few Bob Wills tunes, or excuse me, our first record of Bob Wills tunes that’s when it became very evident that Bob Wills was like Elvis. From our point of view we hunted old 78’s and found all the great people who played this rootsy kind of Western music. Obviously Bob was very famous, but we didn’t realize the extent to which his legacy was sown. Like I said he was the Elvis Presley of this music and besides that it was music that was so infectious and had the combination of blues, jazz, country western fiddlin’ music that I really liked.
Q – Have there been over 55 personnel changes in this group?
A – We’re at 90 now. (Laughs)
Q – You laugh about it, but, isn’t it hard to keep breaking-in people all the while?
A – You know, my drummer Dave has been with me 22 years, my bass player Dave has been with me 16 years. The fiddler Jason has been with me 14 years. So, that’s a pretty solid core. (Laughs). There were times especially from 1978 to 1993 and especially before that, ’79 to ’86, where we didn’t have a real major record deal. We put out a couple of records. We worked very hard, but almost invisibly. Having a large band at the time, it was between 8 and 10 pieces, you’d gain and lose people left and right. But, in the late 80’s, we had a comeback and in mid 90’s too it seems. It’s not hard keeping people, because the kind of music we play and the kind of musicians who play with us know about this music, know the form and probably know our arrangements. My drummer Dave who’s been with me for 23 years, his wife’s having a baby and he has to take off so one of my sons friends is a drummer, has been filling in. That’s the other way we pass this music down to other generations.
Q – Who are you recording for these days?
A – We formed our own label.
Q – That’s a smart move.
A – Well, it was sort of like, we had to. The record cos. are all gone and the ones that are there don’t want our kind of music really.
Q – You probably take this band all over the world don’t you?
A – Yup. Europe. Asia. South America.
Q – When you started, did you ever think that would happen?
A – Yeah. I didn’t realize the time frame would be so long. (Laughs). I always hoped. You always hope for success.
Q – Well, it seems like you have it!
A – Oh, absolutely. I’m very happy and continue to strive and do different things everyday. Besides the business of making a living, it’s really just an outlet for creative thinking and ideas.
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