Ray Benson has not spent his life Asleep at the Wheel. For the past 40 years, he and his iconic band have been rolling along Route 66 and other major highways across the country, performing in venues ranging from dance halls to concert halls, on television and in film and picking up nine Grammy Awards and buckets of nominations along the way. It seems just yesterday that he and his current roster of Western Swing kings and a queen had their beginning with the band he formed in Paw Paw, West Virginia to open in 1970 for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna.
After a short stay in Frisco, Benson's good friend Willie Nelson urged him to settle in Austin, Texas. It was the perfect place to hone his love of country into the Best Country & Western Band, an honor bestowed upon the Wheel by Rolling Stone magazine in 1977. Over the years, Benson has worked with nearly 100 outstanding musicians, many of which returned to Austin last week for the official 40th Anniversary Reunion Concert. Among them were Nelson and Leon Rausch, who vocals on the Wheel's latest release, "It's a Good Day," retain the timbre and personality that have set him apart since he joined Bob Willis and his Texas Playboys in 1958. Rausch's suggestion that the Wheel record "Get Your Kicks on Route 66" led to four different versions in four decades and still lures fans to locate what remains of the famous road. Leon has been a good friend for many years, and when he hit his 80th birthday Ray told him he did not want to wait until he's 90 to feature him on a recording. "It's A Good Day" is proof that the timing is perfect.
During the past 40 years, the Wheel has had some great surprises. All of the Grammy Awards have special meaning, but the first one in 1978 was the biggest surprise. They had no idea they'd win and were playing in Lubbock, Texas when they learned about it.
Now that Benson and Texas are embedded together in history, it's hard to believe that he grew up in suburban Philadelphia and played basketball at William Penn Charter, a Quaker school, before steering his love of roots music on the long drive across four decades. One of the culminating moments was receiving the American Music Awards of 2009 for "Lifetime Achievement in Performance."
Benson's distinctive Western Swing pays homage to blues, jazz, boogie-woogie and folk with equal vigor. It all harks back to growing up in Philadelphia and listening to the huge variety of music pouring out of the local radio. He recalls flipping the dialogs to catch such favorites as the Kingston Trio, Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family.
At nine, he and his sister performed folk music for friends and neighbors and by high school he was playing tuba in the marching band and bass fiddle in the orchestra. By incorporating his favorite music styles, fiddling pyrotechnics and honky-tonk piano, he created toxicating, upbeat, danceable music that propels Wheel fans to their feet.
Five years ago, he added the title of dramatist to his numerous talents by co-writing a musical drama commemorating the 100th birthday of his idol, Bob Wills. "A Ride with Bob: The Bob Wills Musical" played at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco and venues throughout the US and Texas. It continues to tour this year to the delight of fans and newcomers to the world of Western Swing.
"Willie & the Wheel," the recording with Willie Nelson that won a Grammy nomination for the new category of Best Americana Album, was so successful that Benson plans "Willie & The Wheel II" for release in 2011.
"Wherever we play, we want people to remember our musics, in the plural," Benson said. "We play everything from the 30s to the present and hope that young people discover it when they get through listening to pop music. That happens about age 30 when they find us and the real music."