Interview: Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel

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For Ray Benson, founder and frontman of legendary country/Western Swing band (and recent Austin City Limits Hall of Fame inductees) Asleep At The Wheel, being on stage is a way of life.  “I was a child performer. I started playing music when I was 6, got a guitar when I was 9; my sister, two neighbors, and I started a group, and sang folk music.  I performed from the time I was 9 until I was about 13 or 14,” says Benson.  “We did everything–played big shows, played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, played barbecues.  It was just something we did.  We enjoyed it, we were good at it, I guess.  For us, it was no different than playing little league ball, you know?  We were on the front page of the local papers, all kinds of stuff.  My parents always thought this wasn’t something you did for living, it was just fun, it was just a hobby.  Proved them wrong!”

That might very well be the understatement of the century; after almost 5 decades, 20 studio albums, and 9 Grammy awards, Benson and his band show no signs of slowing down. In March of this year, Asleep At The Wheel released their latest album, Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, the band’s third tribute to the legacy of Bob Wills, the king of Western Swinggarnering another Grammy nomination.  Asleep At The Wheel isn’t merely woven into the fabric of Americana music; they built the loom, created the design, and perfected the process.

While other groups grow weary from the difficulties of touring and life on the road, Benson has been consistently tearing up the highways with Asleep At The Wheel for the last 45 years.  “It takes a certain person to be able to do it, and I guess I was that certain person. You have to love the traveling, and you have to learn how to take care of yourself. That’s part of the deal, staying healthy and staying happy, mentally and physically.  I reckon if you’ve got that figured out it’s fine, but if you don’t, it can be really rough,” he explains, adding, “I love to play, I practice, I’m a musician and a singer, I try to get better every day, and I do.  That’s the deal.  If you’re 100% invested in it, you’ll get 100% out of it.  It’s a daily process of learning, experiencing, and creating.  That doesn’t stop.  If it does, maybe you’re in the wrong business.”

asleep_at_the_wheel_cover.jpgStill The King boasts a stellar collaborative lineup–legends like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and George Strait appear alongside a new cast of characters like Pokey LaFarge, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Shooter Jennings.  Benson says choosing collaborators wasn’t a complicated process; “It had to be someone who was interested and who we liked; someone who could fit the music, who could understand the music.  There were way more people who wanted to do the album than we had room for,” he says with a laugh.  Does that mean there is another tribute album in the band’s future? “I don’t know,” says Benson playfully, “Never say never.”

Bob Wills has been a touchstone for Asleep At The Wheel since its inception, but Benson says the preservation of his music has become like a mission for the band.  “It’s been a project of ours to keep the music alive, to keep it relevant, and to expose it to each generation of musicians that comes along,” he explains.  “It’s not mainstream music, you won’t hear it on the radio, you won’t hear it in the stadiums unless George Strait makes it out.  Having all these young musicians learn about this music and play it will help keep it alive for another 50 years.”

If you’re in or close to Nashville, you can catch Asleep At The Wheel at The Ryman Auditorium on December 15th, and at The Franklin Theater on December 19th.  If you aren’t in the Music City, be sure to see them when they come to your neck of the woods:

December 15, Nashville, TN—-Opry at the Ryman

December 16, Alexandria, VA—-The Birchmere

December 17, Carrboro, NC—-The ArtsCenter

December 18, Augusta, GA—-Imperial Theatre

December 19, Franklin, TN—-Franklin Theatre

December 22, Galveston, TX—-The Grand 1894 Opera House

December 30, Decatur, GA—-Eddie’s Attic

December 31, Greensboro, NC—-Greensboro Coliseum

January 23, Tyler, TX—-Liberty Hall

February 20, Weirsdale, FL—-Orange Blossom Opry

February 27, Baytown, TX—-Lee College Performing Arts Center

April 16, Anchorage, AK—-Atwood Concert Hall

April 29, Stoughton, WI—-Stoughton Opera House

April 30, Stoughton, WI—-Stoughton Opera House

August 12, Springfield, MO—-Gillioz Theatre

August 19, Havelock, ON—-Havelock Country House

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Susan Hubbard

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