Ray Benson: "Before Keith Richards, There Was Bob Wills"
Although he grew up outside Philadelphia, Ray Benson is the quintessential Texas musician. Somewhere in his rambling South Austin studio/office compound is a proclamation declaring him the 2004 official state musician, not to mention the umpteen Grammys he's won as front man and bandleader of Western Swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel.
Benson also hosts Texas Music Scene, the weekly showcase of Red Dirt artists like Stoney LaRue, Mark McKinney, the Eli Young Band and Cory Morrow - as well as other Lone Star musicians such as Alejandro Escovedo and Carolyn Wonderland - that airs in more than 15 markets around the state, including in Houston after Saturday Night Live on Channel 2. As a producer and owner of Bismeaux Records, he just wrapped Wonderland's new album and released this spring's debut by insurgent Austin roots-rockers the Wheeler Brothers.
In 2005, Benson and Texas-born screenwriter Anne Rapp (Dr. T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune) wrote A Ride With Bob: The Bob Wills Musical, a quasi-fictional account of Wills' life that features 15 of the late Western Swing icon's songs performed by (of course) Asleep at the Wheel. In a sort of Christmas Carol in cowboy boots, Benson plays "Ray Benson," a burned-out, road-weary Western Swing musician who rediscovers his mojo after encountering a tour-bus driver who just happens to be - or claims to be - the ghost of Bob Wills.
Rocks Off wrangled the tallest musician we can think of (6'7") onto the phone for a while last Friday to talk about seeing ghosts, the craft of acting, Bob Wills' rock and roll ways and why he didn't support the Texas Legislature's resolution making Western Swing the state's official music.
Ray Benson: My real first experience was when I was about 16 or 17 years old, and I was just getting into roots music. Lucky [Oceans] had started the band with me, and we were kind of like baby musicologists. We'd discovered the old country blues, Chicago blues, Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Then we were looking for all the other stuff - I think Hank Williams and Hank Thompson were the first that had the sort of Western Swing element that I had heard, then we heard Bob Wills and it was like, 'Whoa.'
When we started Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard put out that album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player In the World. That was 1970, and we had just started the band. That record, because it was Merle Haggard, and because you could hear all the parts - on the 78s it was hard to pick out some of them - this was basically one of our learning tools.
RO: Did you ever actually meet Bob?
RB: That's what the Bob Wills play is all about. In early 1973, we were on United Artists Records, and we convinced the guy who signed us, and our producer, [ex-Texas Playboy] Tommy Allsup. Tommy said that he could get another Bob Wills album - that Bob was very sick, but he could do it if Merle Haggard was going to sing on it.
So they were up in Dallas, and they said, "Come on up and meet Bob Wills." We drove up to Dallas and walked into the studio, and there was Bob Wills in a wheelchair. They said, "Mr. Wills, this is Asleep at the Wheel, this is Ray Benson." We sort of went to shake his hand, but he was obviously really sick, slumped over in his wheelchair.
They said, "You can talk to him tomorrow." They took him back to his hotel, and later that night he had a stroke and went into a coma and died two years later. So when we decided to do the play, I was with Sarah Bird and Anne Rapp, I told them the story and Sarah said, "Well, there's your play. It's the conversation you never had with Bob Wills."
RO: Have you gotten to know his family over the years?
RB: Oh yeah. All of them. Mrs. Wills, she's passed away, Betty, that he was married to for 35 years. We knew her very well. We'd go over and play records, and she'd talk about him. And of course the band members became good friends of ours, all of them. The daughters who are like my age, we met them and they all came to see the play.
And cousins will come, and people will come up and say, "Hey, I'm his great-great-grandson." Some of the old, old folks we've had, a lot of them are gone now, but they would tell us all the stories. It was really wonderful.