STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
Ray Benson, the 6-foot-7-inch frontman and founder of the Western swing combo Asleep at the Wheel, leads a Texan band, but he has his roots in Springfield, Montgomery County, where he was born and raised.
“I started out playing folk music with my sister and learned my trade in a band at Springfield High,” he said in his signature baritone voice. “There’s no geographical imperative to what type of music you play.”
In his new autobiography — “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, Or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel” — he tells his tale and details the band’s rise to Western swing prominence. He travelled from Springfield down to Paw Paw, W.Va., where the band was founded, over to San Francisco during the Flower Power movement and eventually down to Austin, Texas, where the band has been based for the past 40-some years.
The band is fresh off their 10th Grammy win for “Still the King,” their third tribute album to legendary Western swing leader Bob Wills. Their album won “Best Recording Package.”
“I wish that we had been recognized for the music, but the gals that worked on the package of the disc deserve the win — they’re just great.”
Benson acknowledges that even though the design of the disc looks great (it’s made to look like a cigar box, in recognition of Wills’ affection for cigars) consumers just aren’t buying as many albums as they used to.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “We’re not discouraging people from downloading our music, but owning an album is an experience — there’s music, art and writing all in there. If you just have the digital file you’re missing out on a lot.”
In an age of reduced record sales the band relies on touring to bring its music to the masses. This can be daunting when you’re fronting and eight-piece band.
“It’s the hard way, but it’s our way,” he said. “But being able to go to all these towns across the country, like Phoenixville, is one of the perks of the job. I’ve walked around that town when we’ve played before, and in Bethlehem, and to see the historic sights and the revitalization that’s going on as a tourist is great. Music helps revitalize these old towns by repurposing old theaters and restaurants.”
The band started with a simple goal: to play and help revive American roots music during a time when old-style country music was slipping away.
“I grew up when The Beatles and The Stones were helping to revitalize American blues music, and I thought we could do the same for country music. In 1969 Merle Haggard released ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ but we were against the war in Vietnam and we did smoke marijuana, but our attitude was don’t judge the music by the politics but by the intrinsic value of it — that’s a little lofty for a honky-tonk band.”
In the early ‘70s the band relocated to Austin, at the urging of Willie Nelson who put them on the bill with him during their early performances, and they found commercial success with “The Letter that Johnny Walker Read” and their boogie-woogie version of “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.”
“Willie asked us if we could play Bob Wills music, ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’ and ‘Fraulein,’ and told us if we could do that we were good to play in Texas. I remember one guy said to me, ‘You’re big, you sound like you’re from Texas — of course you’re a Texan!’ It was a seamless transition.”
Benson said that the band has had about 100 different members over the years, but he’s been at the helm the whole time. The instrumentation is electric guitar, steel guitar, bass, drums, piano, fiddle, and sometimes horns. At their core, they are a dance band even though many of the venues that they play are not set up for dances.
‘I always say, ‘Guys, if you dance, you’ve got a chance.’ We’ll play anything that we’re capable of with our instrumentation for your dancing or listening pleasure.”
The way Benson sees it, American roots music isn’t going away anytime soon and that means the group will keep recording and touring.
“People are always looking for cool roots music.”