In the state of Texas, Bob Wills is a legitimate king. Eighty long years ago, he and His Texas Playboys willed Western swing into being by combining elegant big-band jazz, hillbilly country, jump blues, Mexican mariachi and rhumba into the first great amalgamation of American music. Here’s the catch: If it weren’t for Ray Benson, frontman for and driving force behind 45-year Western swing veterans Asleep at the Wheel, the world wouldn’t know much about Bob Wills’ story.
That’s because Benson, who grew up in Philadelphia as a self-described Yankee Jew hippie, found his calling when he found Bob Wills. Starting the band with Lucky Oceans in West Virginia in 1970, Benson made swinging innovation Asleep at the Wheel’s forte. Upon moving to Austin in 1973 at the urging of Willie Nelson, Benson dived even deeper into Texas’ extensive musical history, dedicating himself to the preservation and promotion of Western swing.
Since then, Asleep at the Wheel has won nine Grammy Awards, placed 20 singles on the Billboard Country charts and swept nearly every Texas music award in existence. But Benson still holds up Asleep at the Wheel’s three Bob Wills tribute albums, released in 1993, 1999 and 2015, respectfully, as his proudest moments. To commemorate the centennial of Wills’ birth in 2005, Benson even turned ’99’s A Ride With Bob: From Austin to Tulsa, into a celebrated stage musical, playing himself having the conversation with Wills that never took place in real life.
Folio Weekly: What is it about Western swing music that first appealed to you as a young man, and what helps it retain its magic today?
Ray Benson: It makes people happy. That swing beat is so fun. And what helps it retain its magic is the fact that it’s improvisational. You could play the same song every night, but the context and framework changes, based on who’s playing different solos. Whether it’s jazz, bluegrass, Chicago blues, Delta blues, Western swing, country music; all of them require improvisation, and that’s what’s still appealing to me.
How do you build a set list for an Asleep at the Wheel concert?
We do stuff from the first album, all the way up to the last album. We cover the whole deal. People will request songs, and after 25 albums, there are more than 200 songs, including all the songs that aren’t on albums. It’s a great repertoire to have.
That was Bob Wills’ jam, right? To boast a repertoire unmatched by any other band?
Yes. The first record we did had Bob Wills’ music on it, but we didn’t really consider what we wanted to do with it. We were trying to do roots American music, and Western swing was just one of those forms. As we got going and discovered the joy inherent in playing that music, Bob Wills came to the forefront.
Discovering his joy for performance is a treat for any fan of American music. Have you seen a big difference in audience responses between 1993 and 1999 and 2015, when the three different tribute albums came out?
Absolutely. We were on the Conan O’Brien show after the first album in 1993 and he was like, “Bob Wills … who’s that?” It’s much different now. Listen, Bob Wills will never be Béyonce, but it’s amazing how many people have found him, his music and his joy. We’re glad to be carrying on this tradition that is really, purely American.
Asleep at the Wheel has featured more than 100 musicians over the years, giving many of them a platform to start solo careers.
It’s incredible. I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d pull this off. I don’t like to use the term “farm team,” because everyone is so much more talented than that. But it’s felt that way—so many of those musicians have gone on to incredible things. David Sanger, my drummer, has been with me for 36 years, but when I started the band in 1970, we couldn’t find a fiddle player our age. Now, there are hundreds of great fiddlists all over America who can and do play this music.
You’ve also helped countless musicians as a board member of organizations like the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, The Recording Academy, St. David’s Community Health Foundation, and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. What do you get out of service like that?
It’s a privilege to do such great work creating an environment where musicians young and old can get physical, mental and dental health care at an affordable price. We’re not solving everybody’s problems, but we’re helping a little.