by Dan Williams
Ray Benson is asked all the time how his Philadelphia roots led him to Texas to become today’s best-selling practitioner of Western Swing in the world. The nine-time Grammy winning leader of Asleep at the Wheel compared the perceived disconnect to Van Cliburn.
“I always ask ‘how was it that Van Cliburn made it to the top of the Classical piano world out of Texas?’”
Cliburn was the Kilgore, Texas prodigy classical pianist who won the first quadrennial International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Benson feels that someone emerging from a small Texas town to take on the Russians is no different than a kid from the Philly suburbs taking lead in a traditional Texan art form revolution.
Asleep at the Wheel performed at World Café Live this past March to a full house in support of their new album Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He is back this weekend in Sellersville for another dose of his hometown crowd. “I love playing Philadelphia, and I really love the crowd at the Sellersville theater.”
Benson and his friend Lucky Oceans started the band in 1969 as a way to explore what is now referred to as American Roots music. They felt the legacy of the Carter Family and other practitioners of Americana, honky-tonk and bluegrass was soon to be forgotten. They moved to West Virginia when Benson was just eighteen to give it a go. Soon, he became a huge fan of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. His musical style is a direct descendant of Wills.
They began by opening for musically unrelated acts as diverse as Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna. Over the years, the tables turned and now famous acts owe their starts as openers for The Wheel: Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Huey Lewis and many others. Now, whenever Benson hits the studio, he has little problem getting special guests to sit in. His latest album has Amos Lee, The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Jamey Johnson and additional members of today’s “Who’s Who”.
I ask him about the apparent camaraderie between musicians in the country music scene. “I don’t like to talk much about winning nine Grammys,” Benson says. “That just means that some of my friends didn’t. And that’s not what it’s all about. We’re family.”
Other future stars have come through the ever changing personnel of Asleep at the Wheel. The current lineup has deep roots in the genre. In fact, current keyboard/vocalist Emily Gimble is the daughter of Bob Wills’ fiddler Johnny Gimble.
I mentioned how she has a big, clear blues sound to her voice. “Yeah, she’s my Bessie Smith. She brings something special to our shows.”
Johnny Gimble, who passed in May, taught at a fiddle camp where Benson found current Wheel fiddler/vocalist Katie Shore. Authenticity is the backbone of Asleep at the Wheel.
When I asked about Eddie Rivers, his outstanding steel guitar player, Benson gushes a little bit: “Eddie is an outstanding player. Ya know, that steel guitar was once owned by Gene Crownover, who played for Bob Wills. We found out the guitar was for sale, so we bought it for Eddie. It’s an old Fender without the pedals.” He always seems to tip his hat to those who came before.
To say he knows everyone in the music industry would be an understatement. Mention Pennsylvania, he says, “Del McCoury, the great guitarist, comes from York.” Mention an artist like Bob Segar: “Taco Ryan came through The Wheel.” Drop Les Paul’s name, he proudly points out, “he traveled all through Pennsylvania as Rhubarb Red.” I mentioned I had spent some time with Willie Nelson once and he went on about Nelson’s new album with Waylon Jennings. It turns out that Benson is as big a fan of past and present artists, even esoteric ones, would be an understatement.
Laid back fun is the key ingredient in his 150 shows each year. Benson is a consummate showman, a master guitarist and inclusive bandleader. He is very complimentary of his players as he allows them each to solo and perform duets. The show never lags, and if it does, Benson will stop at nothing to grab the audience’s attention, even playing his guitar behind his head…old school style.
Despite the Texas roots of this music, he still wears his Philadelphia roots with pride. He says it was the wide variety of Philadelphia radio stations and his time in band at Springfield High School where he started out playing tuba. While in school, he and Oceans formed a folk group called The Four Gs. They played the Robin Hood Dell, Square Dances and other local venues. All the while, they were glued to their transistor radios listening to AM pop, jazz and blues stations. Then FM hit and really opened up his options.
The players of Asleep at the Wheel have changed frequently over the years, but Benson keeps a steady hand on the course. Whether one enjoys their albums or concerts, there are always good times and smiles along the way.
His final comment- “Come on by and say hello at Sellersville. I always love playing there.”