Ray Benson’s been playing western swing with his band, Asleep at the Wheel, for almost 40 years. The group’s latest album, Willie and the Wheel, encapsulates the genre’s history, of which Asleep at the Wheel has become an integral part. The record pairs Benson’s band with his longtime friend Willie Nelson, a former western swing singer himself.
With a 14-date tour supporting the album less than a week away, Benson took some time away from rehearsal to talk about western swing, building on a tradition and Willie and the Wheel. The band plays with Willie at Durham Performing Arts Center tonight at 7:30 p.m.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You’re coming to Durham with your Willie and the Wheel tour.
RAY BENSON: I love Durham. Raleigh-Durham, love it. We’ve been playing there for years off and on—unfortunately not as much on, but I always enjoy it. It’s kind of like Austin. It's that kind of town.
You play western swing, which is an American amalgamation of a lot of different styles. What is western swing for you, and who do you look to as inspiration?
We look to Bob Wills first and foremost. That’s always been sort of our guide on this, but there’s dozens of great bands—from Spade Cooley, Clif Bruner, Milton Brown, etc.—that we learn from and emulate. But that’s who we look to because Bob Wills’ approach is what, I think, we've done more than anything. And that is: You set up the band in terms of instrumentation— fiddles, steel, guitar, piano, bass, drums and sometimes horns and singers. And within that configuration you play any music that you want or that fits your audience or your abilities.
That’s what Bob Wills brought to me. He said, “Western swing is an instrumentation. You gotta have a fiddle, you gotta have steel, and after that the selection of material is up to the singer and/or bandleader or players.” That’s the basic definition to me and our inspiration, essentially. There’s classic western swing only because the music was evolved during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. So if you draw on that repertoire, you’re drawing on what I would call classic western swing. If you play western swing music, then you could take any song and then play it in the western swing style. I think that answers your question.
Since it’s an instrumentation, what’s the most far-out song that you've made into or heard as western swing?
[Laughs.] I’d have to say taking jazz standards and doing them. It’s not far out. It’s really very mainstream, it’s what we’re doing. Taking “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” [the Louis Jordan tune] or “Jumping at the Woodside,” that’s very much what western swing is. … I’ve often thought about doing an album like this, which I have not done yet—taking modern songs from rock bands, soul bands, pop bands, whatever and doing them that way. I have not done that yet, but it could be done. Something that we’ve done, “Somewhere my Love” from Dr. Strangelove, [singing] “Somewhere my love, there will be bum bum bumm.” I’ve seen that done western swing in a version that works perfectly. I guess the weirdest one we’ve done probably would be the Huey Lewis tune “I Want a New Drug.” But it's more country than western swing.
And how did you get into playing western swing?
Well, when we started, we played roots country music—Hank Williams—rootsy kinds of stuff, and we found the need to improvise on our instruments. As a musician you want to be able to improvise. Jazz, blues, bluegrass is all improvised. You play the chorus and then you improvise. And that was what we all felt the band was missing from country music. Country music was wonderful lyrically, melodically, stylistically, but it didn’t give us enough room to improvise on our instruments and in our vocals. That’s when western swing really opened up.
The latest album, Willie and the Wheel, features a lot of covers. You talked about the importance of improvisation in western swing, so how are you bringing new life to these songs?
Every single solo is improvised. The song is just the form, you know? The song is the form. In improvisation, you have a form, and then within that form you express yourself musically. Also the arrangements: These are our arrangements. They’re different from everybody else’s arrangements. So you take the form and you arrange it the way you want it, and then each solo is an improvised solo that has never been played before by anybody else. And that’s the thing. The difference is, when I started the band in 1969 … there was such a premium placed on “newness,” when if you really dig deep, there’s very little new under the sun. It’s within the forms that exist that you create different arrangements and different improvisations in each solo. That’s where the creativity comes in. And that was the hardest thing to explain to people at the beginning of the band was, “Hey guys, ‘Corrine Corrina’ is a song that goes back forever, but we arranged it differently and we express it differently, and that's what it's all about.”
With the changes in arrangements and improvisations over time, is there a difference between what you’re doing with Willie and the Wheel and more contemporary western swing, or are they one and the same?
I don’t know who is doing contemporary western swing except us and a couple of great bands in Texas and California. So, yeah. What Willie and the Wheel is from cut 1 to cut 12 or 13—I don’t remember— that is the history of western swing and all of its influences. The early stuff was influenced by New Orleans jazz and Texas jazz with horns and Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and Bessie Smith is Philadelphia, but all I’m saying is that it’s early jazz. And then as the genre progressed it became more western, as opposed to jazz, through the late ’40s. And then Hollywood grabbed ahold of it, and it became a singing-cowboy kind of thing. That’s what I try to show on this album, that sort of progression.
What does Willie Nelson add to your sound on this latest album?
Willie’s just one of the more distinctive and recognizable voices ever. You hear Willie, you know it’s Willie. He don’t sound like anybody else. A lot of people don’t know, Willie Nelson’s very first album, the liner notes were written by Bob Wills. Willie comes from western swing music. His approach to music is exactly what I was talking about. That’s what it was, and he said to me, “We didn’t know it was western swing. We were just playing music to dance to.” It then became labeled western swing because it had swing music and western, but that’s what they were dancing to. Adding Willie is—well, every band has a lead singer [Laughs.]—so we’re just so very lucky to have Willie Nelson agree to be our lead singer for this record and tour.
And how did you first meet Willie?
Oh hell, I met him way back in ’71 when we were touring, backing up country western singers to make some money. That’s where I met him: on a show in North Carolina—I think Greensboro. He doesn't even remember because we were just a kid band. I mean I was 20 years old, backing up a bunch of country singers. And then, when we put out our first album, he sought us out because he heard this young band, a long-haired band, was playing Bob Wills music. He was just very curious. That was in ’72, and he was one of the guys who convinced me to move to Texas. We were living in California at the time. And he helped us out so many times. He’s been a great friend. Early on, he put us on shows and introduced us around. And, then, I’ve made dozens of records with him, one-offs. He’s a close friend of mine.
A lot of people are involved with this record, from the bands that first recorded this music to the late music producer Jerry Wexler to Asleep at the Wheel to Willie Nelson. Who’s album is it?
This was Wexler’s idea; it’s something Jerry’s wanted to do for 35 years, and he called up and helped arrange doing it with Willie’s manager, Mark Rothbaum. Jerry and I worked together closely, and then Willie, well everybody, put their own two cents in. It was a collaborative effort for sure.
And Asleep at the Wheel has had a lot of members...
What's new about this iteration of the group?
Elizabeth McQueen, the girl singer, she’s been with us four years or so. [She] adds great newness to it. I think the way we recorded it, a lot of the guys in the band said this is the record Asleep at the Wheel needed to make to really show what we are about. All the guys in the band seemed to come to that conclusion. A lot of times people say Asleep at the Wheel’s all over the map musically, which is a compliment, but it also can be a detriment in terms of people’s acceptance of it. This one is very pointed. It’s very clear what it is: a western swing album. I think that’s what’s new about it, is it’s very narrow in its focus as opposed to all over the map... Although it’s really all over the map. [Laughs.]
You've been playing for about 40 years now.
39 years as Asleep at the Wheel, yeah.
What do you still love about it? What keeps you going?
I love singing and playing every night. I don’t like some of the hard traveling we got to do sometimes, but I love playing and singing. It's pretty simple. [Laughs.] The thing I always explain to people is, “You can’t do it by staying home because you have to have a new audience every night.” Part of what we do is going on the road, and it’s a great tradition that we take very serious. That's pretty much it.
If it's all about playing and singing, why western swing? Why not another genre?
I think it just fits me like a glove, you know, honestly. I produce other records. I produce a girl named Carolyn Wonderland, who’s a rock ’n’ roll kind of, great, great guitar player/ singer—check her out, Carolyn Wonderland. But, this is what I do well. Like I said, I’m perfectly suited to do it.
Are there any plans after the tour is over? Are you going to be continuing to make music like this, or what?
You know, I really don’t know. As I tell everybody, “Let’s get this one done, and we’ll see what’s up next.” But I’ve got too many ideas. I’ve got 101 ideas, like the one I was telling you about taking contemporary songs and doing them in the style of, see how that works—I don’t know. Don’t have anything planned right now, just going to try to get through this, and we also do this play where we do a ride with Bob. Check it out on the Internet. It’s called A Ride with Bob. We’ll be doing that all through March when we’re done. It’s a Broadway-style play about the life and music of Bob Wills. We’ll be doing a cast album on that, which is very different, and a DVD, so that’s going to take another year or two to do.
And what's the difference between being onstage as a musician and being onstage with a production, like a play?
Well, a production, there is no improvisation. You hit your mark, the lights are doing it, the other guy’s waiting for his line. So, the difference is totally there, but it’s wonderful. It’s fun.
Willie and the Wheel comes to Durham Performing Arts Center Friday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35-65.