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.

Rocks Off: What was your first experience with Bob Wills' 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.

RO: What kinds of things did you learn about Bob while you were writing this play?

RB: Well, he was outrageous. He was an iconoclast. Think about it this way: He started his career in the '20s in Texas. He emulated Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and the country-blues guys, and he was in Texas, where black people were being lynched. So to have this white so-called cracker who was brave enough to bring black music in such a way was revolutionary.

In the context of the time, it was almost unheard of. The other Western artists weren't exactly that Western. Bob Wills was a blues artist, a swing artist, a jazz artist - the fiddle tradition in Texas was and is very strong from the country music end of it. The cowboy stuff was also very big in terms of image, but jazz and swing and blues? "Milk Cow Blues" is one of his huge numbers.

The second thing was, he was totally outrageous. This is the era when big-band singers would stand up at the mike, and the girls would sit with gloves and their legs crossed. Bob Wills strutted around like a peacock, hollering and screaming.

Third of all, he was a binge drinker. He'd be sober for a couple of years, then things would get bad and he would go out on a binge, and at his gigs he would do the most outrageous rock and roll shit you ever heard. Before Keith Richards, there was Bob Wills.

RO: You play yourself in this, so how much acting do you actually do in the musical?

RB: It's all acting. Because we're trying to tell the stories. I don't have to affect an accent, I don't have to do any costumes, I just use my own clothes. Other than that, it's all acting. I'm talking to a ghost, for crying out loud.

RO: I thought it was a little surprising that you didn't support that resolution to make Western Swing the official state music. What was your reasoning on that?

RB: The reasoning was that then you're basically saying, "Oh, jazz, blues, rock and roll, all of these things that came out of Texas are secondary." You know what I mean? I just felt that to single out any kind of music is disingenuous to the legacy of this state.

Musically, it's deep. I mean, what about Lightnin' Hopkins? What about Blind Lemon Jefferson? The great Mexican music. Obviously, I've dedicated my life to Western Swing music.

And not only that, the government of Texas ran Bob Wills out of Texas, and he made it in Oklahoma. [Onetime governor W. Lee, or "Pappy"] O'Daniel was responsible for the fact that Bob Wills left Texas and for most of his life didn't live in Texas. He grew up in Texas, but because of W. Lee O'Daniel and the great political minds that we have in this state, he was forced to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he made it. And then he went to California.

So to me, it was just... of all the great musics to come out of Texas, including Western Swing - what I told them was, "How about if we just make a Western Swing song the official song of Texas?" I thought it was a much smarter thing to do, because it could be "San Antonio Rose," it could be "Miles and Miles of Texas" that we did.

Anyway, I just thought it was... T-Bone Walker. Go through the list of seminal artists from Texas. Country music - George Jones, George Strait, Willie Nelson.

Asleep at the Wheel andA Ride With Bob roll into Galveston's Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice St., 8 p.m. tonight, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday.

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