Ray Benson, Dale Watson Talk New Duets Album, Love for Merle Haggard

'Dale & Ray' is a romp through classic-country by the pompadoured "Ameripolitan" singer and the Asleep at the Wheel leader

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Ray Benson, Dale Watson Talk New Duets Album, Love for Merle Haggard
Ray Benson and Dale Watson have released their first duets album, 'Dale & Ray.'

From the same kindred spirit that birthed Willie & Waylon comes Dale & Ray, a not-exactly-new classic-country duo. The musical partnership between Texas troubadours Dale Watson and Ray Benson, the frontman of Western-swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, has been decades in the making, thanks in large part to their continually intersecting career paths. With their chummy new duets album, Dale & Ray, they finally combine their creative forces in the studio.

Ask Watson and Benson what made the timing right to enter the studio and you'll receive a range of answers. "Every time we've worked together, we've always said we're going to do a full Dale & Ray record next and then 10 years pass," Benson tells Rolling Stone Country. "The idea has always been there, it was really just a matter of timing,” he adds. "Also, we're both bankrupt and destitute," jokes Watson, "and we figured the only way to make any money was to pool our resources together and make this album."

The musicians' long and winding connection can be traced all the way back to a mid-70s episode of Austin City Limits featuring Asleep at the Wheel. "With most things heading south in country music at the time" recalls Watson, "hearing Asleep at the Wheel, for me, was heaven." The guys soon began crossing paths in honky-tonks and concert halls across Texas, and Benson recognized a similarity to their voices and approach to songwriting. "I don't know another male singer that I can blend with like I do with Dale. We’re both baritones and it works out so well every time we make music."

Country fans needn't be familiar with the duo's respective back catalogs to enjoy Dale & Ray, as the album's opening track, "The Ballad of Dale & Ray," quickly brings listeners up to speed. The song is a simple list of things they appreciate (Lone Star beer, pot and Merle Haggard, among them), tied together by the matter-of-fact refrain "That's how we roll, we're Dale and Ray." The pedal-steel-heavy, country & Western shuffle lays bare the duo's musical DNA. Says Watson: "I can't think of a more appropriate way to kick off the record. When you hear that song, that’s me and that’s Ray." (Listen to the song below.)

Along with Benson and Watson's colorful camaraderie, their larger-than-life personalities shine like neon throughout the album. Few of the project's 10 tracks go by without some lyrical shout-out born from their shared love of classic country icons, occupational hazards of the music industry and, of course, all things Texas. "It’s in the Texas constitution that if we do an album, there has to be at least one song that mentions Texas," Watson chuckles. "Nobody’s Ever Down in Texas" fulfills that requirement, delivered with equal parts swagger and smirk.

But it's the sonic eulogy "Feelin’ Haggard," written after last year's passing of Merle Haggard that is the emotional centerpiece of Dale & Ray. The touching tribute weaves a narrative through clever references to many of Haggard's song titles and lyrics. "His death really hit me hard because I had known Merle since 1976 and had played with him and his band many times over the years," says Benson. "Neither of us would be doing what we're doing if Haggard hadn’t been around and, in my opinion, there's nobody in the world that channels Merle better than Dale Watson and nobody that feels about Merle the way that I do."

Dale & Ray also pays homage to Buck Owens with the track "Cryin' to Cryin' Time Again," a nod to Owens' 1964 b-side "Crying Time" and the Bakersfield sound he pioneered. Watson's lead guitar on the track masterfully nods to the style Owens helped popularize. "You have Western swing, Ray Price and then Bakersfield. To me, those are all on a continuum," sums up Benson.

Along with their eight originals, the duo also included two covers: the Louvin Brothers' "I Wish You Knew" and Willie Nelson's "Write Your Own Songs." To contextualize their affinity for Nelson's anti-industry shot at Music Row, Benson excitedly goes into storyteller mode. "Around 1980 or so, Willie and I were playing golf and he asked me if I wanted to sing on a new song of his. 'Hell yeah, I do, Willie!' I didn't have a record deal at the time, but we went in and cut it at his studio. After you listen to it, you’ll understand why I had a hard time getting a record deal since it calls out the record companies like that," says Benson. "Some time later, he recorded it as duet with Waylon Jennings. The song's been buried for years, but it's what Dale and I are all about, so we recorded it. I played it for Willie the other day and he just loves it."

Still, there's one song on Dale & Ray that best addresses Watson and Benson's bond. "Bus Breakdown" is a tongue-in-cheek take on the perils of life on the road for a traveling band that has to depend on undependable transportation. It was inspired by an old business deal between the two road dogs – Watson bought a bus of Benson's that was constantly in the shop. "There's only one kind of bus that's ever been made," Watson declares, "the kind that will break down." 

Instead of it souring the relationship though, the duo got a good laugh and a rollicking song. Which may not be how it works for everyone, but that's just how Dale & Ray roll.