If Ray Benson isn’t onstage, he can likely be found on his bus, talking music with one of his bandmates in Asleep at the Wheel, big fat joint in hand. Tonight, he’s sharing that joint with singer and fiddler Katie Shore, a prominent part of the Western-swing group’s latest LP, New Routes, which came out earlier this month. With his guitar resting on his knee, Benson has somehow folded his six-foot-seven-inch frame into a bench seat on the bus, which is parked behind the Longhorn Ballroom, an old dancehall in Dallas, Texas.
“Every so often, somebody comes and says, ‘Don’t stop this. This is important, this kind of music,'” says Benson, whose voice, deep and gruff with an easy Texas twang, booms like that of a gentle giant. “People say this. I understand how important that is.”
The Longhorn Ballroom holds a special place for “this music,” as it served as home base in the Fifties for Bob Wills, the man whose legacy Asleep at the Wheel has helped carry on over its 48-year run. The group has released several tribute albums to the “King of Western Swing,” including one that earned a pair of Grammys, and even a play, 2005’s A Ride With Bob. Benson’s one and only meeting with Wills came in 1973.
“He just sat there. He didn’t say anything. That night, he had a stroke and went into a coma. Two years later, we were playing here [at the Longhorn] and that day he dies,” says Benson. Now 67, he’s almost the same age Wills was the day they met, 45 years ago. “It was very emotional because we never got to talk to the guy, we just got to meet him.”
Yet Asleep at the Wheel has forged a legacy of its own that goes well beyond Benson’s affinity for Wills, or even for Western swing. It’s become an institution unto itself, through which the likes of Rosie Flores, Larry Franklin, and longtime Bob Dylan bassist Tony Garnier have all passed. “Our alumni are pretty damned good,” Benson acknowledges proudly.
On New Routes, the latest iteration of the band shows just how adaptive it can be, from the giggly vaudeville of opener “Jack I’m Mellow,” to the jump-jiving boogie of “Seven Nights to Rock,” to the sultry soul of “More Days Like This.” It’s the Wheel’s first album of mostly original material in over a decade. “All of a sudden, we had a band that had personality,” Benson says. “It feels like a whole new life for me.”
Feeding off the talents of those around him is clearly a big part of what keeps Benson inspired. He points out the multi-instrumental abilities of current members like Dennis Ludiker and Connor Forsyth, rattling off trends in bluegrass and the influence of Texas fiddlers. “It’s just a collective of everybody’s ideas and I get to swing the ax. That’s what a band is,” he says. “Everybody says, ‘Why aren’t you just doing Ray Benson?’ Well, because with a band you have to get input from everybody. Or else you’re not a band. Then you’re just sidemen.”
Benson, a Philadelphia-area native who has since become synonymous with the Lone Star state, is particularly quick to praise Shore, who contributes two original songs to the album, “I Am Blue” and “Weary Rambler.” She’s been in the lineup for almost five years and appeared on two previous releases. “It means so much [to be in the band]. I didn’t even listen to a lot of the Beatles growing up. I was learning fiddle at the same time Asleep at the Wheel was putting out a lot of those songs,” Shore says. “Hearing the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, all these players that loved playing these songs so much, it really connected a ton of dots for me.”
Shore shares the credit for a third new song, “Call It a Day Tonight,” touted as the first that Benson has cowritten with a band member since the Eighties — although, with more than 30 full-length recordings behind him, he admits such a statistic is beyond his recollection. “That’s something we do every night. But to do it as an original song? That’s something else, because hopefully people will say, ‘I think I’ve heard that song. Wasn’t that Patsy Cline or something?'”
Still, interpretations of others’ music are a staple on New Routes, which sees Shore lead a rambunctious cover of Johnny Cash’s “Big River.” More personal, however, is Benson’s brittle but resolute reading of “Dublin Blues,” written by his old friend Guy Clark, who died in 2016. “To me, that’s a perfect song — which is a hard thing to say, but there are perfect songs in my estimation and that’s one of them,” he says. “I’ve been there. I’ve been in Europe and had a breakup, and felt that loneliness of being in a foreign country, and having a substance abuse problem. He was a good friend, you know. It means a lot to me.”
Another of Benson’s closest friends, Willie Nelson, gets a tribute of a different variety with the closing track “Willie Got There First,” which features Seth and Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers and was written by Seth. “A song like that, usually I go, ‘Nah, nah, that’s a gimmick song and song title.’ But this was poetry. The Avetts have an incredible songwriting sense,” he says. “I played it for Willie and said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘It’s so hard to be humble.’ But that’s Willie.”
With references to Nelson staples like “Bloody Mary Morning” and “On the Road Again,” it’s a playful homage that evokes the feel of one of the Red Headed Stranger’s own tunes. That’s no coincidence, given that Benson enlisted harmonica player Mickey Raphael and pianist Bobbie Nelson from the Family Band to play on the song. Seeing Willie’s older sister in the studio had a particularly strong effect on him. “I was amazed. Most people at 86 [years old], they’re sitting and drooling in a gad-dang old-age home,” he says.
Benson hasn’t lost too much of a step himself. He puts on a white jacket and Stetson, makes his way to a small meet-and-greet in a nearby building, then heads straight for the stage, where he’ll honor the occasion with back-to-back covers of Wills’ signature “San Antonio Rose” and Waylon Jennings’ 1974 hit “Bob Wills Is Still the King.” Music is one of the many things Benson has found to keep himself young, including being an active advocate of the local music scene in his adopted home of Austin, through organizations like the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. But there’s no doubt where he wants to be when he’s Bobbie Nelson’s age.
“I don’t know anything else that would make me happy. [Playing music] feels good, and it nourishes me,” Benson says, thoughtfully. “It’s just about the music. I would play for nothing if nobody cared.”