Walking the Floor celebrates its 100th episode this week with a nostalgic, story-packed interview with Ray Benson. The frontman of Asleep at the Wheel since 1969, Benson has spent nearly 50 years onstage, in the writing room and in the studio, rubbing shoulders with icons like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Alice Cooper along the way. He shares stories from his half-century-long career during Walking the Floor‘s 90-minute episode, turning today’s podcast into one the densest conversations in WTF history. We’ve rounded up some of the best anecdotes below.
After decades of touring, Asleep at the Wheel still has trouble in the American South.
“The South has always been our problem, because we’re a western band, and they can smell that,” says Benson, whose band has been primarily based in Austin for decades. “We edge a little too much into jazz and swing and blues. They don’t know how to tap their foot to that.”
When the band played in Austin for the first time in February 1973, the place sold itself.
While living in Oakland during the start of the Seventies, Asleep at the Wheel received an offer to open for Commander Cody in Texas. They accepted. One year after playing Austin, Benson and company moved their operations to the capital city. “We just went, ‘Wow, Pot is $5 an ounce, and it’s really good, and rent is $100 a month, and there’s 10 clubs, and there’s pretty girls at the University…” Benson remembers of the group’s first show in town. Although known for its progressive country scene, Austin still made room for Asleep at the Wheel’s sound, whose mix of traditionalism and genre-jumping eclecticism helped them stand out in a crowded market. “We called us regressive country,” the singer explains. “We were looking back, but with the rock & roll [sensibilities of]. . .a little more volume, a little more energy, and a little more attitude.”
They share a connection with the late Bob Wills.
Asleep at the Wheel was still a new band in 1973, when they met the legendary Bob Wills. Hailed as the King of Western Swing, Wills was in a wheel chair at the time, having suffered several heart attacks and a stroke during his later years. Their meeting was cut short due to Wills’ failing health, and he fell into a coma that night, remaining comatose until his death in 1975.
When they received the news of Wills’ passing, Benson and company were performing a honky-tonk in Dallas. Wills’ had built the place several decades back, and his fans flocked to the venue. “We’re playing there,” Benson remembers, “and he died that day. Usually, we’d [pull] 500 or 600 people. . .3,000 people showed up that night. It was very emotional. A reporter came up and said, ‘Bob Wills just died, are you going to cancel the show?’ And we said, ‘No. We’re gonna play his music. We’re gonna honor him.'”
The Sex Pistols once offered Asleep at the Wheel an opening slot.
“When punk rock hit, they offered us the opening [slot] to the Sex Pistols in San Antonio,” Benson says. “We knew better [than to take it], because all that happens to the opening act was they got beer cans poured at them.” Even so, Benson was impressed with the band’s booking agent. “Whoever promoted it said, ‘When we’re in New Orleans, we want a Cajun band. When we’re in Texas, we want a Western band.’ Whoever put it together knew what they were doing.”
Punk music threatened to put western swing bands out of work. . .but not for long.
“Punk had come in, and they were playing our clubs, and all of a sudden, we lost a lot of gigs,” says Benson, who admits that his band struggled to maintain their popularity during punk’s wake. “Then a year later, all of a sudden we’re getting the kids back. I remember a place in Champaign, Illinois. I’m getting paid at the end, and the guy goes, ‘You know, the punk bands are doing a lot more hard tickets, but. . .they don’t buy any fucking booze, and they fucking trash the restrooms. The fucking sink was pulled off the wall the other night.'”
According to Benson, Asleep at the Wheel was one of the first bands to ever crowd surf.
“I’m gonna say this, and some people might dispute it, but we were one of the first people to do body surfing,” the frontman insists. “It was in Lawrenceville, Kansas, 1975. . .[Band co-founder Lucky Oceans] would do this thing in ‘Bump Bounce Boogie’ — this boogie boogie thing [that] we still do — and he’d start dancing. . .and I’d go to the top of the amp and play my solo and jump off the amp. . .” That night, Oceans spontaneously leapt into the crowd, where a sea of arms carried his body from side to side. “That happened that night,” Benson says. “It didn’t happen a lot. It didn’t happen again. These were 18-year-old kids, drinking beer, and we were boogieing. And that’s how we made it through that time. This was not a country western band, even though we were still playing country music, and the western swing allowed us to be more ‘out there.'”