AUSTIN, Texas — One of the great voices of the Austin music scene, Ray Benson is a founding member of the seminal Country Swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel, and, among other bona fides, a close, personal friend of Willie Nelson. He's also an actor and voiceover artist with one of the most recognizable speaking voices in all of Texas.
Ray was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March, but he is well on his way to a full recovery. Spectrum News caught up with him at his home to talk about that health scare, his Texas history, and his vision for the future.
“What brought me to Austin, Texas, was Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, and the kind of music that I played and Eddie Wilson from the Armadillo World Headquarters, and was quite a triumph for it. Met Willie, we got a record deal out in California, and we're living in Oakland, California, and we played the Armadillo, put out a record end of 1972. Willie came down to see us in Dallas, to see us in early ‘73, by the end of ‘73 we moved here.”
“When I came to Texas, Asleep at the Wheel was—it was quite a split in the culture. You had hippies and you had rednecks. Hippies played rock and roll, rednecks played country music and all of a sudden there was a bunch of hippies, Asleep at the Wheel, that played country music… The first gig we played in San Antonio was at the Farmer's Daughter, and the Farmer's Daughter was a “redneck dance hall” with a big picture of Bob Wills behind the stage and you know the same game was at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so we were the only band that could do that. And I think that's why Texas embraced us.”
“We loved country music, but I grew up playing jazz, swing, blues, rock and roll, everything and Western Swing seemed to give me the opportunity to do all of the above. And I love fiddle music… as a kid I played in square dance bands with Yankee Fiddlers. They were wonderful men you know from Maine and Vermont and everything. But Fiddling is an American tradition, I think it's the most American tradition in music and it goes back to our founding. They all brought their fiddles over because it was easy to carry a guitar and a fiddle as opposed to a piano and a brass band, although there are plenty of brass bands too.
That's how it all started out and, it was an amalgam of swing music, blues music, country music, fiddle music and I just fell in love with it. We also wanted to prove that our baby boomer generation of “hippies” could play country music. So 1975, I had a top 10 Country record me and Leroy wrote called "The Letter that Johnnie Walker Read." They thought I was Porter Wagner and Chris was Dolly Parton and it was that kind of record, and that really threw a wrench in because they went ‘huh’. And that's what we wanted. And that's when we didn't get really serious as Bob Wills tribute kind of Western Swing... until the 90s. We had big Country Western hits you know and different rockabilly music...everything. We just explored American roots music.”
“Yeah, it's an honor. What can I say, you know, George Strait's my good pal and has helped carry the torch of this music forward. And it's just an honor. Very rarely in a man's life do you get to do something that has historical significance and that to me is very historical. The fact that, when I came to Texas in 72, we couldn't find an operating Western Swing band playing commercially anywhere. They had all retired. All them old fiddle players used to say to me ‘Oh yeah, when Elvis hit by 1958 I had to go learn how to play the guitar to get a job.’”
“Well, Willie is a, you know, a force of nature, and all he wants to do is play music.”
“Willie is the best friend I've ever had. And what can I say, that's...that's it. I'm a lucky man to have known him, still know him. My life would be so different without Willie Nelson."
“Well it was 20 years, I think over 20 years ago, and somebody asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. I said ‘I want to play music with friends’, to paraphrase Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" song "My life is making music with my friends,” so that's how it started.
Oh my god. We've had incredible parties, incredible jams, incredible raised money all the time for local Austin music charities. So that's how it started me wanting to have fun on my birthday.
"It was so sad. First it was Asleep at the Wheel’s 50th anniversary, which it still is, and we'll be celebrating it in 2021. I had my entire regional band come back. Tony Garnia from Bob Dylan's band, Chris O'Connor from San Francisco, Lucky from Australia, etc etc. They were coming in to make a record and a film. Now for the party, John Prine was supposed to come. I can't remember all the people I remembered Prine because he passed and we were just so devastated. So we had to cancel the party which was going to be on the 17th. My birthday is actually the 16th, and honestly, on the 16th of March, on my birthday, I was sitting in my house alone, quarantine, and going, ‘What just happened’?
"Absolutely. When he, Prime died is when I became public with the fact that I had COVID. There was no reason for me to become public except for the fact that I went to get tested and could not get tested… The people who were on the television going, ‘everybody wants to test and give tests,’ you know, and I'm going ‘this is not true’.
And the other thing was because my symptoms were so much different than what they were broadcasting, which was I had no fever and no shortness of breath, but I had the disease and I was sick.
"No. I hit the bed. I did that virtual thing for Luck Texas, that we raised money with Paul Simon and Willie Nelson, etc and the next day I hit the bed for two days. Finally I got up enough to go to the doctor to try to get tested, and they couldn't test me. They said you don't have the flu, go home. I went to the store, got some food, went home and I was out for another four days...just tired, just confused. I lost 30 pounds, I couldn't eat, and then I went back to my doctor and she said, ‘We need to test you for COVID’ found a test. And that's how it all went down.
"Well since they told me that, you know, 'You're fine we're not even gonna give you a test.' I went, ‘Well, maybe it's something else’, you know, maybe it's anemia, I don't know if that's why I went back a second time. And that's when luckily my doctor had a test. I asked her last week when I went and got my antibiotic test, I said, ‘How did you get that test?’ She said, 'We just had so few of them' and the protocol was only if they have a cough or a fever, right... and luckily she broke protocol.
"Oh yeah, no, it was, I lost 35 pounds the wrong way. I've now kept it off and because I've been exercising, eating right that is. So that's the best thing I did...lose the weight. I think the reason I look bad also was because I'm growing my COVID beard, you see… I am not shaving this sucker until we have music back on the road again, so it’s gonna get pretty dang long.
“You know, I've been doing this 50 years, and I've been through a lot. And all I felt was really fear for the way that we play music. Not for myself, not for my band, which I said ‘Okay we're going to survive’, but how long is it going to be when people get together, dance, congregate, etc to music? That is my biggest fear, because I've been through 9/11, you know Asleep at the wheel was supposed to play the White House on 9/11. Asleep at the Wheel was, when Mount St. Helens erupted, we were there and we were stuck in a volcanic explosion for five days. So we've been through so many disasters, but nothing that stopped the music like this has.”
“We're in survival mode right now, and every musician, well not just musicians, everybody who has been affected by the fact that they cannot perform their job, or make an income because of this...everybody's affected. And so far, you know, the government made a good attempt at helping and that helped. And I think that's the only reason why right now that we are okay is that the government stepped in and helped people.
I mean I see it all over the place you know… I'm caring for one of our old roadies who's got cancer, getting the healthcare professionals who are overwhelmed, just to do something because of COVID to do something for a guy who's dying of cancer trying to get that sort of thing makes it twice as complicated… but this is war, and my parents went through World War II. That's the kind of mobilization that is needed to win a war.”
“Let me just say this: 150,000 men died in World War II, 150 thousand men died in Vietnam. We're approaching 140,000 today as you and I speak. If that's not a war, in terms of casualty loss, I don't know what is. And so, when we're at war. America has always worked together to defeat the common enemy, and our government, because of political differences, have not fought this war as a unified government. And that is a fact. So, we need to correct that.”
“Austin did the right thing. I mean, it broke my heart that Adler canceled South by Southwest. I didn't question whether it was right or wrong, I just was like ‘Okay, here we go. It's gonna be that bad. Let's go’.
So Austin's done great... All wars are political, there were people who didn't want us to fight the Nazis, there were people who didn't want us to get in World War I, So that's reality. But let's get on with it because we know that these little things and distancing, and all of this... such little things to do for crying out loud to stop this.”
“Well obviously the mask thing is a no-brainer. But that's not gonna stop everything, that's just gonna limit it. The vaccination is important and that's not gonna stop everything. We're just going to have to learn to live with it but we cannot learn to live with hundreds of thousands of people dying and whatnot. It's going to take study.
My little brother… He's a genetic immunologist and these are the people who are working on a daily basis to figure out viruses. The people got to understand viruses are here. They're all over the world. Viruses are here to kill us. And the only thing that will defeat viruses is our scientific advancements and our lifestyle changes, you know. That's two big things and I hope that our government can get everybody to unify on that and say, those are very specific things. Let's find out what this virus is by studying it. And let's adjust our lives to accommodate the fact that we don't want it.”
“People who don't believe it's a threat have got their heads buried in the sand. People who object to wearing masks because it's their freedom, I asked them if they use their seatbelt, I asked them if they obey the laws when they're on an airplane, ask them if they obey laws and what is the problem with this specific law, it is not a political statement…
I'm a big guy. I'm six foot, seven inches tall and I don't like wearing a seatbelt in my car because it's real uncomfortable, but the law says that I should, and probably will save my life if some drunken idiot hits me. So it's the same thing. It's not a political statement. I don't like wearing a mask, unless I'm playing cops and robbers when I was seven years old.”
“If you'd asked me that before the COVID thing I would say, 'Well, we'll be on the bus’ now, I don't know. I really don't know. I'm not gonna stop playing music but it's gonna be different. The one good thing I've been able to do is a lot more writing time. Writing music, time is your friend. And when you're on the road it's like oh my god get together, go check the hotel, get cleaned up, do the interview. So, maybe be less road, more, more studio, more stuff. But I really don't know.”
“Well, as I told you I came to Texas to be a Texan, simple as that. I always felt just such a welcome from the folks here… The definition of a Texan is somebody lives in Texas. I don't mean as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent it just means he's here, loves this land and wants to make it a better place.”