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Ray Benson: this wheel drives solo

By Tom Netherland, July 2003

A sleep at the Wheel's 30-year career provides a direct route along which Western swing travels. Its longtime leader Ray Benson can be rightly thanked for having saved the music of Bob Wills, Spade Cooley and Milton Brown.

But Benson's tastes flow further than Western swing's trail travels.

Benson punctuates that statement with his first solo album, "Beyond Time." Listeners need not listen to a single track before concluding that Wheel's longtime leader has come up with a different sound. Just look at the cover.

There's Benson mid-croon, gripping a 1940s-era microphone as a lone beam of light creates a saloon-like silhouette. A fedora and not a cowboy hat sits crowns his head.

"Take off the cowboy hat and see what happens," Benson says by phone from Austin, Texas. "I'm glad I got that across at least to (someone)."

Message received.

The album's title, "Beyond Time," reflects the album's timeless quality. Listen to it once and it sounds as if from the 1940s. Listen again, and it sounds contemporary.

"I hope so. You never know whether people think it's pretentious," Benson says. "I originally had titled it 'SOLOW,' so low, but this music is serious enough that I shouldn't make a joke out of it."

Then listen to the tunes. Don't check out the album's liner notes for song credits until after a few spins. Close your eyes, and you'll swear that the album's first track, "Sorry," must have been dug up from within some dusty alcove in Patsy Cline's home. Slow and sultry, the strings-strewn song evokes a sound that's been the most part woefully overlooked for decades.

"After I finished it, I went, 'wow.' I don't impress myself very often," Benson says. "Mostly when I'm finished with recordings, it's like, 'God, I wish I had...' With that song it's like, golly, I pulled it off. As for the results, to me it's a tour de force that I never thought I could quite do."

That song, the first of a dozen on the album, brings up the question: What took Ray Benson so long? Why didn't he step out for a solo effort years earlier?

"It was about time. I've been doing Asleep at the Wheel for 33 years, and it's been near and dear to me, but this was something that I really wanted to do. I think it will be a slow burn," Benson says. "I think it will be one of those things that people will find out about it through other people because it's not going to get on the radio."

Multiple plays highlight the fact that Benson did not simply wake one day with a grand idea to embark upon an album of decidedly non-Asleep at the Wheel music. When he sings such songs as the Chuck Berry-bluish number "Mary Anne" or the smoky barroom blues tune "Clearing Up to be Cloudy," it's readily obvious that Benson's heart is in this effort.

"To me, it still is and was always will be an incredible journey of exploration," Benson says. "That's music at its best I hope. What I like to explore is a wide range of material. Frankly, I find great virtue and value in all kinds of music. We don't even mess with the bad. Why waste your time listening to that?"

Benson's musical tastes are not confined to those within Asleep at the Wheel's realm. So it makes perfect sense to record a solo album that strays from that sound, otherwise there would be little sense in recording a solo album.

"Exactly. That's exactly right. Why call it a Ray Benson when it's essentially an Asleep at the Wheel album," Benson says.

However, that does not mean that the tree-tall Texan by choice completely ditched Wheel's sound alongside the road somewhere with his solo effort. He made one exception.

There is one cut that would fit perfectly on an Asleep at the Wheel album, and that's the Dolly Parton cut ("Leave That Cowboy Alone")," Benson says, "but that was because of the writing - and the opportunity to record with Dolly. So, I felt like this is also a part of who I am, obviously. I wanted to include something that was germane to that, but I co-wrote this thing, and I sing it."

Otherwise, Asleep at the Wheel dozed throughout this record. Mark that down, Wheel fans, dozed and not done in. Benson said that a live album from Asleep at the Wheel is tentatively slated for a fall or early winter release.

Also, Benson stressed that ' his long-overdue solo album in no way diminishes the pride in accomplishment he's gleaned from leading the paramount Western swing band today. He's justifiably proud of Wheel.

"I really have done a good job with Asleep at the Wheel, and I'm very proud of that. I'm really am proud of Asleep at the Wheel's history and musical legacy to this day," Benson says.

That in part leads to why he chose a different route via his solo record.

"Asleep at the Wheel is a concept, and it's been this concept of Texas-Americana-roots-Western swing music," Benson says. "There's nothing that I'm more proud of. It's a format that's very structured strictly in terms of how I can fit into it and I wanted to get out of that for the kind of material that I had that I could not do for Asleep at the Wheel."

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