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Ray Benson: this wheel drives solo

By Tom Netherland, July 2003

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It's not as if Benson's never taken chances with Asleep at the Wheel's sound. While they are most widely associated with Western swing, all sorts of country and even some rock music turns up within their catalog. But when Benson tried music a bit more out of left field?

"When we did try to do stuff like that with Wheel it seemed that, A: people didn't accept it and B: they interpreted it as kind of counterproductive," Benson says. "So I said, okay, I really have to do this outside of the band."

What Benson appears to have created is an album chock full of standards, but there are no standards other than Marty Robbins' "El Paso." These are mostly newly-written tunes.

"It's just a form. As a friend of mine once said, it's all like different dialects of a language," Benson says. "If you speak a language, then you can learn different dialects. I think that's what these forms are all about. Then I got to co-write with Willie Nelson on 'Let's Get Lost.' We were sitting on his bus, and it was raining and couldn't go play golf, so I just said, 'hey man, check this out.' Anyway, he totally forgot about it. We hadn't written the words, just the melody. I wrote the words. I played it for him and he said, 'I don't remember that.' I said, 'well, it's a damned good thing I did.'"

Record done, Benson's product lends a few nods to influences other than Bob Wills. For example, it sounds as if legendary songwriter Hoagy Car-michael's tunes were getting another spin on Benson's record (check out "Let's Get Lost"), but look around and there's no Hoagy there.

That's as great a compliment that you can pay me," Benson says. "That was the deal. That was what I wanted to do. To me it still is and was and will always be an incredible journey of exploration. That's music at its best, I hope. What I like to explore is a wide range of material. Frankly, I find virtue and value in all kinds of music."

Not that FM country radio stations have ever really noticed Benson's Asleep at the Wheel, but now that he's ascended to country veteran status, a measure of liberating freedom appears to have found its way to him.

"I know I couldn't have made this album 20 years ago," Benson says.

Irony winds its way throughout country music. One of the most ironic aspects involves country veterans. While longtime musicians such as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash rarely get radio airplay anymore, they now record the music they wish to record. Same goes for Benson. On one hand, they do not receive attention at radio, while on the other hand they're afforded more opportunities to do what they want to do.

"Obviously, this is not all country music either," Benson says. "There is some. All I know is that I know I wanted to do what I did without any considerations other than musical ones."

No surprise. For those who have long followed Benson through his work with Asleep at the Wheel, he's never been one to blink at the thought of stretching out his sound. Just look at all those who have appeared as guests on Wheel's albums through the years. A mix of no surprise guest vocalists like Willie Nelson and George Strait along with quite surprising guests such as Huey Lewis dot their past.

So what's up with the new record in terms of guest appearances? In addition to Dolly Parton, there's jazzman Stanley Jordan on "Hands of Time," Flaco Jimenez on a spicy cover of "El Paso," and Delbert McClinton and Jimmie Vaughan on "Clearing Up To Be Cloudy."

And there's one appearance in particular that might seem from way, way out in left field. Ever watch MTV's "Beavis and Butt-Head"? How about Fox's primetime cartoon "King of the Hill"?

"There's a station here in town that's playing "Mary Anne," a cut with Jimmie Vaughan. A lot of people don't know but that cut has got Mike Judge on bass. He's the creator of "King of the Hill" and "Beavis and Butt-Head," but Mike is a monster musician and a friend of mine."

Benson says that the album - as with his work with Asleep at the Wheel - still invigorates him to no end.

"It was wonderful," Benson says. "By the fact that when I finished it and listened to it I said, 'yeah, this is good.' This is why I got in the business, to express myself. When you can do that, it makes everything worthwhile."

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