Asleep at the Wheel's chief swinger Ray Benson shows another side on his first solo record 

Still at the Wheel

Still at the Wheel

The new DVD from Asleep at the Wheel, Then and Now, uses the band's 2010 40th anniversary show in Austin as an excuse to look back over four decades of music. Nearly 100 different musicians have passed through the ranks of the group, but the one constant has been its 6-foot-7 singer and guitarist Ray Benson, his height further exaggerated by the tall-crowned cowboy hat that keeps his long red hair out of his face.

In the early photos from the band's founding year, 1970, Benson is a skinny, 19-year-old beanpole; today he's a beefier guy with a graying goatee. But in every decade he's been the ringmaster when the traveling circus known as Asleep at the Wheel takes the stage: making introductions, cracking jokes and directing traffic when his latest batch of hot pickers take their solos on the Western swing, country boogie and rockabilly tunes the band specializes in.

So it's surprising to find Benson so pensive and understated on his first solo album, A Little Piece, out Jan. 21 via Bismeaux Records. Benson just turned 63, and over the past five years he's been thinking a lot about getting old. So when he sat down to practice his guitar every day, a different kind of song started popping out. He wrote a pair of philosophical prayers, slow hymns you could call them: "Give Me Some Peace" and the title track. When Benson wrote about dysfunctional romance, it came out once as flamenco ("Heartache and Pain"), once as Buddy Holly-like pop-abilly ("Over and Over") and once as Southern rock ("Killed by a .45"). He wrote a straightforward pop love song ("Lovin' Man") and an elegy for his late friend J.J. Cale. He even wrote a bluesy jazz ballad in the style of Harold Arlen about the impermanence of love, how it can all disappear "In the Blink of an Eye."

"I had all these songs that didn't really fit the band," Benson says. "I was frustrated because I liked the songs but had nowhere to do them. But then I realized I could do them as Ray Benson, not as Asleep at the Wheel. After all, I started the band to hone our chops so we could do anything we wanted. I wasn't a great singer or songwriter or guitarist when the band started, but after playing 150 to 250 shows a year for 40 years, I got to be pretty good. I realized I could do this kind of album too."

"I watched our love die," Benson sings on his jazz ballad, "for no reason why, in the blink of an eye." David Sanger, Asleep at the Wheel's drummer for the past 26 years, swirls his brushes beneath Benson's electric-guitar solo. Floyd Domino, who was Asleep at the Wheel's pianist for most of the '70s and who is now one of Merle Haggard's Strangers, adds a Hank Jones-like jazz solo. The skill of the performances makes the mood of wistful regret irresistible.

"All these songs come from life experiences," Benson says. "There's songwriting as a craft and songwriting as an emotional expression, and I've done both. Our biggest hit, 'The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,' was all about craft. I said, 'Let's write a song that could be a hit for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.' And that's what we did. The songs on this album are emotion songs, and now I have the craft to make them work. I can sing them well enough and play the guitar well enough to make them work. So many songwriters write as a therapeutic device, and that's cool, but at some point you have to objectify your emotions enough that someone else can feel the same thing."

You have to develop serious jazz chops if you want to play Western swing. Western swing master Bob Wills, Benson argues, never thought of himself as a country star; he thought of himself as the leader of a swing big band, just like Benny Goodman and Count Basie, only with fiddles and steel guitars. Wills loved the blues empress Bessie Smith, the New Orleans minstrel Emmett Miller and Hollywood cowboy Gene Autry, and he tried to incorporate all their music into his. To play Wills' music, Asleep at the Wheel had to acquire a similar breadth.

"In doing the DVD, I realized the influence we've had, both on country music and on Americana music," Benson adds. "We were there at the beginning of all these things: country-rock, the Western swing revival, the new-traditionalist movement. When I went to Nashville in 1970, there were no long-hairs and there were no bands — it was always Merle Haggard and the Strangers, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos.

"Music Row was trying to figure out how to get the baby-boomer generation to buy country music. They thought they'd do it by going pop, but we were doing it by going very raw, playing Bob Wills and the blues. After we had our hit, the company wanted more of the same, but we wanted to do Count Basie. When we toured Europe with Emmylou Harris, one reviewer said we were just a jazz band cashing in on the country craze. I was so flattered."

Benson reveals that Asleep at the Wheel is working on its third — and, he promises, final — Bob Wills tribute album. Buddy Miller, Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson, Kat Edmonson and Carrie Rodriguez have already recorded tracks for Bob Wills Is Still the King, which is due in September. Lyle Lovett, Elizabeth Cook, Vince Gill and Old Crow Medicine Show are also scheduled to join in.

"I almost hired Buddy as our lead singer when Chris O'Connell left the band," Benson reveals. "But he had his own path to pursue. As for Willie, we'd never have made it through the '80s if not for him. He put us on shows; he gave us money and studio time; he sang duets with me when he was the biggest fucking thing in the world. I remember the first time he came to see us at this little club up in Dallas around 1971; he'd heard there was this longhaired band playing Bob Wills. We smoked a joint backstage and we were friends for life. We started playing with him on shows at little clubs in Texas when he was just starting to put his whole Willie thing together with Paul English and Mickey Raphael. He was the one who convinced us to move from Oakland to Austin."

Nelson sings another duet with Benson on the latter's new solo album, a version of Waylon Jennings and Gary Nicholson's "It Ain't You." On the up-tempo, curmudgeonly "I Ain't Lookin' for Trouble," Benson is backed by drummer Sanger and the Austin string band Milk Drive. That's the quintet that will back him on this tour. But Benson goes out of his way in the liner notes to reassure fans that Asleep at the Wheel isn't going anywhere. "Don't worry," he writes, "there's plenty of great Western swing and boogie-woogie still coming in the near future."

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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