Q&A With Asleep at the Wheel Frontman Ray Benson

Formed over four decades ago in Paw Paw, West Virginia, Asleep at the Wheel has been introducing Western swing to audiences around the world through a relentless touring schedule. Most recently, the band released Still the King, a tribute record to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, which features contributions from many country music legends and newcomers in the genre. And yesterday, that album took home the Grammy award for Best Recording Package.

Flagpole connected with the band’s leader and founder, Ray Benson, over email to answer a few questions about the band’s history and their stop in Athens at The Foundry this Friday, Feb. 19. 

Flagpole: You formed Asleep at the Wheel in West Virginia, which isn’t exactly known for having a lot of music industry infrastructure. Is that what prompted your move to Austin?

Ray Benson: Well, first we moved to California, in the Bay Area, exactly for that reason. We were then signed to United Artist Records out of L.A. After we had our record out, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm encouraged us to move to Austin, so we did!

FP: You’ve worked with and toured alongside many of the great country artists for more than four decades. What artists do you feel the most kinship with?

RB: I am great friends with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis and Vince Gill, and I’ve gotten to collaborate, record and play with them the most. All of those guys I have the utmost respect for musically and personally. Also, I have a TV show, “The Texas Music Scene with Ray Benson,” to showcase and support younger artists like Randy Rogers, Reckless Kelly, Sunny Sweeney and many others. 

FP: You recently released a tribute to Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, which features contributions from Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Elizabeth Cook, Buddy Miller and many other contemporary Americana artists. What motivated the project, and why do you think this kind of music is experiencing a resurgence?

RB: Well, this was our third Bob Wills tribute album, and we felt that there was a young movement drawing their influences from American roots music like The Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Pokey Lafarge and others. What we try and do with these tributes is introduce and/or remind people about Bob Wills and this genre called “Western swing.” Western swing to me is true Americana, and by that I mean it’s music that is purely American. This music combines blues, jazz, country and fiddle music, blended all together to form this very unique style of music.

FP: Touring with an eight-piece band seems daunting. How do you make that work when expenses on the road can be quite high?

RB: Yeah, it’s a bitch! But we love to play, and do it the right way with real “players” who love playing this music. As Vince Gill once said, “There’s no pot of gold for playing Western swing at the end of the rainbow.”

FP: Athens is known as a music town, but doesn’t have a long history with the kind of music you play. What are your thoughts on rolling through a town that is more known for other genres?

RB: Well, I guess we are kinda on the edge of Country and Americana, but for people who have never heard of us, or seen us play, we play music to dance or tap your foot to. We have horns, fiddles, steel guitar, play boogie and standards. Hopefully something for everybody.