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Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson steps out with second solo album

He’s led Western swing's venerable Asleep At The Wheel band for so long that people forget what a great singer-songwriter-performer Ray Benson is on his own.

Ray Benson's solo album "A Little Piece"
Ray Benson's solo album "A Little Piece"
Bismeaux Records

But with his just-released second solo album A Little Piece, Benson is reminding everyone of his singular talent.

“I’ve done about five solo shows backed by [Austin newgrass band] MilkDrive and people are saying, ‘Wow! That’s not what I expected--but I really love it.’ And that’s the idea--just to show what I can do. I keep telling people, ‘Remember: Asleep At The Wheel is a concept--a concept to play roots, American, and what became Americana music, but that’s the concept.”

Benson also wanted to satisfy his ambitions of singing, writing and playing guitar “better than when I was a 20-year-old”—over four decades ago.

“I’m very fortunate to have had a distinctive voice that people like, and get away with it and have hit records,” says Benson, “but it’s not where I want it to be. I’m certainly not comparing myself to Ray Price, but in 1950, he was a Hank Williams imitator, then in the early ‘60s he invented the Texas shuffle kind of thing, and then became a great pop singer. It’s all a progression in experience, practice and development.”

“I know I’m not 19, which I was when I started,” continues Philadelphia native Benson, recalling his beginnings as an assistant to music historian Ed Ward, then a teacher at Antioch College in Ohio. “One day I took my guitar and sang a couple songs into a tape machine and he said I had to do a lot of work!”

And a lot of work Benson has done. After launching Asleep At The Wheel in Paw Paw, West Virginia, he met Jerry Garcia with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage.

“He was the nicest guy, and said, ‘You’re woodshedding’—a term meaning that we were going back into the woodshed with our instruments and learning how to play them, and it’s been that way since then: I’ve always been woodshedding and practicing and hopefully I’ve shown some of that in this album.”

But Benson also notes that A Little Piece, which follows his Grammy-nominated 2003 solo debut Beyond Time, follows “a tumultuous few years [marked by] divorce, my kids growing up, and hitting 60 three years ago. But this is what I set out to do when I was 18, and now I can get it done because I have the tools.”

Staying active, Benson relates, “is the deal,” that and the urging of son Sam Seifert to “just go in and do it!”

“He runs the studios and engineers at [Benson’s Austin recording studio] Bismeaux,” says Benson, noting that he, Seifert and frequent collaborator Lloyd Maines produced A Little Piece.

“The basis is the acoustic guitar fingerpicking which I did learn at Antioch—Stefan Grossman, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins. I incorproate all that in my guitar playing. As for the songs, I’ve always written songs, but for the most part created them to fill a form. Like, We need a Western swing song? ‘Johnny Walker Red.’”

He’s referring to "(The) Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” Asleep At The Wheel’s original 1975 Top 10 country hit.

“But the writing on this album is pretty personal,” Benson states. He notes that the album titletrack/centerpiece took between six and eight years to write, mainly because the reflective ballad was so personal, he felt too embarrassed to play it for anyone.

Besides Benson originals, the new set includes two covers: Randy Newman’s classic “Marie,” and “It Ain’t You,” which was written by Waylon Jennings and Gary Nicholson and never before recorded.

“Randy Newman is a ‘top of the list’ kind of guy,” notes Benson, whose version focuses on acoustic guitar. “Sam got ‘It Ain’t You’ from Gary. I listened and called Willie Nelson to sing it with me. It’s a defining song about growing old.”

Accompanying Benson on A Little Piece are longtime Asleep At The Wheel drummer Dave Sanger, pianist and band co-founder Floyd Domino, Robert Plant/Dixie Chicks bassist Glenn Fukunaga, Latin rockers Del Castillo, and Milkdrive, which is backing Benson on a handful of dates this month including a gig tomorrow night at Manhattan’s Hill Country Barbecue.

“We got our feet wet with four shows in Texas and it’s been great,” says Benson.

“Of course Asleep At The Wheel is still busy,” he confirms. The group has just issued the DVD Asleep At The Wheel : Forty Years On Film And In Concert, featuring a short documentary and six performances from its 40th anniversary concert in 2010 starring 30 band alumni.

“Bismeaux is getting really busy,” Benson adds, noting that Texas blues artist Carolyn Wonderland has completed an album there, and that Aaron Behrens, DJ of Austin electro-dancerock duo Ghostland Observatory, has signed on to make an R&B album.

“So we’ll see what happens with the Ray Benson album in opening up new solo concert opportunities as Asleep At The Wheel keeps touring,” concludes Benson, whose regular band is also completing its third Bob Wills tribute album, this one to feature Willie Nelson, the Time Jumpers, Buddy Miller, Jamie Johnson, George Strait, Kat Edmonson, Carrie Rodriguez, Robert Earl Keen, Merle Haggard, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers and Amos Lee.

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