One of the events I’m most looking forward to at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival is the presentation by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson (with co-author David Menconi) on his brand new bio called Comin’ Right at You. Ray Benson is probably the premier Western Swing musician of his day, a man who has flown that torch for a career long after the genre’s heyday. And he’s made it work for decades.
Many, if not most, people just assume that Ray is a born Texan because he has become an Austin icon. But Ray’s roots are far, far from Texas. As the blurb for his book puts it:
A six-foot-seven-inch Jewish hippie from Philadelphia starts a Western swing band in 1970, when country fans hate hippies and Western swing. It sounds like a joke but—more than forty years, twenty-five albums, and nine Grammy Awards later—Asleep at the Wheel is still drawing crowds around the world. The roster of musicians who’ve shared a stage with the Wheel is a who’s who of American popular music—Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, George Strait, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and so many more. And the bandleader who’s brought them all together is the hippie that claimed Bob Wills’s boots: Ray Benson.
I first saw Ray and the Wheel in 1986 in a Sound Warehouse record store about two miles from my then house in what is now extreme North Houston. Those were the days. Record shops were the only place to go to sample new music and to speak with others about what to be on the lookout for…and Sound Warehouse was a regular Saturday morning stop for me. But that Saturday would be different from the rest.
I noticed that a bunch of sound equipment was being set up near the rear of the store and that a really, really tall guy was milling around back there with a band. Well, enough said. I’m always in for that kind of thing, so I decided to stick around even after I made all the purchases I could afford. And what a decision that turned out to be, because the lineup that morning (actually around noon by then) was going to be Dwight Yoakam (a man I had never heard of), Asleep at the Wheel (a band I was only vaguely familiar with), Lyle Lovett (a singer I had never heard of), and Roy Head (somewhat of a local rock and roll legend and a great entertainer). Needless to say, I figured that Roy Head would close the show, and I prepared myself to listen to the others first.
But, as it turned out, Dwight was considered the big star of the day and he was only there to sign album covers for fans (of which I very soon became one). Roy was the opener and he put on a great show, even doing a forward flip of some sort at one point in his show (as I think I recall). Then it was Lyle Lovett, who completely caught me by surprise, so much so that I had to buy his album before leaving the store. Turns out he only lived three or four miles from the record store himself…and we browsed the shelves together after the free show was over.
And, finally, there came Asleep at the Wheel. And wow, did I fall in love with their music and their enthusiasm for Western Swing, a sub-genre of country music I was only just beginning to appreciate at that time. And the rest is history. Since that day in 1986, I have been a dedicated fan of Ray’s in his roles of solo artist, producer of several wonderful Bob Wills tribute albums, and bandleader of Asleep at the Wheel.
For certain, this is one stop in Austin that I won’t be missing this weekend.