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Interview: Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel

On Sunday, western swing band Asleep at the Wheel will play the Dallas Arboretum’s Labor Day picnic. We caught up with Ray Benson, the group’s founding member, fresh from a production of his Bob Wills’ tribute musical A Ride With Bob in Ruidoso, New Mexico. Their concert Sunday is the last you’ll see of AATW until December, and if you miss guitarist Elizabeth McQueen, don’t worry. Benson says she’s had her baby, doing well, and she’ll be back on tour in a month.

FrontRow: You’ve played for quite a few notable figures over the course of your career. What’s your proudest on-stage moment?

RB: I would say, many moments with Willie Nelson. Whenever we would do stuff together. That would be my proudest, because I think so highly of Willie. We’ve done hundreds and hundreds of appearances.

FR: What’s it like?

RB: He’s a good friend and a collaborator, so it’s just fun. I really couldn’t put words to it. It’s fun. All I can say is when you’re on stage with someone who you love, respect, and enjoy the music that they make, it’s the best.

FR: And when you’ve been doing something as long as you have, is that how you keep things fresh?

RB: I enjoy playing music. People ask that a lot, like, wow, you must be tired of it. But when I sit at home, I play music. So it’s kind of like, I don’t get tired of it. Sometimes I get tired of the travel. Sometimes I get tired the gig, they want you at this time and you’d rather be doing it another time…the sun’s too hot or…as far as playing music, I always love to pick up my guitar and play the guitar and sing. And that’s how you do it. Otherwise, no, you don’t stick around for 41 years if you don’t love doing it. Because  there are other ways to make a living, and there are other things that this keeps me from doing. You gotta love it, or you’re going to be frustrated.

FR: Is there anything else you could imagine yourself doing?

RB: No, I don’t think so. I started out…I was going to be a doctor, and that lasted about three months. I produce records, but it’s all about music. And I do some acting…but it always come back to, I’d rather be playing music.

FR: Is there anyone that you’d like to work with that you haven’t?

RB: Tony Bennett. And I’ve tried. His manager doesn’t know who I am. I met him once, just very briefly at the Grammy Awards. But he’s one of the guys I’d just really love to work with.

FR: Why?

RB: I’ve just been a fan of his for years, even before his quote resurgence. He’s a singer’s singer. He’s one of those guys…and I love jazz as much as I love country music and western music. He’s a singer’s singer. I just love the way he phrases and love his attitude.

FR: You do a lot of Bob Wills’ music and you’ve done a tribute to him. How do you feel about Texas declaring western swing the official state music?

RB: Well, it’s a double edged sword. As I said to the fellas, I said…I’m greatly honored that you feel the same way as I do about it but Texas has produced so many  kinds of music that I’d hate to make one the official music. I’ll put it this way, I think the legislature did a bunch of stupid things this year. So although I was honored that they recognized the kind of music that I play…what about blues what about jazz what about rock and roll,, Van Cliburn, classical music. This state is too big for one kind of music. And western swing is definitely born and raised in Texas and Oklahoma. If they know their western swing history…Bob Wills had to leave Texas because the governor ran him out of Texas. So Oklahoma is just as viable a home…a birthplace of western swing as Texas. So those guys just don’t know their history. But then again, like I said, I don’t have a lot of respect for the legislature. But in terms of how I feel, I feel very honored that the kind of music that I make has been honored that way, but they should honor all the music. And the other point is, western swing is the conglomeration of western music country music, blues, jazz swing, so how can they…it’s a complicated issue.

FR: Do you have a new album in the works, any new music?

RB: The last album we had, which was only six or seven months ago, was with Leon Rausch, a former Texas playboy who lives in Fort Worth and is 83 years old and still singing great. We did a whole album with him, called “It’s a Good Day.” But what we’re working on right now is a documentary film about the last 41 years. And that’s taken up a lot of time, so we just say hey, we’re not going to make an album for awhile.

FR: Anything about Sunday you’re particularly looking forward to?

RB: Oh yeah. I’ll tell you what, I’m looking forward to it being below 100 degrees. This year, that’s all I care about. Why don’t we dip the temperature a little bit, and everything will be fine.