Could it be that Ray Benson has been at the Wheel long enough? It's hard to believe that this legendary road warrior would ever actually choo-choo ch-boogie into the sunset, but a major reduction in tour time is a lock, and other changes might be on the horizon as well.
"It's getting to be a wee bit much, as they say in Scotland," Benson grouses in a recent phone interview from a motel room in southern Illinois. Asleep at the Wheel is to play the Douglas County Fair this particular night.
No one can blame Benson for being tired. After all, it's been more than two decades now that the tall, bearded baritone has been at the helm of the country-western swing/boogie-woogie road crew known as Asleep at the Wheel. Through it all, the Pennsylvania native has maneuvered his ever-evolving band through 250-odd packed-to-the-rafters beer joints and ice houses each year, changing record labels about as often as the oil in the band's bus. And he's seen more than seventy players come through the Wheel at one time or another, including co-founders Leroy Preston and Lucky Oceans, both of whom bailed out in the late Seventies.
Often described as a resolute, good-timing purist by his fans and publicists, Benson had been clam happy with the status quo: He was the leader of a band that always had steady work, good-but-not-great-selling albums and, most importantly, made music the way he wanted it done, radio be damned. Asleep at the Wheel was Benson's, bumper to bumper.
But CBS Records told the Wheel to drive off in 1989, even though the Austin-based band had just garnered one of the three Grammy awards it has earned. When Arista Records decided to sign the Wheel that same year, it was done with one important caveat: Purity is swell, the Arista suits told Benson and his band, but you've got to get on the radio. And sell many, many more albums.
No problem, Benson said to anyone who would listen at the time. The answer would be to produce an album that would not only keep his regular customers happy, but get on radio rotation as well. He told an Austin writer that Asleep at the Wheel would "get on Top 40 stations within the framework of what we do." The so-called "breakthrough" disc that would get the band there from here was to be 1990's Keepin' Me Up Nights. Arista promoted the effort aggressively (including bizarre cartoons drawn by Kinky Friedman of Texas Jewboys fame in Rolling Stone), but it has fared little better than previous Wheel wax.
Ray Benson clearly isn't happy about the whole thing. In fact, he really doesn't want to talk about it.
"It's sellin', let's just leave it at that." But is it keeping Arista's bean counters as happy as all had hoped? "Well," he says, a bit of an edge in his deep voice, "you know, they're fine people, wonderful people, very nice. And that's all I'm going to say." Benson bristles, however, at the notion that he's compromised his twenty-plus-year commitment to musical integrity.
"Hey, I'm not the purist everybody thinks I am. I mean, I'm not Bill Monroe, you know." He falls silent, plainly done with any further talk about Keepin' Me Up Nights.
Nor does Benson seem to want to say much about his present road stint, either. "Let's just say it's goin'," he sighs. "It's goin' and goin' and goin'. That's all I want to say about it."
What Ray Benson does deign to discuss, however, is the TV movie he recently completed. Starring Dolly Parton and Gary Busey, Wild Texas Wind concerns abusive relationships in bands--a fairly common problem, according to Benson. He plays--here's a stretch--bandleader and friend to lead singer Parton, who is battered by boyfriend Busey.
"The movie has some very redeeming moral messages," Benson says. "The problem is more prevalent than people might think. Especially in small club bands." As for his own performance, Benson refers to past experience scoring movies (he scored Wild Texas Wind) and working bit roles.
"Hey, I'm not new at this," he says with his deep Texas twang. "I've always wanted to do more, and now I've got pages and pages. I've got as many lines as Busey in this." If Benson had his druthers, he'd do more. Naturally, that would call for less time spent on those ribbons of highways.
"That's enough," he barks in reference to spending two thirds of his life on the road. "It's too much. We're gonna slow down; we plan on doing no more than 130 days. But that's all I got to say about it."
Asleep at the Wheel fans needn't fret, however. Toolies Country, that venerable west-side western-dance palace, will continue to be the Wheel's bus stop, though perhaps not the twice-a-year habit at present.
"Bill Bachand is a hell of a promoter, very intense," he says, referring to Toolies' owner. "I wouldn't want to live with him, but you have to be that way in this business. He's been great with us, though."
When the band comes a-calling at Toolies on Thursday, however, expect the usual longhorn swing, bebop deluxe, driving covers and smooth country favorites that Asleep at the Wheel has performed so superbly lo these many years. But don't expect anything new, even though Ray Benson has a secret under his Stetson. Of course, mum's the word.
"I don't really want to talk about it, but I do have a surprise for radio coming up. It's time they got to know my ass. I can't say anything else. It'll be in August probably, but look, I gotta go judge a fashion show at the fair. I really don't have anything more to say."
Asleep at the Wheel will perform at Toolies Country on Thursday, July 25. Showtime is 8 p.m.
"Hey, I'm not the purist everybody thinks I am. I mean, I'm not Bill Monroe, you know."
"Bill Bachand is a hell of a promoter, very intense. I wouldn't want to live with him, but you have to be that way in this business."
Often described as a resolute, good-timing purist by his fans and publicists, Benson had been clam happy with the status quo.
Purity is swell, the Arista suits told Benson and his band, but you've got to get on the radio. And sell many, many more albums.