Austin 101 Magazine

Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson on Austin, ACL Fest, and being Texan

Benson has been busy for decades. He puts out an album about every two years (26 albums, 10 Grammys, and many awards) and tours over half the year-a life he agrees with a chuckle, is not for everyone. He takes a little time off here and there but doesn’t for-see retiring. When asked how he does it, he answers simply, “coffee”. He has a new album, “New Routes” and is hosting The Texas Dance Hall Tour in November-saving the history and legacy of epic music venues is a passion.  Since he was the original inspiration into the ACL Music Festival, we thought it was perfect to chat with him this week. He plays every year on the main stage on Friday. Here is what he shared with us (in his unforgettable deep bass voice).

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What do you think of all the huge changes in our city?

I think it’s inevitable and the town has changed quite a bit. It’s a combination of things- decrease in affordability of real estate, the type of people who come to town is different, the traffic. I had to sell my studio after 27 years. Compared to L.A. and other cities it’s still a great city. My grandfather bitched about the cost increase of things from 1920 to 1970, but I focus on things that can help our quality of life- solving traffic problems with mass transit and highway improvements, remote work, etc. There are solutions. I would love to have the train (Metro rail) go to the airport but might not happen in my lifetime. There are good things though, I love Central Market and Whole Foods- my neighbors started it-with access to great organic food.

You started out your career in iconic Austin venues like the Broken Spoke, Threadgills, Gruene Hall.

Yes, I started in 1973 at the Armadillo, Broken Spoke, Shoal Creek Saloon and were the first touring act at Gruene Hall in 1975. The first place, which is gone now (last month) was Hills Cafe on Saint Elmo road in South Austin. It’s important to preserve the remaining venues and it’s why we’re doing the Texas Dance Hall Tour. They need help with repairs.CM-TDHT-1-1-2024x1171

We still love playing the Moody Theater (ACL Live), Broken Spoke, etc. and we were the first show to play ACL Live. It’s sad that some of these great venues might not be around.

What’s the story on the Nashville vs Austin music scene and are we losing great songwriters and musicians?

Yes, we are brother and sister. Both have a great variety of music of different genres. Nashville has the infrastructure for the writer, and Austin doesn’t. If someone is good and can break into the mainstream, they can get a publishing deal and get some money and hit the big time. There are 12 publishing companies there. Here, it’s more for the solo artist and bands doing it on their own. There’s a benefit of doing it on your own and doing it your way.

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Love the new album cover and the Avett Brothers song.

Yeah, we have a new band, new members, we change them out like Fleetwood Mac (laughs). Katie is our new fiddle/vocalist. We started by doing a demo in the studio and then decided to make an album. It’s based on swing music, some folk, rocknroll. The album was actually done and then they sent us this song (“Willie Got Their First” an ode to Willie Nelson by Seth Avett), and I sent it to Willie, he loved it. We were in town at the same time and recorded it and added it to the album (released in September). Check out the songCheck out the band.

How did your sound start and how has it evolved?

A hundred people have been in and out of the band. We are basically a string band with fiddles, steel guitar, bass drum, sax, clarinet, vocals with rhythms based on swing and 40s music and rockabilly and we put it all together. We’re a little Willie, Andrew Sisters, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard. Everyone who comes in the band adds their own twist to our songs and we keep evolving-as long as we can convince talented people to come on the ride. (Why wouldn’t they?).

We recently covered the Beto-Willie rally in Austin. Do you get involved in politics and events?

I’m the one who introduced Beto  to Willie. I texted him and said this guy is good and we first jammed at COTA at Willie’s 4th of July Picnic this year. I had to be in California during the rally for my sons wedding and there was no way I could miss that. Read more on Beto and his momentum for Texas Senator.

Beto Willie concert9-2018 WillieDiego Donamaria

On being Texan

I moved to Texas to become a Texan. There are some things that are purely Texan, that one can learn. We are an oil state with a strong economy because of it. We are aware of that. But Texas includes all type of people and values. You can be a vegetarian, and still have Texan qualities (pride, manners, helping neighbors, kindness, southern hospitality) and we have a unique and diverse outlook of fairness, equality, inclusiveness, independence. You can be a writer or an artist- with UT we attract creative people from music, literature, film, and art. Rouchenberg (Robert) is from Texas. The history of Texas is important and that of Mexican Americans. Michener came here to write his famous book (Texas). I met him and it’s a good book. His books are all based on history, with some fiction.

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