When the Grammy-winning Asleep at the Wheel got its start 50 years ago, no one quite knew what to make of the band – a group with a lot of country and jazz influences combined with rock-and-roll swagger. The passage of time is clearly on the mind of Ray Benson, the leader of the modern-day kings and queens of Western swing.
In the years since he founded the group, “Brother Ray,” as Benson is affectionately known, has become an icon himself. He’s been the literal voice of the state’s “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-litter campaign, and served as a goodwill ambassador for Texas music.
And Asleep at the Wheel now has a new EP release to mark “50 Years at the Wheel.”
Benson told Texas Standard he wrote one of its tracks, “Better Times,” while recovering from COVID-19. Benson got the disease in March 2020. He calls himself an “early adopter.”
While he recovered, Benson says he watched a lot of black-and-white movies, and he thought about the similarities between World War II and COVID-19.
“I wanted to write a song that sort of evoked that whole feeling, that we’re gonna get through this, after the war. And we’ll all be together in better times,” Benson said.
He also wrote about how the pandemic has changed performers’ lives, including those of his bandmates.
Despite the band’s sound, and Benson’s imposing stature, he didn’t come by his Western swing credentials at birth. He was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, and played folk music as a youngster. Benson credits 1950s television with introducing him to cowboys and other Western characters.
“When I found out Tex Williams was from Indiana, and Roy Rogers from Ohio, I thought, ‘Well hell, I can do that,'” Benson said.
Benson got to Texas by way of West Virginia, where he began playing honky tonks in 1969. Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm encouraged Benson to come to Texas, Nelson offering him the chance to open his shows.
“It was just so perfect,” Benson said.
Soon, they were covering the songs of Western swing pioneer, Bob Wills, and Austin “felt like home.”