Honky tonk Jew

A funny, colorful look at the journey of Ray Benson, founder of swing music band Asleep at the Wheel.

Asleep at the Wheel seen in 1976. Ray Benson is in the cowboy hat (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Asleep at the Wheel seen in 1976. Ray Benson is in the cowboy hat
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kinky Friedman may get most of the attention, but Ray Benson is the authentic Texas Jewboy.
The product of a Reform Jewish upbringing in a Philadelphia suburb, the two-meter-tall guitarist and founder of off-kilter country and swing music band Asleep at the Wheel is an unreformed hippie.
And that is reflected in his memoirs, Comin’ Right At Ya – subtitled How a Jewish Yankee Went Country or, The Often Outrageous History of Asleep At the Wheel – a laidback, funny and extremely colorful journey through the counterculture 1960s to the honky tonks of his transplanted home in Austin, Texas and the more than 40-year history of his big band.
“One of the things about being so tall is that people used to say ‘you don’t look Jewish,’” chuckled the affable 65-yearold Benson in a recent phone interview from Austin.
“Although I’m very proud of being Jewish, I didn’t want it to be like Kinky and known as the ‘Jewish country singer.’ I just wanted people to know me as a singer.
Then I wanted them to find out afterwards that I was Jewish and go ‘oh, wow!’” Formed as a legacy to the music of legendary Texas swingmaster Bob Willis, Asleep at the Wheel has been wowing audiences since its 1973 debut album Comin’ Right At Ya, which pinpointed the common ground where rock hipsters and die-hard country traditionalists could mingle and dance. In the book, Benson playfully recalled how the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau awarded the album an A minus, “my best grade of any sort in years – in and out of school.”
Despite the accolades and a slew of Grammy Awards won over the decades, Asleep at the Wheel remained outside the mainstream, even as country music and top-40 pop became interchangeable in the era of Garth Brooks and George Strait.
“It became obvious at some point after the 1970s that we were not going to be attracting hordes of mainstream success,” said Benson. “We were looking for something else.”
That something else was the freedom to live outside the 9-to-5 daily existence, travel the world, smoke limitless weed and make music unfettered by record company demands. That meant a turnstile of getting signed and later dropped by record labels and a huge turnover in band mates over the years, leaving Benson to be the only original member left in the still-active unit. Benson lovingly chronicles these developments with a lighthearted touch and a rare insight of being able to look outside the eye of the storm despite being in the middle of it.
“When I was in college, one of my musician friends said to me, ‘democracy doesn’t work in bands,’ and he was right,” said Benson.
“I guess you could call me an enlightened despot. There’s no way you’re going to please everybody, and even though everybody had a voice in band decisions, there was always a final line, and that was me. I hope I’ve been able to do a reasonable job in walking that fine line.”
Like Texas, a little larger than life, Benson’s stature has increased over the years, with more heralded contemporaries like Willie Nelson (“He’s smoked more weed than me because he’s older than me”), Dolly Parton and Van Morrison all approaching him for collaborations.
He even manages to name-drop another internationally known figure who attended high school in the next town over in Cheltenham, Pennsylvania.
“My friend and Asleep At the Wheel co-founder Lucky Oceans went to Cheltenham High School and he introduced me a couple times to this foreign exchange student from Israel. Years later, he said to me, ‘don’t you remember that exchange student I used to hang out with, Ben? That’s the prime minister of Israel [Benjamin Netanyahu],’” recalled Benson with a hearty, Texas-sized laugh.
With not many more boundaries to smash in his illustrious career, Benson said that he would love to bring Asleep at the Wheel to Israel for the first time. There were efforts to do that a couple years ago when plans for a Lollapalooza festival in the country were in the works, but ended up not materializing.
“It’s hard to take us overseas – we’re a big band, eight of us,” said Benson. “But I’d love to do it, and I think Israelis would enjoy it. I always tell people that country swing is like a major chord version of klezmer.”
Looking back on his myriad accomplishments, Benson pronounced that one of his proudest achievements has been changing people’s pre-conceived notion of what a Jew is.
“I was never the Sandy Koufax of country music – I’ve played a lot on Shabbat and Jewish holidays - but I’m very aware of my Jewish heritage,” he said. “It’s been incredible to see, when we’ve played at some places where Jews just don’t go to and people have this way of thinking – southern redneck culture or whatever you want to call it.
I’m proud that I’ve been able to alleviate that ignorance a little, and it’s been a privilege to be able to open people’s eyes and smash stereotypes.”
“There have been lots of Jewish songwriters and performers, even in country music, but in terms of a guy with cowboy hat standing up in front of a band for 40 years, I was one of the only ones.”
Piecing together the story of how that happened makes Comin’ Right At Ya an entertaining and enlightening read that swings like a classic Asleep at the Wheel tune.