ABOARD WILLIE NELSON’S BUS IN WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - A couple of Texas cowboys are parked in an alleyway behind the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts here, listening to Hank Williams, telling jokes they’ve told each other a hundred times before - “Hey, Willie, what was the last thing Elvis said before he died?” - and getting ready to give an appreciative audience a master class in Western swing.
The guy on the bus who is not Willie Nelson is Ray Benson, a 6-foot-7 dude in a 10-gallon hat who was named Texas musician of the year in 2004. Benson leads the nine-time Grammy-winning Austin ensemble Asleep at the Wheel, which has reached another career high with the terrific new “Willie and the Wheel” (Bismeaux, 3 ½ stars). Truth be told, though he’s spent four decades keeping alive the freewheeling style of country jazz popularized by Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Benson hails from nowhere near the Lone Star State.
In fact, Ray Benson Seifert is a Jewish kid from Philadelphia.
The road from there to here - touring the country with his buddy Willie Nelson, singing the Wheel’s trademark “Miles and Miles of Texas” - started with the Ballantine beer jingle he taught himself on guitar, after hearing it played on Phillies broadcasts in the 1950s.
He played the Robin Hood Dell with his sister Joanna, in a children’s band, when he was an 11-year-old folkie who got the cowboy-music bug when he went with a friend to see Gene Autry ride up on his horse Champion at a City Avenue radio station in 1958.
“We didn’t know it was a myth,” Benson remembers. “We wanted to be cowboys.”
Learning to love blues and jazz and country music listening to the radio in Philadelphia, “I liked everything,” Benson says. “And that’s the thing about Western swing. It has everything in it.”
Inspired by The Band, which he saw as a teenager, he set off to find “a whole other America,” he says. That led him and his fellow Wheel founders, Philadelphians LeRoy Preston and Reuben Gosfield, also known as Lucky Oceans (who now reside in Vermont and Australia, respectively), to get back to the country in Paw Paw, W.Va., in 1970. From there, they followed the hippie dream to San Francisco, where they were signed to a record deal after Van Morrison saw them in an Oakland bar and touted the band to Rolling Stone magazine.
Benson met Nelson on the road in 1971. A couple of years later, he took up the like-minded Red Headed Stranger on his suggestion to relocate the Wheel to the burgeoning cosmic country capital of Austin. He’s been there ever since - when he’s not on the road, that is.
Benson, 57, who’s divorced and has two sons, does about 150 dates a year with the Wheel, which has played for Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Obama got up on stage with Benson and sang “Boogie Back to Texas” at a campaign fundraiser in Austin last year.
Though he’s collaborated with Nelson from time to time - on a 1993 Wills tribute album, and producing a Nelson duet on “Still Is Still Moving to Me” with reggae singer Toots Hibbert - the two never worked together on a full-length project until “Willie and the Wheel,” an album conceived by legendary producer Jerry Wexler.
“I call it chasing Willie,” the singer and guitarist says of pursuing his peripatetic golfing buddy. “It’s like chasing the wind. It’s more than a challenge. It’s an avocation.”
Benson finally lassoed Nelson for “Willie and the Wheel,” which came out this month on Benson’s Bismeaux Records, and a three-week tour with the smooth, sophisticated 10-piece Wheel on a four-bus caravan.
The band’s always-evolving cast - there have been 90 members over the years, Benson says - currently includes longtime pianist Floyd Domino, 14-year-old fiddler Ruby Jane Smith, and vocalist Elizabeth McQueen, who trades flirtatious barbs with Nelson on the blues standard “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
Nelson was happy to be roped in. “I’ve got the best seat in the house,” he says, taking a break from the game of Nintendo Wii Golf he’s playing with his daughter Lana in the preshow hours in Wilkes-Barre. (It’s not going well: The virtual “Willie” up on the bus’ flat-screen TV has just hit consecutive pitching-wedge shots over the green. “Where do you go to give up?” wonders the flesh-and-blood Nelson, wearing an “On the Road Again” T-shirt and New Balance sneakers.)
“I just did a couple of dates in New York with Wynton Marsalis,” Nelson says. “And it was the same thing. I was up on stage surrounded by great musicians. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
On the bus, they’re just two easygoing musicians with decades’ worth of stories to tell, shooting the breeze about the unjust persecution of Michael Phelps, their mutual adoration for Django Reinhardt and Ray Charles, and whether “Whiskey River” is the right song for Willie to begin his set with. (It is.)
The tour came to a close Tuesday in Carl’s Corner, Texas, the site of a truck stop that Nelson won in a card game years back, and has since converted to a biodiesel filling station and dance hall. And this week, Willie and the Wheel will tape an “Austin City Limits” episode scheduled to air this year.
When Nelson, who turns 76 in April, was growing up in Abbott, Texas, he says, nobody was calling the music made by Wills, and peers like Milton Brown and Cliff Bruner, Western swing. “It was just music,” he says. “It was what was on the jukebox. Western swing was a label they came up with to figure out what to call Bob Wills’ music. It was a combination of jazz and blues ...”
“... and everything,” Benson interjects. “It’s music to dance to.”
“The guys who play Western swing can play jazz, and vice versa,” Nelson says. “Any of the guys on stage tonight could go sit in with Wynton, and any of the guys there could damn sure come sit in over here.”
Nelson first talked to Wexler about a Western swing album in the 1970s, when they were with Atlantic Records. After Nelson left the label, the idea was dropped. In 2003, though, the producer gave Benson his collection of Western swing LPs, which Wexler had converted to CD for himself.
Benson graciously accepted, and noticed 39 songs were marked with a “WN,” denoting the songs Wexler wanted Nelson to record. Eleven of them, along with Bennie Moten’s “South,” are on “Willie and the Wheel,” which Wexler, who’s credited as executive producer, heard as a work in progress before he died in August.
For Benson, working with Nelson gives the Wheel’s profile a welcome boost, booking the band into 2,000-to- 3,000-seat theaters rather than 600-to-800-capacity dance halls.
For Nelson, making the album was a kick, and not just because the 5-foot-6 singer finally got to tower over Benson when he posed atop a horse for the cover shoot. It gave Nelson, a genius song interpreter, a chance to stretch himself while still “making music with my friends,” as the line in “On the Road Again” goes. “None of these songs are songs I’m used to singing every night,” he says.
Working with Benson is a treat, he deadpans, because “he’s just so tall. You can’t take a picture of him all at once.” But seriously. “He knows how to put a band together. If you like people with talent - and you can put up with him - he’s a good guy to hang around with.”
Oh, and Willie: What were Elvis’ last words?
“Corn? I don’t remember corn.”