Ray Benson's list of accolades and achievements got a little bit longer earlier this year when the Texas House of Representatives Committee on State and Recreational Resources proclaimed him the 2004 Texas State Musician. Such an honor is no surprise to Benson's devotees, many having sung the man's praises for more than 30 years.
Benson's latest achievement has come at an ideal time, with the singer taking time out this year to reflect on his career with his first solo album, Beyond Time. The album sees the Asleep at the Wheel frontman pull out all the stops, proving himself as adept at handling a good ol' country tune as he is at invoking the spirit of Dean Martin. The album crosses all musical barriers, with Benson's melted-chocolate voice rarely missing a beat. It invites even the most casual and cynical of listeners to recognize the artist's place in world music, and like a fine wine or a rusty porch swing, this is one musical pioneer that only improves with age.
"I learned to play and write music listening to over 100 years of recorded music, and I find it hard to ignore any of it: jazz, blues, country-western, singer-songwriter, and pop -- I love it all", Benson says, with Beyond Time's highlights demonstrating just how easily the singer can adjust his voice to fit each of these genres.
The album's glorious opening track, "Sorry", is a gin-soaked few minutes which Benson says is "as if Patsy Cline had hired Nelson Riddle to arrange it for her and the Count Basie Band". Benson's voice is perfectly suited to such a dramatic style, but what makes the song so superior is how open the singer is to dancing on the edge of convention -- he is entirely unwilling to stick to formula, taking the song on a daring journey through classic country-western, Rat Pack-inspired jazz, and big-band lavishness.
"Sorry" is certainly one of the album's highlights, but it barely hints at the album's scope. It's clear from the get-go that Benson is perfectly unafraid to tackle just about anything, and with such a surprise right out of the gate, what follows is equally as unexpected and just as divine.
"Hands of Time" is a bluesy pop song with a distinct Steely Dan influence. It's so much fun to listen to, with Benson obviously having a blast with a gutsy vocal style unlike anything else heard on the album. The song is an exploration of mortality that allows Benson to express his thoughts on aging, and the futile search for the fountain of youth. What's so great about this track is how startlingly self-aware Benson seems when singing it -- he's equal parts doomsayer and holy man, preaching as though standing on a street corner handing out home truths for a buck apiece. It's a rare kind of confidence that stirs so much aggression and unbending faith, and Benson's reminder about the inability to resist fate comes with a message of hope: "Growing old ain't for the faint of heart / But it sure beats an early grave".
Benson's self-awareness continues throughout the album, showing signs of genuine compassion and beauty on tracks such as "Small Town", a song about the demise of small town American values, and "Haven't Got to You Yet", which further explores the idea of living life through the harshest of storms.
The album's remaining tracks see Benson teaming with some of music's greats, including Dolly Parton, Jimmie Vaughan, Delbert McClinton, Stanley Jordan, and Flaco Jimenez. Again refusing to take the easy road, Benson tackles some Mexican-flavored rock on a sensuous cover of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" with Jimenez; some high-falutin' honky-tonk with Dolly on "Leave that Cowboy Alone", and the most delicious of down-and-out blues on "Mary-Anne" with Jordan (which also, oddly, features King of the Hill creator and Office Space director Mike Judge on slapping bass).
Ray Benson is thoroughly deserving of any accolades given him. He's a genuine industry survivor, unafraid to challenge genre confines and to explore the entire range of his talent. Beyond Time is just a small example of what he is capable of. Whether complementing other artists or commanding the stage alone, Benson remains one of music's great voices -- and as the theme of this album assures, there's a lot more life left in him yet.