Reviews

Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson Is 'Comin’ Right at Ya'

A six-foot-seven-inch self-proclaimed Jewish hippie from Philly starts a Western swing band at a most inopportune time -- and lives to tell the tale.


Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Length: 172 pages
Author: Ray Benson, David Menconi
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-10

As the Swinging’ '60s hit their peak and the psychedelic wave was fast approaching, a group of wayward hippies with a deep dedication to Western swing music and a devotion to Bob Wills decamped from college and moved to the wild wilderness of West Virginia to hone their chops and set the music world aflame. It’s a strange and unlikely premise, but one that somehow, someway, came to fruition, thanks for the most part to the vision emanating from one of the most unlikely characters one would expect.

Born into a Jewish Philadelphia family as Ray Seifert, this gregarious fellow eventually morphed into Ray Benson, the six foot, seven inch leader of the 12-piece Western swing outfit called Asleep at the Wheel. Over the course of the past 40-plus years, the collective has proved that their interest and dedication to the craft was no passing fad. They have the accolades -- multiple Grammys, top-selling albums, legions of fans and admirers -- as well as the scars -- busted relationships, battles with the booze and drugs, and missed opportunities -- to show as evidence. Along the way, this lanky Northerner has become a Texas institution, so inseparable with the Western music genre and the Lone Star State tradition that his origins are almost too improbable to believe.

Ever the raconteur himself, Benson has a treasure trove of outlandish anecdotes, assorted nuggets of wisdom, and a deep and vast wealth of musical knowledge to share with an audience. To do so, he collaborated with longtime Raleigh News & Observer music writer and author of 2013’s introspective Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown David Menconi. Together, the pair have fashioned Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.

It’s certainly not surprising for someone of Benson’s stature and longevity to have cast such a wide net over the course of the culture. What’s so astounding, however, is the sheer number of folks Benson has crossed paths with over the years. Sure, he became friends with the kinds of kindred spirits you’d expect: Willie, Merle, Dolly, Waylon, and Vince Gill, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett. But, it’s surprising to realize he grew up in a suburban Philadelphia neighborhood playing outside with now Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while a few years before, his mother counted NBA legend Wilt Chamberlin as one of her elementary school pupils. As his music career began to take off and the process took him across the country, he had encounters with a veritable “who’s who” of the scene: a handshake with John Coltrane following a hot jazz set by the master in a Philly nightclub, bumming a pack of cigarettes from a friendly Jerry Garcia in the Bay Area at the height of the psychedelic ‘60s, and jump-starting Janis Joplin’s dilapidated rental car following one of her performances with Big Brother & The Holding Company.

Later, as Benson and his crew settled into the Bay Area scene themselves, they fortuitously found themselves linked in and traveling through the same club circuits as up and coming bands like Clover (featuring a not-yet famous Huey Lewis), The Rockets (sporting a brash young singer named Eddie Mahoney, now better known as Eddie Money), and a young superstar in the making named Van Morrison. Heck, years later, Asleep at the Wheel would even headline benefits hosted by the budding national politician, Bill Clinton.

Though he often laments imperfect timing and rues missed opportunities, it's clear that Benson had the knack for circumstance: his being in the right place at the right time definitely facilitated a lifetime of savored memories. Benson’s charming and outgoing personality proved to be an asset in not only meeting these nascent celebrities, but also proved valuable in keeping up with his own endeavors. As Asleep at the Wheel approaches its’ fifth decade of existence, its members have proved almost too many to count. In fact, as Benson says near the book’s conclusion, he is really the band’s only constant. When he goes, so will the band, although his oldest son is heavily involved in the music business and may just have a stake or two in carrying on the tradition.

A self-proclaimed salesman, Benson set his sights on proving his band’s chops to anyone who would listen, which resulted in countess gigs, some glamorously filled with thousands of revelers, others taking place in backwoods dives occupied by a handful of taciturn drunks. Of particular interest is a passage that describes the ups and downs of touring life on the casino circuit, an exhausting and thankless experience that Benson recalls with sighed resignation.

As a generally congenial man, Benson describes with downright glee the harmonious bonds and close friendships he came to form with all those that entered the Asleep at the Wheel circle. As he sees it, he simply wanted to play Western swing music, and those that helped him realize that goal were of utmost value and importance to him. He rarely has a mean word for anyone (save perhaps his old steel guitar player, Junior Brown), but definitely doesn't shy away from asserting his alpha role within the band dynamics. As he says:

(I) have always reserved the right to step in at crunch time and decide what to do over any and all objections. There comes a time when somebody has got to take charge, and that somebody always seems to be me. It’s who I am and how I’ve always gotten shit done. Maybe it’s just because I’m the most stubborn. Or the tallest.

While certain players have come and gone, and Western swing still tends to find itself marginalized amongst the strict genre associations of the music charts, Benson continues to roll on, earning Grammy nominations, touring relentlessly, and collaborating with like-minded musicians and artists, both young and old.

The book winds down with a more somber and reflective tone. Benson dials back much of the bravado and celebration to recall the deeply scarred depression that plagued him for much of the early '00s. A painful divorce, a shocking Hepatitis C diagnosis, and continual record label and music industry headaches rocked his world and shook his optimistic spirit to its’ foundation. These heartfelt revelations prove genuine and moving, and provide a human and emotionally fragile side to a man whose booming voice resonated so forcefully throughout the previous chapters. Though not admitting defeat and reluctant even to slow his “full steam ahead” lifestyle down even a notch, Benson shares common doubts, fears, and anxieties that make this Superman character a bit more vulnerable and human than he has often let on.

It’s a tidy ending for the book, but far from the final chapter for a man who keeps chugging along and following his muse and vows to keep “riding that wave”.

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