"A Little Piece" is Another Side of Ray Benson: Talking with a Legend

“I always loved rock ‘n’ roll…blues…jazz…but I didn’t want to get too far away from the Western Swing thing with Asleep at the Wheel. But now, I figure I’d better do what I want to do musically…and I can do it very well…better than most!”

Bruce Springsteen, John Mellancamp, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger, to name a few distinguished senior heartland rockers, need not worry –despite the fact that Ray Benson can hang with the best of you.  Mr. Benson, who was “Americana” before the brand was likely conjured by a marketing executive, is back in the saddle with his first solo album in ten years, aptly entitled A Little Piece, which is out January 21, 2014 on Bismeaux Records. 

With all due respect to the artist’s privacy – the eleven songs on A Little Piece are inspired by what Ray diplomatically refers to as “a lot of upheaval…mostly with women.” Enough said! Tough emotional times between lovers traditionally makes for great art – and Ray’s new album is no exception -please refer to Bob’s Blood on the Tracks, Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man for further enlightenment.

Akin to the aforementioned icons who are all making music that stands firmly with their best work - Benson’s confessional collection of songs is a record for the ages.  And it affords him a welcome opportunity to step outside the boundaries of Asleep at the Wheel - which is a curious place for Ray to be in – or even refer to.  I remind him that I was an Asleep at the Wheel fan back in the day and that attending gigs at colleges and theaters, and buying his records, and those by his contemporaries - Commander Cody , Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Return to Forever to name a few,  was standard fare – it was great music! Ray agrees. “I love all those artists… that’s what I tried to do with Asleep at the Wheel – open people’s ears to the music. I likened it to what the elder blues artists whom we adored did for our generation… Muddy Waters, BB King, Sleepy John Estes…that was our mission.”   

Killed By a .45

Nowadays, it all starts with Ray’s voice, which has dramatically improved as time races on. “I listen to my first record (that would be Asleep’s Comin’ Right at Ya in 1973) and I was just twenty years old…my voice actually did not develop until the last 15 or 20 years…it’s been getting better and better…I’m not a tenor, I’m a baritone… we lower register singers have a longer vocal life. I attribute it to being a late bloomer.  When I started in 1970 I thought I didn’t have the right tools to do what I wanted to do- that is, my voice my guitar playing, my songwriting…it just took me about 35 years to get it right!”

Cut mostly live in the studio – Ray’s favorite way to work – A Little Piece benefits greatly by Benson’s choice of collaborators: all of whom are friends and colleagues in the tight knit musical community of Austin.  His co-producers include his longtime buddy Lloyd Maines, and Ray’s son, Sam “Lightning” Siefert. Laughs Ray “having your kid tell you what to do is satisfying in one way…and extremely intimidating in another. Except for being told repeatedly that my guitar was out of tune by someone whose diapers I used to change – working with my son was a great experience.”

Among the stand-out tracks on an album includes a duet with Willie Nelson entitled “It Ain’t You.” Recalls Ray “at 81 years old, he calls me ‘kid.’ Willie is an eternal teenager, the most amazing man I know…he took time out from playing golf to lay down a vocal track. Sam came up with the idea of making it a call and response. Of course, ‘youth verses’ wisdom is right in Willie’s wheelhouse.” 

It Ain't You

Other esteemed cameos include Asleep at the Wheel founding member pianist Floyd Domino, Wheel’s veteran drummer Dave Sanger, bassist Glenn Funkunaga (Robert Plant, Dixie Chicks), members of Austin “new- grass” band Milkdrive (who will be backing Ray on his solo tour) and Latino rockers Del Castillo who burn the house down on Ray’s “Heartache and Pain.”  

Heartache and Pain

Guitar players take note: that is Ray Benson, not Slowhand, ripping out those blistering wah-wah guitar licks on “JJ Cale” a tribute to Ray’s fallen comrade. Benson revels in tales of spending time in Cale’s hometown of Tulsa and jamming with the likes of the late great bassist Carl Radle, and Jamie Oldaker, and other members of Clapton’s most potent ensemble. “JJ was the most understated artist in the history of recorded pop music. This was the last song I wrote for the record ---damn, I always played the blues---I knew it, I lived it –nobody else knew it!”

JJ Cale

Now we all know it! A Little Piece is yet another side of Ray Benson. 

 

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Comment by Garrett Cash on January 14, 2014 at 8:10pm

Asleep at the Wheel is one of my all time favorite bands, I'm a huge fan of Ray's work and I can't wait to hear this new record. Thanks for the article!

Comment by Craig Harris on January 17, 2014 at 1:58pm

That's what I like about the West. 

I'm posting  photos from my archives and updates about my upcoming book, "The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music" - out April 16th - on Rowman & Littlefield at http://www.facebook.com/thebandpioneers           please visit

Comment by Craig Harris on January 17, 2014 at 1:59pm

Comment by Will James on January 17, 2014 at 2:53pm

Ray may think his voice wasn't there at age 20 when his first album dropped (same age as I when I bought it in '73), but I have to agree with Robert Christgau* that it's their finest effort, partly due to the energy that often accompanies a debut release, and to other band members, co-founder Lucky Oceans on steel, Floyd Domino on keys and the brilliant singer Chris O'Connell. Been a fan ever since, but I do miss Ms. O'Connell in particular. Love that first album.

*"Their coterie complains about flat recording and performance, but flatness is of the essence in Western swing, and the sly singing and positively underhanded songwriting here exploit it brilliantly. Beneath their unflappable veneer these country revisionists are seething subversives; it may even be that the protagonist of "Daddy's Advice" only plans his little murder to right a case of incest. Side one ends with a song of praise to a spaceship. Side two ends with a song of praise to the Son of God."

Comment by Paul M. Harty on January 20, 2014 at 1:10pm

I've always loved Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody since their first efforts. I commend Ray for persisting all these years  and holding the Western Swing  banner aloft. Keep a-going , hubbin' it. ;)  

Comment by Craig Harris on January 20, 2014 at 1:13pm

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.