Early last year, Ray Benson told me that he was in the middle of co-writing his autobiography. "I’m working with this great writer, David Menconi,” he said, “and he’s sending me pages of it every day, and I’m red penciling the shit out of it. I love working with David, and putting this together is reminding me that I’ve been fortunate to have been at the junction of so many interesting times. I mean, Garth Brooks and Lyle Lovett opened for us. I’m really happy that it’s coming out from the University of Texas Press."
Well, two months ago, Comin' Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel hit the shelves with the same thunderous roar with which Benson famously opens Asleep at the Wheel shows:
Imagine yourself in your truck, drivin' late at night on a loooooong lonesome highway. … As the night progresses, you begin to get tired. And as your car hurtles along the highway, you lose consciousness and right then and there … you know just how we feel … 'CAUSE ALL OF US TONIGHT, WE ARE ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL!
For over 40 years now, Benson and his merry band of Western swingers have traveled the world spreading the gospel of Bob Wills, Django Reinhardt, and, well, Asleep at the Wheel. They habitually get audiences on the dance floor with their driving, up-tempo, good time, cosmic cowboy tales and tunes. The band's tight live performances and their albums showcase their musical virtuosity, featuring, among other qualities, Benson's dazzling guitar work and his ingenuous songwriting.
In Comin' Right at Ya, though, we're his, and his alone, as he regales us with tales from the road, his life from his early days in Philadelphia, his most recent album, and his keen ability — hard won, actually — to turn Ray Benson Seifert into Ray Benson.
Some memoirs are long-winded and easy to put down. In them, the author's voice grates on our ears, and we grow tired of listening to one more story of a drug-fueled party night. But this is not the case with Benson's, thanks to Menconi's apt co-writing. Benson is a hell of a great storyteller, and he grabs our attention with a great anecdote, entertains us with the story behind it, and then moves onto the next tale, keeping us turning pages eager for the next chapter of his chronicle.
A little over ten years ago, he took off his mantle as frontman for Asleep at the Wheel and put out his first solo album, Beyond Time – a fitting title for a record full of tunes that ranged from jazz and pop to blues and funk. That album allowed Benson a chance to move beyond the time constraints of the three of four time signatures in which Asleep at the Wheel plays. Beyond Time gave us a chance to hear a musical side of him we'd not heard before.
Last year, he released A Little Piece, and the songs reveal a Benson that fans of Asleep at the Wheel have not seen much. Here, Benson is coming to terms with life’s many upheavals – the disappointments and the losses that are part of life’s fabric and from which no one can get away. Benson says that he hit 60 years old and decided it was time to do this. "I write songs all the time, and I had written the title song – ‘A Little Piece’ – and I realized, okay, this is what I want to do; this is what I want to talk about now. I wanted to talk about my life and get into it very personally, sing about some of the unpleasant things in life. People don’t realize who I am. I also wanted showcase my finger picking."
Benson had also just come through some rough times personally. He went through a divorce and was diagnosed with hepatitis C, and he wanted to convey that life isn't a fairy tale. "There’s joy and hope, sure,” he says, “but there’s death, tragedy, and disappointment in life."
Comin' Right at Ya is the third in this trilogy of Benson's self-revelation. He opens his wounds again toward the end of the book, and concludes that after September 2011 he felt a "very real sense of dread taking root. Not only was my life falling apart, so was my country."
Co-writer Menconi says that readers might be most surprised when Benson does "let down his guard; at the time I was coming around he was pretty low and puttering around late at night with his dog." He seems a lot cheerier now, according to Menconi, who flew up to New York at the beginning of 2014 and then joined Benson on his bus. "The bus is a comfortable place to be, and it's also fun to be back behind the curtains with Ray."
While Benson's memoir closes in on some dark moments, the light outshines the darkness and his booming voice and personality assures us that even in the blackest of nights there's a glimmer of light. Reading his memoir is like being at an Asleep at the Wheel show where you can't sit still waiting to get to the next note.
Almost from the beginning Benson announces his ambition: "I was going to form a working-class country band and be accepted, even though I was not one of those people. If a Jewish Yankee like me could play this music I loved and find acceptance among the working class, it would be a shining example of brotherhood for all. … I was going to 'complete the circle, bring the roots of country music back to the generation whose parents loved the music, but in the upheaval of the '60s lost its soul to the plastic white-bread culture that drove the kids away from the music.' In short, my goal was nothing less than to rediscover America through music—and to have a blast doing it, of course. … My ambition was to be a Renaissance man, master of many pursuits: guitarist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, businessman, artist, philanthropist, community leader, and wandering minstrel, all rolled into one."
In 1970, Benson found a group of "like-minded misfits." They set up shop in a little farmhouse in Paw Paw, West Virginia, and Asleep at the Wheel was born. At their first show ever – "a free show, so no money" – the band shared a bill with Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna. "Not bad," Benson writes, "given that we'd never played for more than an audience of one." According to him, "Asleep at the Wheel was becoming one of the few proud and brave bands that could play for hippies and hicks alike, entertain both audiences, and explain it all to the media afterward in good sound-bite form."
Soon after the band began its journey toward musical recognition, Van Morrison happened to drop their name in an interview he did with Rolling Stone (June 22, 1972). When the magazine asked Morrison if he'd seen many bands since moving to the Bay area, he replied, "Not a hell of a lot, but there's some relatively unknown groups that I really dig. Like Asleep at the Wheel plays great country music. They're really good musicians."
On the song "It Ain't You," from A Little Piece, Benson provides a fitting reflection of life at the helm of Asleep at the Wheel on the road after all these years:
Soul grows young, while the body grows old
Til the mind grows tired, of doin' as it's told
The years fly by, we surrender to age
We're like a wild bird that has chosen the cage
But it ain't you, it ain't you
But it's the only ride you got to get you through.
"I find it admirable," Menconi says, "how hard he works. He always got such cool gigs, but he's the one working to make it all happen." And this act of making himself and his ambition come true is exactly what keeps him going.
"People ask how I can still be out there after all these years, riding the bus and playing the same songs, telling the same jokes,” Benson writes. “Are you kidding? It's never the same, and it's always interesting. … Forty-some years ago, we went off to look for America. I think we found it, in all its good, bad, ugly, and kooky glory. Asleep at the Wheel doesn't really fit in anywhere and never has. But the upside of not fitting into any one place is that we kind of fit in everywhere."
Come along for this wild ride in a bus driven Ray Benson, with David Menconi, around some sharp curves, steep mountain passes, and some flat-out, grab-your-seat straightaways. By the time you reach the end of the journey, you'll find yourself chuckling about the times you almost went over the edge, but Benson pulled you back. Nonetheless, the ride is always interesting.
photo from David Menconi's website.