Charley Crockett answers my questions

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/texas-honky-tonker-charley-crocketts-journey-from-the-street-corner-to-the-marquee-lights/

Charley Crockett

The latest ‘Gulf & Western’ rambler Charley Crockett’s journey from the street corner to the marquee lights from Charley Crockett, photographed here in the Big Bend, is “The Man From Waco,” a collection of story songs that tell the tale of an Old West murder saga. Photo by Bobby Cochran

Charley Crockett was born in San Benito, the South Texas hometown of Freddy Fender. He came of age in Dallas, raised by a single mother struggling to get by. Crockett started performing on the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter as a teenager while spending summers with an uncle who was a gambler and hustler. Later, he set out on his own, hoboing across the country and busking on street corners from New Orleans to New York to Paris.

Crockett draws on his gritty formative years in his music—a rootsy yet wholly contemporary country and western sound underpinned by the blues. A singer, songwriter, and bandleader, Crockett has recorded and released an improbable 10 albums in the past five years. The Americana Music Association took notice in 2021, honoring Crockett with its Emerging Act of the Year award. And last summer, he toured the nation as part of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival caravan.

Crockett, 38, lives with his partner, Taylor Grace, just outside of Austin, though he’s on the road most of the time. His latest release, The Man From Waco, is a concept album of Western story-songs in a similar vein as Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Since the album’s release in the fall, Crockett has toured the U.S. and Europe with his Blue Drifters band, working their self-styled “Gulf & Western” sound that includes accordion, trumpet, and pedal steel along with guitars, bass, and drums. Crockett fronts the six-piece outfit with a retro-Western stage look topped by the coolest cowboy hats this side of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.

Find Charley Crockett’s tour dates and records on his website.

Crockett is the real deal. He’s even related to Alamo hero Davy Crockett, according to a relative who traced the family tree. Sit down with him for a few minutes, and Crockett makes it clear he’s just getting started.

 

TH: What are your memories of being a child in the Rio Grande Valley?
CC: I have always seen myself as a barefoot kid standing in the caliche underneath mesquite trees—that’s the kid I remember. I always kept that with me. I imagine somebody moving to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta. I don’t think you’d ever get the Delta out of them. I believe the Valley has that same kind of effect on anybody who’s born there. The Valley is like the Delta or Appalachia, but no one gives it any credit.

TH: What was your upbringing like?
CC: My momma was a single woman trying to raise a kid in a man’s corporate world in Dallas without an education. It wasn’t easy. She wasn’t around much because she was working all the time—working all the time to give me a chance to change my situation.

TH: How did Dallas rub off on you?
CC: It’s the unsung, third great blues city. That roots music triangle to me is New Orleans, Memphis, and Dallas. I lived a thankless, backdoor, single momma, blue-collar life in Dallas, and it was hard. That’s why I had no problem going to New Orleans every summer with my uncle. New Orleans is a hard place, but it cradles you in a way that Dallas does not. Dallas is fast. Dallas is where Benny Binion ran the tables. Dallas is where they couldn’t foil the plot to kill Kennedy, you know? That’s a hard town. I was trying to get out of there. And the kind of blues music, the kind of Dallas sound that rubbed off on me, I really believe came from how hard a town it is. It’s like Memphis, but a lot bigger, and they don’t acknowledge their cultural history. But it’s in every backroom.

TH: You’ve cited blues jams around Dallas as a big influence.
CC: The blues jam was an open format that was beyond open mic. That’s how I learned to lead bands for real and communicate with people who were plugged in on stages in front of a microphone where money was on the line for the establishment. I learned that through the blues jam more than anywhere else. Because I would get thrown off those stages when it didn’t work out. You either quit and go do something else, or you adapt. And that’s when I started learning. You gotta play a 1-4-5 and give the band something they can follow easily. Then maybe you can start veering off into some of your other material.

TH: How did you take an interest in old roots music?
CC: Performing on the street in New Orleans and Dallas and New York City and San Francisco, you start absorbing. There’s a different sound in the street. You’re going to hear a lot of pretty good music if you’re on the subway in New York, better than you would maybe hear on the radio. I was hearing the great jazz, freestyle jazz players in New York. In New Orleans, I was hearing nothing but old school New Orleans jazz. They were playing nothing but old time.

TH: What did you learn from busking and hoboing around the country?
CC: It’s everything. The way I run my business today is the exact same way I did when it was just me playing out of the guitar case. I learned how to lead bands. I learned how to handle money. I learned how to deal with the promoter. It’s the same game. What I’m doing now is just more political and amplified.

TH: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t read music.
CC: A lot of the early Carter Family stuff that I learned were these beautiful, simple stories. I know a lot of other old folk songs too like “Short Life of Trouble,” “Darlin,’” “Six Months Ain’t Long,” “Lonesome Homesick Blues”—the Carter family one—“March Winds Gonna Blow All My Blues Away,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “They Call That Religion,” all those Mississippi Sheiks songs. I learned that music because I could remember it. I never have written anything down, even the songs for this new record. I just memorize ’em. I think that’s how a lot of people used to do it. I have a hard time seeing George Jones writing anything down, don’t you?

TH: You had to step away from the road for a few months in 2019 for surgery to repair a faulty heart valve. How have you been?
CC: When you have a heart defect, you start thinking, “Man, did the Creator make me flawed? Why did the Creator intend for me to leave so early?” You ask these questions and then you wonder, “Should I even be asking that question?” But it happens because you’re aware of it, knowing you got a long line on your chest. I wasn’t smart enough to realize what was going on; I just got lucky. I almost died in the back of the bus. I’ve got multiple issues that are related, and it causes these bigger problems, you know. I just honestly feel like the Creator let me stay a little longer because for all my shortcomings, I kept just putting the music first. I feel like it’s my purpose. And I do think you get rewarded in some little way by following your heart.

TH: How have you held onto your Texan-ness as your career has grown?
CC: I got all these managers calling me saying, “Look, Charley, you know the world is bigger than Texas.” I know this sounds brash, but this is the policy that I have adopted going forward: The world is not bigger than Texas. There is only Texas, and we take Texas to the world. That’s what I have to do. That’s how Stevie Ray Vaughan did it, that’s how ZZ Top did it, that’s how Willie done it, that’s how Selena did it, that’s how Freddy Fender did it.

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Texas Music Hour of Power Sat nites 7-9 pm central KRTS Marfa KWVH Wimberley and anytime here

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Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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Texas Music producer of all time Lloyd Maines makes his own album

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/texas-producer-lloyd-maines-steps-out-on-his-own/

Known for his work with the Chicks, Joe Ely, and others, the 71-year-old releases his first solo album, ‘Eagle Number 65’

The call came at the exact minute he said it would. “When you’ve been working in the studio for 50 years, you learn that,” the booming voice on the other end of the line said. Lloyd Maines was talking about the value in watching the clock as a music producer.

He should know. He has likely produced more Texas music than any single person ever, involved in an estimated 5,000 projects over the past 50 years. He is also one of the finest pedal steel guitar players alive, an in-demand music director, and the answer to the trivia question: “Who has made the most appearances on the Austin City Limits television series?”

“I lost count when the [Austin City Limits] Hall of Fame thing started,” he admitted on the phone. “They hired me to be the music director for those annual shows, which started in 2014. Before that, I think my count was 25 times on the show. Plus, I did a Robert Earl [Keen] taping back in April, and Terry Allen earlier this year.”

To casual music fans, Maines is best known for his work producing a young female band called the Chicks (formally known as the Dixie Chicks). In the early years, he played pedal steel on two of the group’s first albums. When singer Laura Lynch left, Maines introduced the Erwin sisters, Emily and Martie, to his daughter Natalie, who proceeded to elevate the group to superstar status.

But Maines’ sideman credits are deep, going back almost 50 years. He’s played with the Chicks, Jerry Jeff Walker, Terry Allen, and the original Joe Ely Band, formed in Maines’ hometown of Lubbock in 1973.

Despite those impressive achievements, there was a whole other reason Maines was calling me: the release of his very first album at age 71, Eagle Number 65.

Two of his best musical friends had been encouraging him to make his own record for quite some time. “Terri Hendrix [with whom he has collaborated for 25 years] always was saying, ‘You got to put out an album. You have to have a record of your own,’” Maines said. “Terry Allen has been beating me over the head for years to do one.”

COVID-19 provided the prompt. “Starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic, I stopped doing face-to-face studio sessions,” Maines said. “I didn’t want to be inside a room with a bunch of musicians. I started doing all my recording at home—and I’ve got a lame setup. People started sending me stuff from all over the world. I did 10 songs for a guy in Australia. It was madness, but I enjoyed working at home. While I was doing that, I thought I could put together some songs for my four grandkids. The deeper I got into it, the more thematic it became.”

The album turned into a true family affair with his three grandsons and granddaughter contributing their talents. Beckett Pasdar, Natalie’s younger son from her marriage to actor Adrian Pasdar, plays drums on the original “Hank Hill’s Nightmare.” Older brother Slade Pasdar wrote and played on the guitar and steel composition “Homer’s Odd Is He.” Declan Maguire, son of photographer Kim Maguire, Natalie’s older sister, plays piano on the track named for him, “Declan’s Cookie.”

The Chicks’ song ‘Lullaby’ appears on the album. “I was there for that [original] recording and when they played the demo, I got choked up,” Maines said. “The lyrics are so strong and important. I didn’t know how it would translate, so I had [granddaughter] Amelia Maguire sing lead.”

Maines got the idea to work with his immediate family from Allen. After co-producing Allen’s epic double album Lubbock (on Everything) in 1979, Maines produced his song “Bloodlines” in 1983. For it, Allen gathered as many family and friends into the studio to sing along with him. For his own album, Maines got his own brothers and sisters, and their kids and grandkids to sing along—via telephone, email, and digital prints. “Fifty-two voices,” Maines beamed.

As for his own vocal contribution? “I never intended to sing on my record,” he said. “I had to make myself do it because of the subject matter. It’s so family-oriented. It was hard to get through it. I had to stop and start numerous times.”

Playing with family has always been a part of Maines’ life. He dove into music at age 14 when he and his brothers started the popular Lubbock country dance band the Maines Brothers. His picked up the steel guitar as a teenager, becoming “enamored” watching Frank Carter, who played the instrument in Lloyd’s father’s and uncle’s version of the Maines Brothers. One day, Maines said, he found a steel guitar made by Carter for him sitting in the living room.

The brothers would play at the historic Cotton Club in Lubbock every Sunday for two years while he was in high school. Whenever Willie Nelson was booked at the club, Maines would be sure to watch his steel player, the late Jimmy Day. “Man, I would watch every move he made, every nuance,” he said. “I don’t think he ever once looked in my direction, but I didn’t care. I was soaking it in, his chords, his voicing. I’d try to remember all that and implement the next time I played.”

Also, while in Lubbock, he learned about recording music, doing a lot of on-the-job training running sessions at Don Caldwell Recording Studio. “I did tons of steel,” he said. “In Lubbock, all the area farmers get into their 50s, start thinking about how much they’ve sinned, so they all want to do a gospel album. It’s the way I paid my bills. When I wasn’t touring with Ely, I was in the studio.”

After the brothers grew up and went their separate ways, Maines joined forces with Joe Ely to start a band in 1973. It was during this period that Maines entered my ears. In 1977, when the Joe Ely Band released their first album on MCA Records, the supercharged group showcased Maines’ pedal steel guitar, which didn’t sound like a pedal steel at all, but rather like ZZ Top.

Along the way, Maines fine-tuned his steel guitar into a rocked-up instrument that could go toe-to-toe with lead guitarist Jesse Taylor. Their unique mix of rock ‘n’ roll infused with country elements led to a national and international following for the Joe Ely Band.

Success prompted Ely and band to depart Lubbock one by one for the greener pastures of Austin during the 1980s. Maines stayed behind. He left the band for family and work at Don Caldwell’s studio. “Ely had nine weeks of touring coming up, and I had two kids and didn’t want to burden Tina [his wife of 52 years].” Maines said. Ely wouldn’t fire him, and has kept a space open for Maines whenever he wants, which includes the last Joe Ely Band gig at Gruene Hall in February 2020.

Maines finally moved to Austin in 1998. “I started doing so much work in Austin, producing so many acts, on my 1997 tax returns, I realized I had been in Austin 207 days,“ he said.

If there is a quality that sets Maines apart from other great steel guitar players it may be his versatility. He can play straight country as good as any session player—years ago, producer Chip Young guaranteed Maines plenty of work if he moved to Nashville. (Maines stayed put in Texas.) He also takes his instrument to places it’s never been before, working it like a lead guitar. “That was all Joe,” Lloyd said, blaming his first bandleader. “Even though he wore a cowboy hat and could play country, he would also rock stuff out.”

Lloyd brought his own special sauce: a 9-volt battery distortion unit called a Boss Tone he got from Sneaky Pete Kleinow, the old-school pedal steel guitarist with country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers. He could make it sound like Jimi Hendrix or the Allman Brothers. “People were shocked that a pedal steel guitar could sound like that,” he said.

It’s a style that harkens back a whole century to Bob Dunn, who played the lap steel hot, like a sax, with the trailblazing Western swing ensemble Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies in Fort Worth.

Back in the here and now, Maines was pressed for time. He had to drive to San Antonio to play the last dates of Robert Earl Keen’s farewell tour, the final three happening in early September at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes. “I produced five albums for Robert Earl,” Maines said. “One was No. 2 Live Dinner, which was recorded at Floore’s.” There were gigs coming up with the Flatlanders, the Chicks, Ely, and Terri Hendrix. So, with no time to spare, I asked for his trade secrets.

What’s the key to being a producer? “Three answers: in tune, on time, and under budget. I also try not to go in with a preconceived notion how it should be, until I hear the songs. All I want is it should be pleasing to the ear, and convey the lyrics. I have to honor the lyrics. That’s what it’s all about.”

What’s the key to being a sideman? “I just try to play the songs. Generally, I have good luck with that. That other key is when you do fills in the verse and the choruses, never step on the vocals. Don’t crowd the vocals and you’ll always make the singer happy.”

Finally, I asked what it’s like to be a front man for the first time at age 71. “When I produce an album for someone, I treat it as if it’s mine, all the way through the mastering process and everyone signing off on it. Then I move on to the next project,” he said. “Producing my own album was a little easier, because I only had myself to answer to. I almost fired myself a couple of times, but I realized nobody else would work as cheap as me. Then after I signed off on it, I could just move on. I had to say, ‘Now what?’”

Eagle Number 65 is available for purchase here. Lloyd Maines’ upcoming shows include the Flatlanders in Luckenbach on Sept. 24, the Chicks at Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 7 and 14, and leading the house band as musical director when Joe Ely and Sheryl Crow are inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Oct. 27. More dates can be found at lloydmaines.com.

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John Lomax 3 and the Family Tradition

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/with-new-performances-john-lomax-iii-fuels-the-lomax-family-legacy-of-preserving-american-folk-songs/

John Lomax III photo by Amanda Lomax.

John Lomax III has been part of my music life for half a century. We were both budding music journalists for Country Music magazine back in the 1970s, and he’s one of those displaced Texans I’d see whenever I visited Nashville over the decades. Every time, it seemed, he was into something new and cool: seguing from writing to managing artists like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, David Olney, The Cactus Brothers, Kasey Chambers, and dulcimer player David Schnaufer (“He reinvented the instrument much as Earl Scruggs did for banjo,” John III says); hanging out with terrific Texas singer-songwriters like Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith; doing licensing deals; overseeing reissues; running an export record enterprise; teaching at Middle Tennessee State University.

Over all that time, I’ve never asked much about his family legacy, thinking John would probably be tired of the subject, since he was the grandson, son, nephew, and father in the first family of American music folklore. It was a surprise, then, to hear John Lomax III tell me in his thick, distinctive drawl that he made his debut performing in front of a live audience at the age of 77, singing songs and telling stories about the Lomaxes at a house concert near Nashville last month.

“Can’t sing for beans, but it’s not about the singer,” he admits from the start. “It’s about the songs and the heritage of our shared culture.” That translated into 19 songs and numerous stories over 85 minutes, performed in front of 20 people. “Seventeen of them strangers,” Lomax points out.

Now, with an Aug. 18 booking at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, as opening act for Michael Martin Murphey, and two October dates confirmed for Houston, the “Lomax On Lomax Show” appears to have legs. John III is learning more songs that were documented by elder Lomaxes and polishing stories about his family, who emigrated to Texas from Mississippi by covered wagon in 1869 and settled on a small farm in the Bosque River valley near Meridian that backed up to the Chisholm Trail during the era of cattle drives. Proximity to cowboys and a good ear were all the first John Lomax needed.

“Grandfather would hear the cowboys singing at night to keep the cattle calm,” John III recounts. “He started sliding out of the house to hear the songs better, somehow worked out a way to remember the melodies without musical training or books, and wrote down the words.” Putting to paper what he heard was the birth of the academic disciplines of ethnomusicology and folklore.

“My grandfather chased cowboy songs, riding on horseback with a tape machine tied to the front and back,” John III says. “He collected a lot along the Brazos. Grandfather’s father was a tanner. He described them as ’the upper crust of poor white trash’ in Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John Avery’s 1947 autobiography, reissued in 2017 by University of Texas Press. A Black farmhand taught John Avery a whole lot about Black music.

“From there, the story goes to Alan, Bess, my dad, my brother, Joe (who published For the Sake of the Song: The Townes Van Zandt Song book), and me; and now a fourth-generation Lomax, John Nova, with his work at the Houston Press, Texas Monthly, and Texas Highways, where he is a writer-at-large.”

The 17,000-plus field recordings John III’s grandfather and his uncle Alan made for the Library of Congress are the gold standards of American music, capturing the diversity of songs and music makers across the United States before recording became commonplace. John Sr. discovered the musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, and helped secure his release from Angola prison in Louisiana to launch his performing career, becoming one of the first artist managers some 90 years ago. Alan is credited with championing blues artists Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell among others and was the first to record Muddy Waters. He befriended folk singers Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Burl Ives as well.

John III’s father, John A. Lomax Jr., sang folk songs, co-founded the Houston Folklore & Music Society, and managed blues giant Lightnin’ Hopkins, among other achievements. John III left Houston in 1973 for Nashville and a gig as publicist for storied producer and wildman Jack “Cowboy” Clement. Forty-nine years later, he has returned to Houston for an extended stay.

Coinciding with his performing dates at Rice University on Oct. 6, and for the Houston Folklore & Music Society on Oct. 8, John III is aiming to release a second, limited-edition vinyl-only album. The album will feature recordings his father made from recently discovered Peter Gardner tape reels of Houston Folklore programs and other events from the mid-’60s.

“Peter would have people come over to his house and sit around and sing, and it would go out over the air on the radio,” John III says. “It’s impressive how many people got their start at Houston Folklore: Guy Clark, Nanci, and Townes, Lucinda [Williams], Steve Earle, Richard Dobson, and KT Oslin. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb were regular Folklore Society performers.”

While John III’s father and late brother Joe were both recognized folk singers, John III comes late to the game—but he’s fully aware of his role. After his export record enterprise “got eaten by streaming,” he started looking for something else to do. “I’m the last male left from that generation to get out there and do this—keep the songs alive, keep the legend alive, embellish the brand,” he says. “I got to trying to sing, putting on headphones, listening to my dad, singing along with him to get the timing.”

Like his father and grandfather, he sings a cappella. He first performed publicly five years ago when he put out FOLK, an album of 16 of his dad’s home recordings. “I did a few things to flog it and got on Michael Johnathon’s WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on their anniversary show—me and Roger McGuinn,” he says. “I knew one song, ‘Buffalo Skinners.’”

His song list has grown considerably. “It’s come really easy,” he says. “I’ve heard these songs all my life. It’s all about the song. It’s about the stories of this one family, how we started, how we’re still at it 100 and some odd years later.”

For the format of the “Lomax on Lomax Show,” John III keeps it simple, starting off with cowboy songs. “‘Home on the Range’ was first published in a book by my grandfather in 1910,” he says. “I sing that but skip the verse everyone knows and do two or three verses that are rarely heard. They’re just as nice and pretty as the standard old ‘deer and the antelope play.’”

He then segues into Leadbelly, which leads to his uncle Alan. “[He] was the first to record ‘Sloop John B’ in 1935 in Nassau [Bahamas],” John III says about the song that became best known for the Beach Boys version. “Then I sing some songs my dad used to sing, then a Townes song, ‘Two Girls,’ because there’s a funny Doug Sahm story to it, and ‘My Old Friend The Blues,’ one of Steve Earle’s underappreciated gems. I close with this incredible song Ed McCurdy wrote in 1950 that’s on the second album of my dad’s recordings from 1965, ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.’”

In between he summons up obscurities such as “The Frozen Logger,” which was recorded by Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and Leadbelly’s “Roosters Crows at Midnight.” He’s also working out “Chisholm Trail.” “It’s not very obscure, but, really, the whole thing is obscure to the general public,” he says. “People in the business know some of these songs. The ‘Ballad of the Boll Weevil’ and ‘Sloop John B’ are the only two songs I do that were big hits, but that was nearly 60 years ago. … I want to keep these songs alive, because they’re so cool. This is America. Come on, let’s keep this thing going, folks.”

Songs uncovered by the Lomaxes continue to resonate in modern music, often through sampling. For instance, “Rosie,” which Alan Lomax recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman Farm prison) in 1947 and released on the album Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48 Vol. 1: Murderous Home, was sampled on the 2015 song “Hey Mama,” a massive hit by David Guetta that featured Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack.

“That has actually generated more income than any song in the whole Lomax canon, more than Leadbelly’s ‘Midnight Special’ or ‘Goodnight Irene,’” John III says. “It was a hit in 18 countries.”

And on her 2016 song “Freedom,” with Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce sampled “Stewball,” sung by Prisoner 22 and recorded by Alan Lomax and his father at Parchman Farm in 1947. The phrase the song draws its title from can be found in “Collection Speech/Unidentified Lining Hymn,” performed by Reverend R.C. Crenshaw and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959.

The more John III talks about the family legacy, the more the pride comes through. “You’ve got this one family now in its fourth generation steadily helping to preserve, promote, publicize, and otherwise draw attention to these wonderful songs, the people who created them, the people who sang them,” he says. “It’s something no one is really doing.”

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Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel Turn 50 in Texas Highways

https://texashighways.com/culture/art-music/ray-benson-reflects-50-years-seminal-western-swing-band-asleep-at-the-wheel/

A story I wrote for Texas Highways magazine

Ray Benson poses with a guitar near his home outside of Austin Texas

Rolling with the wheel

Western swing disciples Asleep at the Wheel mark 50 years and countless miles of Texas

By Joe Nick Patoski

Ray Benson at his home in Austin earlier this year. Photo by Jeff Wilson

One afternoon this March, the visage of Ray Benson, founder and leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, flickered before my eyes. Well, on my computer screen, actually, courtesy of FaceTime. It had been a rough two weeks. Plans for a 50th anniversary Asleep at the Wheel reunion show and recording session in the band’s hometown of Austin had been done in by the coronavirus. Without his trademark cowboy hat, Benson looked downright deflated.

He said as much. It wasn’t the thwarted album or the cancellation of his annual birthday party show in March. It was the stage being ripped from his soul. “I haven’t gone this long without playing in front of an audience since I was 18,” Benson moaned.

As it turned out, Benson had plenty reason to be bummed. A few days after our conversation, he was in the news, having tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, the 69-year-old recuperated, and a few weeks later, we talked again.

“Well, I’ve got time!” a revitalized Benson boomed through the computer screen. He’d just wrapped up an online board meeting of the nonprofit Texas Cultural Trust, but it wasn’t like he had a gig to rush off to.

In a weird way, it was telling that Benson was among the first high-profile Texans diagnosed with COVID-19. His familiar baritone sounds like Texas—just like the Western swing band he’s led for 50 years sounds like Texas.

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that’ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it. With fiddles and steel, the Wheel has articulated an ensemble sound that links Western swing—the made-in-Texas original sound popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s—with modern Western sounds.

“Asleep at the Wheel have kept Western swing vital and relevant to country music and gave it a worldwide audience,” said Rich Kienzle, a country music historian.

Asleep at the Wheel’s been playing so well for so long, it’s actually eclipsed Wills’ band in longevity. Along the way, Benson and his crew have graced thousands of stages, released more than 25 albums, won 10 Grammy Awards, and counted nearly 100 musicians among its membership.

“I wanted more Broken Spokes, more ‘Cotton Eye Joes,’ more Western swing music,” Benson said, looking back across a half-century of nurturing Western swing’s flame. “Guess what? It happened. There are a number of Western swing bands around the country now.”

Pretty good for an idea hatched by two boys from the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Ray Benson's arm over a guitar with an "Asleep at the Wheel" tattoo visible

A vintage photo of Benson sporting a band tattoo. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A vintage photograph of Ray Benson and his sister Sandy Katz slouching in a chair

Benson and sister Sandy Katz as children in about 1955. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A black and white picture of Ray Benson playing guitar in 2009

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that‘ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it.

Benson in 2009. Photo by Lisa Pollard.

The story begins in the 1950s, when Ray Benson Seifert and Reuben Gosfield (who later adopted the showbiz names Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans) started running together at age 3, going to the same schools and summer camp, buying records, seeing shows, and playing in bands. A Gene Autry show in Philadelphia was a transformative moment for both of them. Oceans’ eyes popped when he saw Autry ride his horse onto the theater stage. After getting deep into Hank Williams, in 1969, Benson made a proposal: “We’re going to be the first hippies to have a real country-western band.”

Leroy Preston met Benson and Oceans in Boston in 1969. He was a Vermont farm kid with a guitar, raised on country music and rock ‘n’ roll. The three decided to start a band, and in the spring of 1970, they took a break from college and moved to a friend’s farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia. Joining them was Danny Levin, a pianist and fiddler from Boston. For months it was “funky cabin living, bonding, and building the musical base for the band,” Preston said.

“We were broke,” Benson recalled. “Lucky’s folks, in their wisdom, gave us a 100-pound sack of flour, a 100-pound sack of oats, and a tub of peanut butter, and said, ‘Don’t starve.’ Friends of ours brought us deer meat. We were very serious that the band was our job.”

One night at a nearby club, Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours left an impression. “They were blowing jazz in the warm-up set, just smoking,” Preston said. “And then Ernest came out, and straight as tick-tock, they were on classic country. It was the aha moment for us: You can do both.”

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson play guitars under stage lights

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson at Benson’s 2004 birthday bash. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Benson, in a black cowboy hat, poses with country singer Carrie Underwood

Benson and Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

On Aug. 25, 1970, Asleep at the Wheel played their first gig, opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper in Washington, D.C. The Wheel played country standards “Cocaine Blues” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—as straight as a band could be with a long-haired, barefoot guitarist standing 6-foot-7. One young singer, Chris O’Connell, was so enthralled seeing the Wheel open for the country-rock outfit Poco at American University, she followed the band back to Paw Paw and became its female vocalist.

“All of a sudden we had a big band that was really good,” Benson said.

The band took off for East Oakland, California, in 1971 and immediately gained a following, sharing a manager and club dates with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and bills with the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Soon, a young jazz-trained pianist from Berkeley hired on after a one-song audition. He then changed his name from Jim Haber to Floyd Domino.

Ray Benson and Willie Nelson laugh inside of a tour bus

Benson and Willie Nelson on Nelson’s bus in 2009. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

With an opportunity to back up mainstream country acts, the hippie country outfit got serious, cutting their hair and donning Western suits to play with the likes of Stoney Edwards, a Black honky-tonk singer on Capitol Records. Around that time, the band went to Nashville to record its first album. “We wanted to be a country band,” Preston said. “We didn’t want to be lumped with New Riders of the Purple Sage or the Flying Burrito Brothers.”

Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was produced by Tommy Allsup, the Texan who had played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Allsup brought in fiddler Johnny Gimble, another Playboys alumnus. The Wheel’s version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became the star of their reinvention of Western swing and got the band touring in Texas.

“The audience in Texas knew our music as roots rather than fad,” Preston said.

Up until then, Wills’ music had been only a small part of the band’s repertoire. But the Wheel added twin fiddlers in California, and in 1973, Benson and the band saw Wills at a Dallas studio during the recording of the Texas Playboys’ album For the Last Time. A formal introduction planned for the next day didn’t happen; Wills had a stroke that night and never recovered.

The Wheel played venues like the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio; the Western Place in Dallas, where Willie Nelson showed up to introduce himself and jam with the band on stage; and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where they opened for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, this is heaven!’” Benson said of the crowd’s untethered enthusiasm.

The band moved to Austin in February 1973 at the urging of Nelson and Doug Sahm. It was an exciting time, when longhairs in cowboy hats were suddenly a thing. Most of the musicians on the Austin club scene—legends like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey—played rock, folk, or what was known around town as “progressive country.” The Wheel fit right in. “We were regressive country,” Benson laughed.

Nelson liked the band so much he had the Wheel open shows all over Texas. They were an ensemble of smart players with chops. O’Connell was a featured vocalist, along with Benson and Preston. Domino was the featured boogie-woogie instrumentalist. Upright bassist Tony Garnier and Domino would hold up fingers to represent which classic rhythm section they wanted to emulate during a particular instrumental break. Benson developed a crisp swing-guitar style on his big-bodied Epiphone, which melded seamlessly with fiddles and Oceans’ steel guitar.

Ray Benson and Jason Roberts perform under stage lights

Benson and Jason Roberts in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson shakes hands with Porter Wagoner

Benson and Porter Wagoner in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Benson was the focus. He did most of the talking and worked on taking care of business and building relationships offstage.

In 1975, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a Benson-O’Connell duet in the tradition of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, reached No. 10 on the country singles chart and kept the Wheel on the road, playing 200 shows a year.

But by the early 1980s, as far as Nashville was concerned, Asleep at the Wheel was a band whose moment had passed. The band had won a Grammy, had a hit record with Texas Gold, and recorded five albums, but now members were having kids and buying houses. “At that point, I would have done anything else, but nobody offered me a job, and the band still had fans,” Benson said. “They’d say, ‘Don’t quit. There’s nobody else doing this.’”

Benson’s persistence paid off with another string of country hits in the late ’80s—“House of Blue Lights,” “Boogie Back to Texas,” and “Way Down Texas Way.” The 1990s were full-on Bob, as Asleep at the Wheel recorded two Wills tribute albums. In 2009, Benson’s career-long friendship with Nelson was cemented with the album Willie and the Wheel. That same year the band was hired to tour behind Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Nelson on their Last of the Breed tour.

10 essential Asleep At The Wheel songs

Over the course of its run, Asleep at the Wheel has earned the reputation as a road musician’s finishing school. If you can play with the Wheel, you can play with the best live bands out there. The band’s alumni list is getting close to 100 names long and counts well-known musicians including Jason Roberts, the fiddler who now heads the modern Texas Playboys; and Cindy Cashdollar, a renowned steel guitar and dobro player.

Turnover is routine for any large ensemble, and Benson never hesitated to demand the best of new members. Practically all living veterans from early iterations of the band made the 40th anniversary reunion in 2010. And they’ve all committed to a 50th reunion show, whenever that’s feasible.

“When we get back together, there’s such a fondness for each other, such a love, that any resentment falls away,” O’Connell said. “It’s all about perseverance, and I have to give all the credit to Ray.”

As far as the old band goes, founding member Oceans moved in 1980 to Australia, where he’s a radio broadcaster and an international pedal-steel legend. Preston returned to Vermont after a stretch as a Nashville songwriter. O’Connell moved back to Northern California, where she still performs. Garnier has been Bob Dylan’s bassist for more than 30 years. Domino remains a fixture in Austin beer joints, solo and leading his All-Star’s Western swing band.

As for Asleep at the Wheel, the band plays about 130 shows a year across Texas, Canada, and Europe. With touring stymied by the pandemic, the band staged a virtual dance online in late July. Benson has mellowed to the point of leaving business details to his son, Sam Seifert, who oversees operations at Benson’s headquarters. Seifert’s job, he said, is for “Ray to be able to play music and play golf.”

The old man has earned it. He sits on the boards of the St. David’s Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and speaks to university business classes about life as a small business entrepreneur. He published a book in 2015—Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel—and recently donated his archive to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

“Ray Benson has a ridiculous work ethic, and he has something in him that people love to watch,” said Dave Sanger, the Wheel’s drummer since 1986. The secret sauce, he said, is “one part great musicianship, one part accessible yet challenging music, one part freedom to improvise and excel, and five parts Ray Benson. My mom always tells me how much joy we bring to people. Maybe that’s it.”

A black and white picture of Asleep At The Wheel performing at Armadillo World Headquarters

Asleep at the Wheel at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in 1980. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson, in a cowboy hat and holding a guitar, poses just like a lookalike cake of him

Benson and a look-alike birthday cake in 2015. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Back on FaceTime, Ray Benson and I were talking about longevity when he brought up something the late singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz told him back in the 1970s: “It’s easier to get out of show business than it is to get back in.”

Ray has always been all in.

“You’re going to perform until nobody wants to come see you,” he said.

The Wheel keeps rolling, with Nelson and Tubb as its GPS. “With them, it’s the same thing: It’s all about getting on stage and doing it.”

“I have a theory,” Benson added, his voice buffering along with his image on the computer screen. “When the technology came where you and I can do what we’re doing now, and music legends are being recreated as holograms, people will pay a premium to see a band live on stage. There’s this thing that happens between people. It’s hard to explain, but when people are in the same room with other people, something happens. It’s not like staring at an avatar.”

When we can do that again, my money’s on people taking the dance floor and Asleep at the Wheel taking the stage

50 Years

of Sleeping

at the

Wheel

1970

Aug. 25, Asleep at the Wheel plays its first gig as the unannounced opener on the Medicine Ball Caravan, the “Woodstock on wheels” headlined by Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm commune gets them the job.

1969

Benson and Oceans, students at Antioch colleges in Ohio and Maryland, respectively, meet Leroy Preston in Boston at the house Leroy shares with Ray’s sister. They all move to a cabin in the woods to start a band, joined by Danny Levin.

1954

1972

1971

Reuben Gosfield and Ray Seifert (the future Lucky Oceans and Ray Benson) meet as children in a Philadelphia suburb.

Asleep at the Wheel records its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, in Nashville with Tommy Allsup producing and guest fiddler Johnny Gimble opening the door to the world of Bob Wills.

Asleep at the Wheel relocates to East

Oakland, California.

1978

After being nominated for Grammy Awards the previous three years, Asleep at the Wheel wins its first award for “One O’Clock Jump” (Best Country Instrumental Performance).

1987

The Wheel records its first music video for “Way Down Texas Way.”

1973

The band tours Texas

and moves to Austin.

2020

2009

1975

Asleep at the Wheel marks its 50th anniversary. A reunion show and new album with the original band are delayed by the coronavirus until fall 2021.

The Wheel and Willie

Nelson release Willie

and the Wheel, which

is nominated for a

Grammy Award.

“The Letter That

Johnny Walker Read” hits No. 10 on Billboard’s country chart.

Photos courtesy Ray Benson

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The Texas Standard on Austin to ATX: How Austin Became Weird

July 20, 1981 Sam’s BBQ East Austi
The radio newsmagazine of Texas – The Texas Standard – covers Austin to ATX with David Brown asking the questions

The Texas Standard on Austin to ATX

Earlier this year, renowned Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski released his 10th Texas-centric book titled “Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed The Capital of Texas.” It’s an in-depth look of some of Austin’s most influential figures.

Patoski uses the term “alternative Austin,” which refers to the businesses that have been shaped by outsiders, musicians, freethinkers, artists and entrepreneurs who didn’t want to follow the status quo. These creatives, drawn to Austin for its counterculture and music scenes in the 1970s, developed communities and institutions that have paved the way for film, food and tech to become the cornerstones of life in Austin today.

Patoski says he wanted to understand why Austin has the reputation it does, and why some longtime residents have what he calls a “navel-gazing” love for the city.

“I wanted to … see what happened way back when, and the ‘Big Bang’ in the early ’70s, when people quit leaving Austin, and they started coming,” Patoski says.

In the 1960s, he says young people left Austin for bigger and better things, including famous musicians like Janis Joplin. Patoski says in the ’70s, the city’s distance from media centers on the East and West Coasts made it attractive to artists of all kinds.

“We make our own stuff up,” Patoski says. “My story is all these creation myths … of these outsiders who had to come to this place and work out their ideas and make something up out of nothing.”

He points to filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and to Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey, too. Now, Austin-based global brands include the world’s largest chain of organic food stores and the South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, among others.

“All these things were started, usually for the wrong reasons,” Patoski says. “People just wanted to get together and do something because it was cool.”

Patoski points out the differences between Austin and the rest of Texas. He says that while the rest of the state’s economy is based on extracting resources like oil and gas, Austin’s culture and economy are based on creativity.

Much has changed in Austin, though, since the 1970s. People in creative fields struggle to afford to live there, and the city’s population and physical size is much larger. But Patoski says new arrivals continue to view Austin as the kind of city those who live there imagine it to be.

“[Austin] continues to speak to people in a way that separates it from everywhere else,” Patoski says.

Written by Shelly Brisbin.

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Here & Now Visits Texas Music Hour of Power

Jeremy Hobson of National Public Radio’s Here & Now program visits with the Texas Music Hour of Power for DJ Sessions

Joe Nick Patoski is our guide through the music of Texas — from western swing to zydeco to Tex-Mex.

Patoski (@joenickpatoski) hosts the “Texas Music Hour of Power” out of Marfa Public Radio, and tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about why he believes in “salvation through Texas music.”

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Texas Music Museum battle

http://www.star-telegram.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article143334074.html

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