Gary E. McKee photo
photo by Gary E. McKee

Although Ray Benson and I have never met, we’ve covered “miles and miles of Texas” together. He and his band, Asleep at the Wheel, have provided the soundtrack for my roadway ramblings since the days I was a fledgling writer exploring the back roads in my ’79 Monte Carlo equipped with a cassette player. My momma and daddy danced their way across the Roundtopolis™ to the live music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. As a result, Benson and I share common, hallowed musical ground.

In March, Asleep at the Wheel and Benson are hosting the first-ever Texas Dance Hall Tour that includes a fun-filled weekend in the greater Roundtopolis™. Working closely with Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. to raise funds for its mission, everyone involved in the tour is committed to saving historic Texas dance halls and the authentic music and culture still found in them.

I caught Benson between hanging out with his dear friend Dolly Parton as she passed through Austin on her concert tour and a series of high-profile industry meetings.

First childhood memory? Learning to whistle. I was about four, standing outside of our house—and I got a “tweet” out. After that I practiced until I could whistle anything.

First paying job? Lifeguard in high school. Mowed yards earlier, but lifeguarding at 16 was my first “real” job. I used the money to buy my first good guitar amp.

When I was six, I wanted to be: A big game naturalist. I read Bring’em Back Alive, caught a lot of toads, lizards and snakes in the woods behind my house—and thought it was my life’s work. Of course, I was six.

Favorite lyrics? “Night Life” by Willie Nelson

Why Bob Wills? His western swing encompassed every kind of music I liked: traditional country and western, big band, swing and New Orleans jazz. And it offered the chance for improv solos—all while wearing a cowboy hat.

What would you tell a 16-year-old Ray Benson? Be a little more patient.

No one has ever said this about me: I’m short. (He’s 6’ 7” without his hat.)

Biggest compliment: You’re a very nice man.

Source of inspiration: Comes from inside. It’s all about expressing myself through songwriting and musicianship—and then being able to share music that I’ve worked really hard on with an audience, preferably one that is dancing.

Twin fiddles or pedal steel guitar: Twin fiddles.

Early or late: Early is on time. On time can be late.

I’m in awe of: Mother Nature.

Pickled beets, eggs or pigs’ feet: All three. I grew up in bars. You can never go wrong with purple eggs or pigs’ feet.

You’re on the tour bus and haven’t eaten. What do you do? Get something to eat. We’ve got two refrigerators and a microwave on the bus. There’s always something within easy reach.

Favorite dance hall: We’ll see on the dance hall tour. We’ve been to them all—and are now circling back to see how they’re doing. It’s an honor to help them out if we can.

Ingredients for a memorable night of dancing: Comfortable boots and a good partner.

Dream dance band (with members living or dead): The Count Basie Orchestra with Bob Wills, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson and a special guest appearance by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Those boys would do alright.

Describe the restorative powers of good music in a Texas dance hall: It’s good, fun, heart-pumping exercise. You’ll feel better being out and about with friends in a place where musical history lives. Your whole life will take on a neon glow.

Ray Benson founder Asleep at the Wheel
photo courtesy of Asleep at the Wheel and Bismeaux Records

Just the Facts
Grammy Award-winning musician, founder of Asleep at the Wheel, and host of Texas Music Scene
DOB: March 1965
Hometown: Austin, Texas since 1973, but originally from Springfield, Pennsylvania
Education: University of Dance Halls

by Lorie A. Woodward
photos courtesy of Bismeaux Records and Asleep at the Wheel

Publisher’s Note: While we’re big champions of using social media to help spread the word about the Roundtopolis™, we enjoy old-fashioned visiting. Since taking over the Round Top Register, Katie and I have had many opportunities to meet lots of interesting people. We want you to meet them, too. So we’ve introduced “Shooting the Breeze.” It gives us one more excuse for visiting with folks face-to-face. Enjoy! If you have ideas for people for us to shoot the breeze with, let Katie know at katie@roundtop.com.