Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson is best known as the co-founder of the country music band Asleep at the Wheel. The band, founded in 1969, has won nine Grammy Awards. Asleep at the Wheel is a contemporary torchbearer for the subgenre of country music known as Western swing, a more danceable kind of country music that originated in the 1920s.

But the 63 year-old Benson has a solo release out now called A Little Piece, only his second solo album. It represents a departure from his Asleep at the Wheel material; it's more personal and was written from a much darker place, according to Benson. I saw Benson play an in-store at Waterloo Records in Austin a couple of months ago, where he showcased his new material backed by the excellent band Milkdrive. I had never seen Benson before, and his performance was fantastic.  He's a great storyteller and performer whose baritone serves as the ideal complement to his new material.

Read my interview with Ray Benson after the video. His good buddy Willie Nelson introduces this performance of "A Little Piece." (Nelson and Benson have a duet on the album as well.)

What other creative outlets do you have?

Plenty.  One, I’m a musician, not just a songwriter. I say that because they are two different things. There’s great creativity in improvising as a musician.  I used to paint when I was a kid, but not anymore because I wasn’t any good. I’ve also written poetry for a long time. I’ve written a play, and I’m co-writing my autobiography with David Menconi.  

How do those other creative outlets make you a better songwriter?

I break it down into two areas: craft and art. You have have to spent so much time on the craft before you can master the art.  The only person I know who’s an exception to that is Bob Schneider. It takes time, effort, and talent to master the craft, like to learn the nuts and bolts of painting or any other creative outlet. 

Many of the songwriters I interview are also visual artists.

It’s about opening yourself up. I remember talking to a painter friend who told me that mistakes lead to your greatest work.  If you open yourself up to the muse, you have to take that leap of faith that what you’re doing will produce something worthwhile, even if it takes time.

Let’s talk about that process. Any set songwriting process for you?

No. Laughs.  Mine is as haphazard as it gets, and it usually happens when I’m driving a car. I write down everything that I can. When I don’t do that, I forget and get pissed off.  The worst thing I’ve ever done is gone to bed with a good idea, thinking I’ll remember it when I wake up.  And I never do.  

My good friend Willie Nelson once told me, “If I can’t remember it, it wasn’t any good.” Well, that doesn’t work with me.  I have to write everything down.  I compile a list of ideas, then I finish each one.  I have written songs in one sitting, but that’s really rare. I might write a melody, words, or an idea, but I often do it separately.  That means cobbling everything together later on.  I have a stack of half-full legal pads, scraps of paper everywhere. They’re filled with half-fulfilled ideas, chord symbols, and names of notes.  That’s simpler than writing music.  If I want a melody, I just write the notes down and I know the time signature hopefully. 

I’d love to start writing songs on the piano.  I never do.  On this last album, I wrote a song in a different tuning.  It’s so cool.  Jerry Jeff Walker years ago said to me, “Every time I learn a new chord, I write a new song.” If you can put yourself in a different place musically, it opens up a whole new range of possibility for songwriting.  If you only know a few chords, you fall into a rut.  

Almost every songwriter I talk to has those half-filled legal pads.

I would hope. They say Hank Williams would just hand a shoebox full of ideas to Fred Rose, who would take it and finish them.

You mentioned driving.  How does the role of motion influence songwriting?

Bob Dylan used to get in a cab and tell the driver to just drive around New York.  With me, it’s the rhythm.  I get very few musical ideas when I drive.  But I do get word ideas. There’s something about the rhythm of motion that gives me those lyrical ideas. I need an instrument with me to get the musical ideas, either something in my hand or just my voice.  One time I bought one of those voice recorders to take with me on the road.  But it didn’t work because it somehow put my brain in a performance mode, and that’s not the mode I want to be in when I’m generating ideas.  I was pissed off because I thought it was such a great solution, but it didn’t work for me. 

Do songs often start as words for you?

Most of the time.  But I also store melodies, and I’ll go back and put words to them.  And sometimes I do words and music simultaneously. I have two kinds of songwriting: write to order, and writing from the heart. I write to order when people ask me to write for them for things like movies or commercials, or when we need a Western swing song for Asleep at the Wheel.  Harlan Howard, one of the greats, used to write from 9 in the morning until around 2 in the afternoon.  Then he’d go get drunk.  But he got all the stories for his songs from bar: the waitresses, the bartenders, the drunks.  Everybody has a story.  But the point here is that he saw it as a job and punched the clock.

How much do you revise your lyrics? I talk to some songwriters who don’t like to revise too much because they like the lyrics to be what they were in that initial, raw, emotional state.

I revise all the time. And, sure, the first verse is that raw emotion.  But the second verse is not, which is why I revise so much.  That’s the hardest part for me. I’ll write three or four verses.  The first one is perfect.  But then I have to tinker with the rest because the rhythm sucks, or the rhyme sucks, or the words suck. Bob Schneider, a great songwriter here in Austin, said one time, “I play a song for my wife and she thinks it’s great.  But she doesn’t understand why I’m agonizing over these four words in a line." 

What you said about Harlan Howard reminds me of what Hayes Carll said to me last year. It’s important to him to go out to the bars and meet people because that’s where he gets inspired. So how do you feel about inspiration? Do you go out and seek it, or do you wait for the muse?

You have to seek it, but I do believe in the muse.  I do believe in actively engaging with your environment.  It’s the “songwriter as voyeur” idea.  Willie Nelson always writes from the inside.  He doesn’t need to go and get ideas from the people around him.  But what makes him such a great songwriter is that he writes those songs and you think they’re about you. You can write about something personal, but you have to write it in a way that allows people to relate to what you’re singing about. That’s the poetry part of songwriting.  If it’s too personal, it’s almost embarrassing, because you’re writing, really, to a bunch of strangers. It’s a fine line. You don’t want come across as whiny or wallowing.  I hate those songs where people just wallow.  

You’ve talked about this album being on the dark side.  If you are going to write about the dark side, do you need to be in a dark place? Or is distance better? In other words, do you need to be in the same emotional state that you’re writing about?

I have to be in that same emotional state to start writing the song.  But to finish it, I can be anywhere.  If you don’t have that initial connection, it’s not gonna happen. At least for me. I believe that without depression, or at least intense empathy for people in those states, it’s hard to write truly great stuff.  I rarely write great, deep, emotional songs when I’m really happy.  

How important is your physical environment when you write?

It matters a lot. I have to be alone with no distractions. And I do my best writing at night in my living room.  I need uninterrupted time.  I wrote a great song on the bus recently in the back room, but the whole time I was worried that someone was going to come back and start asking me questions.

It’s impossible to be a good writer unless you read good writing, so who are some of your favorite authors?

I just finished reading Bud Shrake’s book Blessed McGill. Great book.  It’s very Texas, but I’d highly recommend it.  Larry McMurtry is another great one.  The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald is also one of my favorites.