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My Conversation with an American Treasure: Ray Benson

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We were hippies... we were against Vietnam... we had long hair. We were counterculture in this redneck "aura." In the 1960s there was a Renaissance of older blues artists, with B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Freddie King and so many others. They brought their music back to my generation. I likened what I did in the 1970s with Asleep at the Wheel to those great blues masters. Back then I thought, "Hey, let's go find old Western Swing, and 'honky-tonk' -- which was, at the time, relegated to a particular region -- and resurrect this brilliant music for our generation as well. The point was, with the war and everything, young people my age hated their parents' music. However when you take away the 'sociological impact' -- it's great music! Hell, Merle Haggard is amazing! Even if 'Okie from Muskogee' poked us in the side!

Over 20 acclaimed albums, countless concerts around the globe, nine Grammys, production credits that include Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, Dale Watson, Suzy Bogguss, Vince Gill, and the aforementioned Mr. Haggard to name a very few, plus Lifetime Achievement awards, assorted Hall of Fame honors, numerous philanthropic endeavors to aid ailing musicians, and his unassuming service as a founding member of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation -- the compassionate, self-effacing, physically towering, ambitious "Jewish kid with a cowboy hat from Philadelphia" who founded Asleep at the Wheel, when life in America was "tin soldiers and Nixon coming," is hitting his stride at the ripe young age of 61.

Ray Benson has won the battle. He now lives in a world wherein the majority of young people definitely do not hate their parents' music -- and have a deep appreciation for the artistry and aesthetic which Ray and Asleep at the Wheel resurrected and re-vitalized for the masses. Mr. Benson, who is arguably the true founding father of the Americana genre wherein such contemporary roots artists as Mumford & Sons, Fleet Foxes, and Lady Antebellum comfortably reside, brings us his first solo album in a decade, A Little Piece. Benson, much like veteran heartland troubadours such as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams is making the finest and most vital music of his long, distinguished career.

Akin to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours and Willie Nelson's Phases and Stages, Benson's riveting song cycle details the universal muse of artists past, present and future: love gone wrong. Or, what Ray subtly refers to as "upheaval... mostly with women... that's just what happens."

Misery loves company, and Mr. Benson's list of simpatico, generation-spanning collaborators on this record is most impressive: Willie Nelson, Latino rockers Del Castillo, "newgrass" ensemble Milkdrive, co-producer Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick Natalie, and producer of Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen among others), Asleep at the Wheel founding member Floyd Domino, current Wheel drummer Dave Sanger, bassist Glenn Funkunaga (Robert Plant) and Ray's son and co-producer Sam "Lightening" Seifert.

They're all my pals. I have a couple of studios and my son and I do a lot of recording... Except for being told repeatedly that my guitar was out of tune by someone whose diapers I used to change, working with my son Sam was a great experience... It also reminded me of the cover of the Blood Sweat & Tears album Child is the Father to the Man.

Readers under the age of 50 are strongly advised to Google Image the record sleeve Ray speaks of immediately -- and download the album -- it will blow whatever is left of your Pro-Tooled, Auto-Tuned, American Idol mind!

Among the many highlights on A Little Piece is a track worthy of The Boss or Sir Mick: the reflective "Give Me Some Peace." Says Ray, "I take on a lot, I've got a band, studios, employees, fans, demands... all my charity work -- heck, someone told me I sit on more boards than a lazy carpenter. It gets overwhelming. So I just cut loose on that tune!"

Ray also cuts his formidable guitar chops loose on a brilliant tribute tune "JJ Cale." Subject any good guitar player to a Downbeat blindfold test and they'll swear it's Eric Clapton stomping the wah-wah pedal he used on Wheels of Fire. Ray is on fire!

I can play the blues! I got the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record deal! I got Jimmy Vaughn in the Musicians Union! Stevie Ray was my dear friend! I hung out and jammed with Fred McDowell, Magic Sam... I used to spend a lot of time with JJ in Tusla playing with Eric's band with Carl Radle, Jamie Oldaker... I can do this!

Willie Nelson came off the golf course to duet with Ray on Waylon Jennings' tearjerker ballad "It Ain't You." Recalls Ray, "That one is about youth verses wisdom, which is right in Willie's wheelhouse." Del Castillo and Ray serve Santana notice a flaming Flaminco rocker "Heartache and Pain." "That would be a kick to do live with Carlos," he said. With just a guitar and his brooding baritone, which has improved considerably with age, Ray's rendition of Randy Newman's "Marie" from Good Old Boys is most poignant. "I met him the other day when he was in town (Austin)," recalls Ray. "I've been wanting to do that song for years... I call it 'the most twisted love song ever written!' My version is imperfect -- but I like it."

Ray plans to tour with Milkdrive as his backing band to support the A Little Piece before continuing his life's mission of keeping American Western Swing alive. If you have yet to experience Ray and Asleep at the Wheel in the flesh, do so before it's too late. Though, I get the feeling that Ray will outlive the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King.

"Oh yeah, I'm gonna keep doing this, go on the road, lose a bunch of money and have fun."

Would you expect anything less from this American treasure?