Ray Benson Shares a Piece of His Mind
A little over ten years ago, Ray Benson took off his mantle as front man 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 constraints of the time signatures in which Asleep at the Wheel plays.
His new album—out in stores about a month ago—gives Benson the chance to play outside the boundaries again. This new album, A Little Piece, features nine Benson originals and two covers—one a previously unrecorded song he co-wrote with Waylon Jennings, “It Ain’t You,” and on which his old friend Willie Nelson joins in a duet, and the other a version of Randy Newman’s “Marie.” These songs reveal a Ray Benson that fans of Asleep at the Wheel have not much seen; here he’s 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. The tunes here include the stark steel and acoustic title track that reflects on the ways that we lose little pieces of ourselves when we do harm to others as he counsels, “I know a little about a lot of things, that is true/One thing I know is that true love will see you through/What you give comes back to you.” The steel and electric guitars trade soaring leads in “Give Me Some Peace” which recalls several tunes off of Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, with those great David Lindley steel cascades. On this song, Benson pleads for some peace and rest in the midst of life’s tragedies and regrets. The swampy, funky, rocking stomp, “Killed by a .45,” co-written with Chris Wallin, is a tongue-in-cheek ballad of death by vinyl. One of the albums highlights is a bluesy tribute to Benson’s old friend, JJ Cale.
Engine 145 caught up by phone with Benson at his home near Austin a little while before he headed out to Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas, to play a show. After chatting a little while about the highs and lows (mostly lows) of Northwestern University football—Benson’s brother teaches at the NU Medical School—we talked about this new album.
What prompted you to do this album now?
Well, I hit the 60-year-old mark 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.
Yeah, there’s some darkness on this album.
Good, I was hoping that would come through. Life isn’t a fairy tale, but I see so many young kids out there who think that if they get the right job, get married, life’s gonna be perfect and have a happy ending. There’s joy and hope, sure, but there’s death, tragedy, and disappointment in life. I also work a lot in public mental health to try to raise awareness about depression. You know, there’s a fine line that separates creativity and depression, and I hope we can get people to recognize how they’re connected.
How long did it take you to make the album?
Probably about a year and a half. I had to wait until I had time, and then I had to wait until Lloyd Maines had time; we cut it in three basic sessions, which we did live; then we did the overdubs and fixes on the vocals and added any ideas that came up.
When did you start playing music?
I started out taking piano lessons, but I quit because I wasn’t really that interested. When I was 9, I picked up my sister’s guitar; I took a couple of years of lessons. My sister and I and some friends had a folk music group called the Four Gs, and we played Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Kingston Trio. When I was 12, I went off to camp and there were these guys playing fiddles; they asked me to back them up on guitar, so I got to know that kind of music that summer.
Did you start writing songs around the same time?
Even younger; I started writing poems when I was six-years-old and haven’t quit writing since. A young man once came up to T.S. Eliot and told him, “I think I’m going to give up writing,” and Eliot replied, “Oh, you can?” That’s how I am; if I could only stop writing, I might do it, but I can’t; I have to write. I did go through a period in my life where I couldn’t write—when the words didn’t make sense together or I couldn’t get started—and I was very frustrated.
What’s your approach to songwriting?
Benson: Well, I’m pretty haphazard about it. Ideas come all the time, and I have a pad and I write them down. Then, when I have a deadline I go work on the song. More often than not it’s the words that come first when I’m writing. Some of ‘em, though, you write the whole thing—music and lyrics—and there it is. Sometimes writing songs is like doing a crossword puzzle, trying to fit all the words in the right places. I’m very much a revamper, though; I’ll go back and write and re-write. I didn’t work in Nashville because I can’t sit in a room and write a song. You know, songwriters are voyeurs: when you walk into a bar, say, and you overhear a great story, you can either write a song using that story as the foundation or you glean ideas from that story for a song.
Who are some of the songwriters who’ve most influenced you?
Oh, almost too many to count. Hank Williams, he’s the one that really got me started thinking about writing songs. Bob Dylan, Irving Berlin, Louis Jordan, Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, and Randy Newman. I am just in awe of Newman’s writing; he so sardonic; he gets away with stuff that others cannot; I mean, who but Randy Newman could have sung “Short People” and gotten away with it. Plus, he writes on the piano, which I’m in awe of.
What about guitarists who’ve influenced you?
Well, Django Reinhardt is at the top of the list; James Burton, Wes Montgomery, Doc Watson, Merle Travis—I really love Merle’s playing—Tal Farlow, Leon Rhodes, Joe Maphis, and Roy Buchanan; I saw Roy when I was very young, and I was just amazed, and later on we got to be friends.
Tell me how you wrote the song “JJ Cale.”
I had a couple of songs for this album—which didn’t end up on the album—that I wanted JJ to play on, so I called him up and asked him if he would play guitar on them. He told me he’d love to but he was tired and not feeling good so he didn’t believe he could help me out. A few days later he was dead. I sat down and wrote this song and finished it in three days. When you listen to it, you’ll hear JJ all over it, I hope. The wah-wah pedal in the song; JJ was all about the wah-wah; you’ll also hear references to or lines from his songs like “they call me the breeze.” The first solo in this song I played live and sang at the same time; I played it with my fingers and didn’t use a pick. Man, I loved JJ. So many people ignored us [Asleep at the Wheel] for so many years, but he would always come to visit. He was the most reluctant front man in the world, too; he’d prefer to sit back by the drum set just playing his guitar.
How do you think your music has evolved over these years?
Well, my voice has come a long way; my singing voice has really improved year by year. It’s funny; I walked into a bar and heard a record playing, and I said to the guy there that this must be some singer just starting out; he said, “No, that’s one of your early records. That’s you.” So, when you listen to my voice when I was 21 on that first album, you can hear how much my voice really changed now. As a guitarist, I was always presentable, and I think I started out pretty good, but not good enough. Over the years, I’ve grown as a guitarist. My songs have always had a distinctive view. You know, Johnny Cash once said about one of his shows that his band’s biggest asset was its inability to play. He’s right about that; once you start getting too complex, you lose touch with the music; simplicity is the hardest thing to get out of a musician; I’ve learned that over the years.
You should let folks know that I’m in the middle of co-writing my autobiography. I’m working with this great writer, David Menconi, 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 time. 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.
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