RAY BENSON and Ray Wylie Hubbard have more in common than their names. Both came from out of state, found open arms in Austin and set about making music that to most ears sounds quintessentially Texan.
To different degrees, both are self-invented characters who’ve made humor a large part of their onstage personae. Both are products of the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s and could tell under-the-influence stories into next year if they could remember them. One knows two ex-Presidents, the other knows one ex-Beatle, and both know Willie. Improbably, both have survived into their 60s, and even more improbably, given their eventful lives and loquacity, they’ve turned in memoirs comfortably under 200 pages. And for one of their books, the devil’s in the details that are missing.
Bob Wills could hardly have imagined a stranger successor to carry the torch for Western swing than Ray Benson Seifert. Benson — he dropped “Seifert” when the original version of Asleep at the Wheel agreed to adopt honky-tonk-friendly stage names — was born and raised in Philadelphia in a Jewish middle-class, politically liberal home, the son of a gregarious, music-loving business owner father and a well-educated mother.
The music bug struck early. When he was 9, he picked up his sister’s four-string guitar and discovered that he could pick out folk tunes he heard on the radio. A year later, he joined his sister’s folk group — this was the early 1960s during what Dave Van Ronk called the great folk scare — and was soon playing in youth centers, school talent shows and, toward the group’s end, a hootenanny. “Never had stage fright,” he reports. Performing was second nature to him, and something he loved.
After the Beatles arrived in America, Ray dropped folk, joined a series of garage bands throughout high school, grew out his hair and discovered drugs. He entered Antioch College in Ohio in 1969 and flirted with medicine and filmmaking as careers, but neither pulled at him like music. Curiously, Benson doesn’t explain why the music that pulled hardest wasn’t the Beatles or Stones but old-time country, the out-of-fashion kind played by Wills and Ernest Tubb. He is clear, though, about its political and social appeal. “I was going to form a working-class country band and be accepted, even though I was not one of those people. I considered it a grand and noble social experiment. If a Jewish Yankee like me could play this music I loved and find acceptance among the working class, it would be a shining example of brotherhood for all.” The irony seems retrospective and more than a little defensive.
To the bafflement of friends and family, he and two of his longhair friends moved in 1970 to a vacant farmhouse in rural West Virginia and set about becoming Asleep at the Wheel. Meanwhile, Ray set about becoming Ray Benson. He’s “a character I made up, bigger than Ray Seifert all the way around.” The band grew in size, began playing small bars in and around Washington, D.C., and, acting on the advice of George “Cody” Frayne of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, moved to California’s Bay Area in search of a bigger audience. After several lean months they acquired a following, and when Van Morrison mentioned them in a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, the Wheel began to roll. A few months later, they signed with United Artists and released their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, in early 1973.
Benson’s next move became the fulcrum of his career. In late 1973, acting again on the advice of Frayne, Benson and the band moved to the land of cosmic cowboys, twangy musical misfits and big-city refugees. “Austin had kind of a gulf between the hippie cowboy bands and the blues bands, but not in my head,” he writes. Mixing blues and R