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&B with Western swing, he sought to bridge the gap. More than 25 albums, nine Grammy Awards and 100-odd bandmates later, Benson and the Wheel are still swinging.
He doesn’t gloss over the troughs — an out-of-the-blue divorce from his first wife in 2001, a hepatitis C diagnosis soon after and a two-year bout with crippling depression. Nor does he seem wary of offending the easily offended. At one point he compiles a laundry list of recreational drugs popular among country musicians, frequently mentions his own avid consumption and ventures into politics more than once, noting how out of step he is with the conservative hegemony of the country music establishment and that his friendship with George W. Bush doesn’t mean he can’t think him a terrible President.
Bush is one of several A-list friends that Benson’s not above mentioning. Bill Clinton, Ann Richards, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Dolly Parton, George Strait and a slew of others come and go. The book has the same brisk energy and bonhomie that Benson brings to his music. He and co-author David Menconi have penned a memoir that’s nearly as much fun as one of his shows.
Pity the readers. Kurt Vonnegut was once asked to sum up his most important tips for writers, and that was number seven. The act of reading and making sense of a text is hard, he said, and writers should never forget it. If only Ray Wylie Hubbard had kept Vonnegut’s rule in mind when he was writing A Life . . . Well, Lived.
Hubbard is a fascinating character, and, like Benson, he’s led a fascinating life. He rode the outlaw country music wave in the 1970s, writing what many regard as its anthem, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” consuming along the way a small village’s quotient of drugs and alcohol, and hit bottom in his early 40s, depressed, obscure and broke. After he became sober (with the help of Stevie Ray Vaughan), he began building a new life amidst the rubble of the old: rather than do the sensible thing and leave the music business, he dedicated himself to becoming a better guitar player and an outstanding songwriter. Starting with Loco Gringo’s Lament in 1994, he released a string of acclaimed albums, some of which rank with the best Texas singer-songwriter fare of the past 20 years. Loco, he writes, “was the first record I ever made that I could hand to someone, look them in the eye, and say, ‘here it is,’ without wincing or having excuses duct taped to it.”
But Hubbard has more to offer than his own war stories and redemption. As anyone who’s seen him perform knows, he’s funny, self-deprecating and smart. So why isn’t his book more like that?
Part of the reason is its structure. He and Thom Jurek, who gets a co-write credit even though Hubbard says that he himself wrote everything, decided to devote some sections to standard autobiography and others to Hubbard’s own freeform, no-caps, minimal-punctuation rambles, and intersperse both with Hubbard’s song lyrics, none of which are dated. Knowing when each was written would have helped readers make sense of Hubbard’s arc as a writer. Hubbard’s a fine songwriter, but few of his songs work on the page. No shame in that; most of Dylan’s don’t, either. They also take up 25 percent of an already slim book.
The sections devoted to autobiography and Hubbard’s verbal reveries, which seem intended to appear spontaneous and sound like Hubbard’s wry between-songs patter, are more frustrating. At one point, he half-apologizes for what’s missing: “Even if I knew the exact dates for all this, I doubt it would add anything to your reading experience except some numbers. It’s pretty much a fog and ragged memories that don’t make a lot of sense anyway.” Losing the ability to recall your own history is one of the less lurid hazards of spending years in a drug- and drink-fueled haze, but it’s a catastrophe if you’re trying to provide a coherent account of your own life.
He opens with the lyrics to “The Messenger,” one of the songs that does hold up on the page. It’s his most direct lyrical evocation of the spirituality he discovered after he stopped drinking. Not surprisingly, Hubbard’s best writing comes in the chapters on his first few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which are vividly remembered and detailed. He met his wife, Judy Hubbard, at one of them. She’s served as his manager throughout their marriage, from 1989 on. The afterword, a reprint of an article she wrote in 2011, is a trenchant, funny and moving account of her own early misadventures, how she met and fell in love with Ray, and what their life is like as a couple working side by side in the music business. It’s a fitting companion to her husband’s musical eloquence, and the highlight of the book. — MADISON SEARLE