Asleep at the Wheel would never have come into being, won six Grammy awards, or lasted more than 40 years as a crazy country western swing band without Ray Benson. The first person to tell you that would be Ray Benson.
Benson may have started out as a Jewish Yankee hippie, but his level of braggadocio is true Texan. This larger-than-life character pulls no punches as he recounts his journey from a suburban Philadelphia upbringing to life on the road with his rollicking crew. Asleep at the Wheel and country music fans will have trouble putting down this book, which barrels forward with all the energy of a Saturday night show at a dance hall in Austin.
From the opening scene, Benson makes it clear this will be not be a sugar-coated memoir. On the night Asleep at the Wheel won its first Grammy, the band was playing a gig in Lubbock to an eight-person crowd. “We played for an empty room that was colder than a prison guard’s stare,” Benson recalls.
The book follows Asleep at the Wheel’s growth from a ragtag group of college dropouts scraping by in Paw Paw, West Virginia to playing on the White House lawn for presidents and dignitaries. Like the best Asleep at the Wheel albums, the cameos in Comin Right At Ya are wide ranging — from George Strait to George Bush and everywhere in between.
The big names sprinkled throughout the book are impressive, but the tough-talking Texan reveals he still has plenty of yiddishkeit buried beneath the hard exterior. Some of the most touching passages of the book are Benson’s tributes to his parents and siblings, who helped shape his worldview and musical future. Lesser known artists also appear, rubbing elbows with country music legends and Texas royalty on the pages of Benson’s memoir as he pays tribute to those who gave him a leg up along the way.
In 2005, Benson co-wrote “A Ride With Bob” as a tribute to his hero and inspiration, Western swing king Bob Wills. The musical, naturally performed with Asleep at the Wheel as the pit orchestra, plays out as a conversation between Benson and Wills on a tour bus winding aimlessly down the interstate. In Comin’ Right at Ya, the tables have turned and Benson is the wily old veteran, spinning yarns and imparting wisdom learned from years on the road. We’d all be wise to listen.