by Joel Fowler
“You couldn’t make this story up if you wanted to,” admits Ray Benson in a recent telephone interview from his home in Austin, “but, it’s beautiful.”
Six years ago, Wexler, the influential man who coined the term “rhythm and blues” and helped discover acts like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, sent Benson a box of old-time country swing compilation albums knowing that they wouldn’t go to waste.
“Jerry called up me and says ‘I’m getting’ old, these things got dust on ‘em, and I’m giving away all my records,’” Benson said. “Jerry Wexler was a good friend and a supporter of our music. He ‘got’ what we were trying to do. Jerry was kind of like us – a guy from New York who fell in love with music. Roots, blues, country — [it] didn’t matter.”
Just like every good fairy tale, a little coincidental magic was needed for events to be set into motion. For such an odd story, the mystical flashpoint was just as unusual: public television.
“Then a couple of years ago, Wheel was backing up Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Merle Haggard on their Last of the Breed tour,” Benson said. “Well, one of our shows was filmed as a PBS special, Wexler saw it, and he called up Willie’s manager and said, ‘You gotta do this record!’”
It was an idea that Jerry Wexler had been sitting on for more than 35 years. Wexler started dreaming of pairing Willie Nelson and classic Western swing back in 1973, but after Nelson left Atlantic Records for RCA, the project never took off. The time for redemption had finally arrived.
“So, after the PBS special,” adds Benson, “Jerry tells us to get that list of songs from the box of records he sent me. Sure enough, tucked away in that box was a piece of paper on which he’s written ‘WN’ next to 39 songs, which were the ones he was considering for Willie back in the 70s. Between me, Jerry and Willie, we got the list down to 12, and those are the ones that made up the album.”
While such a project doesn’t sound like a stretch for a professional musician like Nelson, Benson likes to point out that looks can be deceiving.
“Sure, this was the music Willie grew up listening to, but even he didn’t know the particulars of it,” he said. “He’s not a musicologist; he’s a musician. He hadn’t even heard Hesitation Blues or Fan It — before we played them for him. He grew up playing music you could dance to.
“It’s also important to note that [Asleep at the Wheel] finally got good enough to do this record,” claims the native Philadelphian. “In 1973, we wouldn’t have been able to do it, since we’d only been together for three years at that point, and [Wexler] wouldn’t have asked us to do it, because the older guys were still around.
“But then, over the years, we became the old guys,” the 58-year-old adds with a laugh, now that Asleep at the Wheel will celebrate their 40th anniversary next year.
As a final product, Willie and the Wheel, with its daring mix of moody — if not depressing — lyrics and bouncingly happy rhythms, is garnering high critical praise, with terms like “Best of 2009? being thrown around from multiple sources. Yet, for Benson, this record will serve as a final testament for a close friend.
“Jerry passed away a week after the final tracks were finished,” he said. “He got to hear them all before he left us … He was just an amazing guy.”