“One By Willie”, with Ray Benson

by: John Sprong

Ray Benson on Bob Wills, Cindy Walker, and Willie Nelson’s Version of “Going Away Party

The Grammy-winning founder of Asleep at the Wheel on fifty years of friendship with Willie, with cameos by George Gershwin, Floyd Tillman, and Robert Duvall.

Ray Benson was the gangly leader of an unlikely band of long-haired, western swing revivalists based, of all places, in the California Bay Area when he met Willie Nelson in the early seventies. In those years, big band country-jazz fusion was an all-but-forgotten style to much of America, though not to Willie.

Like Benson, he’d grown up idolizing and emulating the sound’s founding father, Bob Wills, albeit twenty years earlier, in the thirties and forties. The two true believers quickly bonded, and in 1973, Willie advised Benson that his band, Asleep at the Wheel, could find a larger, more reliable audience if it moved to Austin, backing up his suggestion with a promise of show-opening slots at his own gigs. Soon thereafter, Benson and the Wheel made the move, kicking off fifty years of tight friendship and wildly productive musical collaboration.

On this week’s One by Willie, Benson focuses on one of his and Willie’s finest moments together, a cover of the 1974 Wills classic, “Goin’ Away Party.” Willie and Benson’s version was the closing track on the Wheel’s Grammy-winning 1999 album, Ride With Bob: A Tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and after describing how they came to record it, Benson goes on to detail the even more impressive backstory to the song. It was written for Wills by the great Cindy Walker, the country songwriter from Mexia who composed dozens of the swing and singing-cowboy songs that Willie grew up on. With well-considered and experienced authority, Benson calls Walker one of the single greatest influences on Willie’s own creations.

Listen to interview, read transcript here.

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