Like most folks, Ray Benson had his 2020 plans waylaid by the coronavirus pandemic. In his case, those plans included a yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of his band, the progressive Western-swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. In March of last year, Benson himself came down with COVID-19. He likes to joke that he’s an “early adopter.”
“I was one of the first 50 cases in Austin (Texas, where Benson lives),” he says. “They didn’t even have a test for us back then. I had no respiratory problems, no fever, but I was in bed for four days, just super tired, nauseous, headaches, body aches. I slept 12 hours a day for four days, then it just started getting better.”
Once he recovered, Benson was able to use the forced pause of his customary nonstop touring schedule to work on two new albums: One of them addresses the group’s golden anniversary by reuniting its (more or less) original members, while the other one features its current lineup.
The first fruits of the latter project can be heard on a new EP, “Better Times,” the title track of which is a wish for exactly that. It’s the result, he says, “of sitting in the house all day wondering what the hell was going to happen.”
Benson found himself watching a lot of old black-and-white movies — “those film noir and World War II films on the Turner Classic Movies channel,” he says. “And I kept thinking of all those people saying, ‘We’ll be together again; we’ll get back together after the war,’ and I went, ‘That’s exactly what we’re going through with a different kind of war.’ But it certainly is a war. More than half a million people died. So that just occurred to me, and that song flowed out.”
Working on the reunion album proved slightly more problematic, as the various musicians are scattered all around the world.
“The only one we could get down here was Floyd (Domino), who was on piano. Then there was me, (David) Sanger, who has been the drummer for 35 years, and (bassist) Tony (Garnier), who plays with Bob Dylan now. Bob was off, so Tony came down.”
They cut the basic tracks in Austin, then sent the files far and wide — to steel guitarist Lucky Oceans in Perth, Australia; drummer LeRoy Preston in Vermont; guitarist/vocalist Chris O’Connell in California; fiddler Larry Franklin in Nashville, Tennessee; reed player Michael Francis in Toronto; and new AATW steel guitarist Flavio Pasquetto in Rome — so the musicians could overdub their parts. They also communicated via Zoom so everyone could stay on the same page creatively.
“We finished that one literally yesterday,” Benson says. “It’ll be out in October.”
Benson has become so synonymous with Texas and Texas music, it’s generally assumed that he’s a Lone Star State native. But he’s actually from Philadelphia — not exactly a place noted for its country music. But Benson took his musical cues from movies and TV. “I grew up in the ’50s,” he says. “We all thought we were Roy Rogers.”
He was singing in a folk group at age 9 and as a young teen was playing in square dance bands.
And then there were records. “I was always a collector,” he says, “78s, 45s, you know. And I had a big ear for music.”
The idea behind Asleep at the Wheel was to form a “roots-Americana band,” he says. “Not Americana in its current connotation. To me, it just meant ‘music of America.’ We said, ‘Let’s harken back to honkytonk music, country, blues, Western swing, country music, cowboy music.’ And we were all writers, so we would write in those forms, too. And that’s pretty much what we followed for the last 50 years.”
Over the years, there’ve been more than 80 musicians who were members of AATW, and Benson takes pride in how far some of them have gone. “Tony (Garnier), for instance,” he says. “He joined the band at 18. We really showed him the ropes, and then he goes on to be the ‘Saturday Night Live’ bass player and now Bob Dylan’s bass player for 28 years. Larry Franklin, our fiddle player for six years, went on to be one of Nashville’s top session players. (Guitar great) Junior Brown was in the band for six months. All kinds of folks, you know. And I’m not mentioning dozens of wonderful musicians. It’s been a privilege. I’ve been a mentor to some and a collaborator with all.”
What Asleep at the Wheel • When 8 p.m. June 11 • Where Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard • How much $45 • More info 314-534-1111; metrotix.com