Ray Benson’s A Little Piece broadens his scope well beyond Western swing. The Asleep at the Wheel frontman’s seamless new solo album deftly balances folk and country with blues and groove. Each offers an intimate lyrical snapshot.
“Most of these songs are life lessons about love and relationships,” the longtime Austin resident says. “The thing is, when I write songs, I have no genre in mind. They’re all over the place. That’s the way I am. I like all kinds of music.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Benson: I write when the mood hits, and rarely do I finish a song. So it was pieces of half-finished songs lying around. The lyrics were done for some of them, but maybe I didn’t like the music I had. The title song was one that I hadn’t finished. I started playing it, and people really liked it and said, “You ought to finish that,” so I did. That started the whole process getting all this stuff together.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I had written the first verse and played it for my girlfriend. She was like, “Wow, this is incredible.” I started playing it at some charity functions because that’s what it’s about, giving back to your community or to the world. Then people said, “That’s an incredible song. You need to record that.”
Then I played a concert with Lloyd Maines and Terri Hendrix and a bunch of guys, and Lloyd said, “You have to record that.” I said, “Well, when I do, I need you to help me.” [Maines co-produced the new album.] So I recorded it, and my son Sam, who co-produced, said, “You have any more songs?” (laughs)
Do you write lyrics or music first?
It just depends. I wish there was a more organized way to do this, but you just welcome the ideas when the muse hits. I have a dozen melodies just sitting there, and I’m going, “Hmm. I need to fit words to these.” I have dozens of words that I need melodies or chord changes for. It’s a confusing process for me, but it’s very rewarding because when you get it right, it’s just wonderful.
The songs are like journal entries, more personal than your Wheel songs.
Yeah, well, I write those in the forms of Western Swing or boogie-woogie or country. They’re less revealing in terms of what I’m thinking and they’re more subject-oriented. If everybody wants to know what’s going on in my head, it’s here. It was different, but I really enjoyed it.
Which songwriters do you draw from?
Well, Willie [Nelson]. I love Willie’s stuff and always have. … I think the world of him, but also Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan and Hoagy Carmichael. I also love JJ Cale’s stuff, and Bruce Robison is one of my favorites. He’s an incredible writer. Those are great Texas writers, but I also cut a Randy Newman song [“Marie”] on the new album.
Describe working with Willie on “It Ain’t You.”
We’re good friends, so I just call him up and say, “Hey, what are you doing today? Can I grab an hour?” It’s always quick. Willie comes from the age when you walked into the studio, you sat down, you played it and you were done. We really don’t labor over anything. … You better be ready to capture it with Willie. That’s what we’re doing — capturing moments.
What drew you to “It Ain’t You”?
It was such an opportunity. And also it said something that needed to be said about aging on the album, and I hadn’t written a song like that.
Plus, it was like discovering a rare jewel. Here’s a Waylon Jennings and Gary Nicholson song sitting around that nobody had recorded. I recorded it myself, and after I was done, I said, “Oh, it’d be so cool to have Willie on it,” just because of what it’s saying. Willie’s 81 in April. It was like a gift, and it really did tie the whole thing together. You look in the damn mirror and go, “Shit, what happened to that guy who was 28 years old?”
Where did you find that song?
Gary had sent it to us about four years ago for another artist we were working with, and it just didn’t get done. My son Sam had it on a cassette with Waylon singing it with just a guitar. “Nobody ever cut that? Wow.”
Are you planning to do more solo albums?
You know, I don’t know. I go in today and we’ll be recording Asleep at the Wheel stuff, all Western Swing. Asleep at the Wheel is three-quarters done with another Bob Wills tribute. I just want to stay busy. In terms of writing, I do that all the time. I’ve done that since I was a kid. Writing never stops.
I assume that if I have the time and inclination, I’ll do another solo album. I have all kinds of different ideas, though. Some are theme-oriented. For instance, there’s an album I want to do with Dale Watson, a duet album called Two Young Country Singers, Dale and Ray.
Dale’s had a big year.
Yeah, he’s doing great. Dale’s an overnight sensation after 40 years. (laughs) Dale and I have been talking about this for two years. Like I said, my interests are so wide-ranging, and people all the time want to put you in a box and say, “Oh, he’s this.” Those of us who are lucky enough to do a lot of different things, we just have to be careful of the timing. I don’t even know what that means, but you know when the time’s right to do something, hopefully.