Ray Benson is the frontman and co-founder of Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. The band has released more than 25 albums and earned nine Grammy awards. Benson’s latest solo album, “A Little Piece of Me,” was released in 2014.
Born in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Benson said he was submerged in the arts at an early age when he performed in school and community choirs and bands. Benson is now an advocate and board member for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which provides low-cost or free health care to musicians. Since 2010, Benson has hosted the “Texas Music Scene” TV series, which broadcasts weekly on KEYE-TV in Austin on Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Sundays at 11:30 p.m.
How do you continue to find your inspiration and joy?
The hallmark of what musicians should be, or what any artist should be, is that we live in a world where creativity and expression is our currency, and so that’s what we do. The trick is to figure out how to do it for a living and to satisfy your creative flow [and] muses.
What advice do you have on making it in the entertainment industry in Central Texas?
What I tell everybody is if you can do anything else, do it. I have skills that I could do, but I couldn’t be happy. Asleep at the Wheel has been my job for 46 years. … I did everything. I took over the business management of the band. I drove the bus. That’s the secret. You have to be able to do a lot of stuff if you’re going to survive. I did voice-overs and still do.
How does music play a role in the economic boom in Central Texas?
The reason so many of these modern-day technological and intellectual property firms move to Austin, Texas, is because of the cultural climate. I often quote a superintendent of the Austin school district in the 1920s who said, ‘Our currency is not in our strong backs, but in our strong minds.’ I think one of the most earth-shattering things to ever happen is the invention of the silicon chip on Research Boulevard by Texas Instruments. This is like the wheel being invented here and the way it changed [the industry]. … [Austin is] so different because it’s still demanding smart people as opposed to strong backs. The music community and the film community and the literary community were always here in one form or the other. I believe that attracts [the technology industry].
What are the biggest challenges facing the local music industry?
The entry-level is easy, but the attainment level is very difficult. I helped start the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians because they said, ‘Here’s something: Let’s help the mental and physical health of our struggling musicians.’ Who wouldn’t want to live in a city that gives health care, dental care, mental health care at a very, very low cost to struggling musicians? … The housing situation is so critical right now. It used to be where [musicians] could move to San Marcos and now San Marcos is expensive. Caldwell County seems to be the affordable area but then it’s a big drive.
With all those challenges do you still consider Austin the ‘Live Music Capital of the World?’
I think it certainly is, but whether it continues or not is whether young people can come here and exist. It’s also whether the city will do something about it and the surrounding areas. ... When we played in Round Rock at the Chalk Walk, it was so well-attended, so well-received that I have to figure it’s folks who would love to come see us, but I don’t blame them for not driving to South Austin.
Why do surrounding communities focus on the arts?
I’m an example of it. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was 10 years old singing folk music. In the schools I sang in the choirs and choruses. … Then the school in the seventh grade, they said, ‘If you want to learn anything you can get lessons from the band guy.’ ... The grounding that I got through the community and through the schools enabled me to become a cowboy singer.
What effect will music venues closing have on the ‘Live Music Capital of the World?’
The biggest problem right now is sound ordinances, which are really convoluted. I have great sympathy for people who live in an area and all of sudden there’s a low-end, boom-boom bass going on. The larger halls, we’re fine. We have so many larger venues now that the [Austin] Music Hall, which was a disaster acoustically, is not really going to be missed. There’s new [venues] coming up, too. Especially since we’re able to do outdoor venues so much better than other cities, it’s a lot easier. It’s the smaller venues I worry about.
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