Way back in the early to mid-1980s, during my misbegotten collegiate “career” at various institutions around Central Texas, I’d regularly encounter Asleep at the Wheel playing honky tonks and dancehalls around the region. That was actually a down period in their career, when the Wheel was grappling with disco and punk and new wave, trying to survive by downsizing to ever-smaller lineups.
Being an oblivious young man, however, I wasn’t really aware of any of that. I just thought they were a lot of fun, especially that freaky-tall dude out front. Judging from his deep-voiced drawl and onstage patter, he seemed like he’d probably grown up on a cattle ranch somewhere in Big Bend country west of the Pecos.
That was Ray Benson, obviously. And as I discovered when I signed on as co-writer for his memoir “Comin’ Right at Ya,” he might have the least-likely background of anybody in country music. Even though he’s been a long tall Texan for the past 40-plus years, Ray actually grew up in a Jewish family in the not-so-Wild West Town of Philadelphia — where one of his childhood playmates was future Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (a detail from the book’s opening prologue that never fails to make people’s jaws drop; you’ll find it on page 6).
One cool benefit of Ray’s Jewish background is that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has picked up some right-nice attention from the Jewish blogosphere (and no, I was not aware of the existence of such a thing before this, either). Last month brought a lengthy interview with Ray on a site called Jewish Exponent: What It Means To Be Jewish In Philadelphia. This week, we have a quite positive review from the Jewish Book Council; and “Comin’ Right at Ya” is also cited as a source in a travel story about Austin in the February issue of Hadassah magazine. And here’s a Ray Benson interview in Jewish Telegraph.