Congratulations are on order for “Comin’ Right at Ya” star/subject/co-writer Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, who just placed on a mightily impressive list — Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time.” The Wheel comes in at a solid No. 75, right behind Lee Ann Womack and just ahead of Marty Stuart. Further up, a number of other people who figure prominently in the “Comin’ Right at Ya Story” are in the top-10, including Waylon, Willie, Dolly and, of course, Merle (at No. 1, no less). Yes, Ray’s on a first-name basis with all of ’em.
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.
With Christmas approaching and holiday buying season in full effect — hint, hint — yearend best-of lists are beginning to roll in. And I’m happy to note that “Comin’ Right at Ya” has made it onto a really nice countdown alongside some very choice company in No Depression’s book column, “The Reading Room’s Best Books of 2015” as compiled by Henry Carrigan (who was kind enough to include me in another column last month about bookish influences).
“Comin’ Right at Ya” appears at No. 15 on No Depression’s top-40, right between legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty and “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau. Heck yeah, I’ll take that — especially since we quoted a few of Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” reviews of various Asleep at the Wheel albums in the book.
Being at No. 15 also puts “Comin’ Right at Ya” ahead of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir “Reckless” at No. 18; my American Music Series colleague Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” at No. 20; Texas country icon Willie Nelson’s “It’s a Long Story: My Life” at No. 35; and (how about that) my idol Greil Marcus’ “Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns” at No. 39.
As for the books at the top end of No Depression’s list, the No. 1 placement of Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive and much-acclaimed “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll” is no surprise. The same goes for Patti Smith’s “M Train” at No. 3 and Kristin Hersh’s gorgeously painful American Music Series title “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt,” plus memoirs by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon at No. 9 and Elvis Costello at No. 10.
I’d also like to note that it’s extremely cool to see my buddy Steve Knopper’s “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” come in two notches ahead of Ray Benson and me, at No. 13 — even though I don’t want him to be getting any ideas about that.
Tags: American Music Series, Chris Morris, Chrissie Hynde, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Don't Suck Don't Die, Elvis Costello, Greil Marcus, Henry Carrigan, John Fogerty, Kim Gordon, Kristin Hersh, Los Lobos, Michael Jackson, No Depression, Patti Smith, Peter Guralnick, Ray Benson, Real Life Rock Top Ten, Robert Christgau, Sam Phillips, Sonic Youth, Steve Knopper, The Reading Room, Vic Chesnutt, Willie Nelson
As Ray Benson puts it in “Comin’ Right at Ya,” the great thing about his band Asleep at the Wheel not really fitting in anywhere is that they can kind of fit in everywhere. So it is that over the decades, Asleep at the Wheel has performed alongside everything from symphony orchestras to leaf players (read the book’s closing Epilogue for more on the fine art of leaf-playing with a Western swing band).
Ray also frequently finds himself in highly eclectic company, especially today. Monday afternoon, Ray was inducted into the Music Walk of Fame in his original hometown of Philadelphia alongside fellow Philly natives Billie Holiday, the late great jazz singer; Cinderella, a band that had its peak of popularity during the ’80s hair-metal era; theatrical singer Andrea McArdle, best-known for her teenage star turns as “Annie” on Broadway; disco group The Trammps, of “Disco Inferno” fame; and hip-hop rock band The Roots, who serve as house band for Jimmy Fallon nowadays but who I will always remember most fondly for the killer version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” I saw them break out at the Hopscotch Music Festival a few years back.
Asleep at the Wheel is pretty much the only group I could imagine plausibly sharing a stage with everyone on that list (even Cinderella). And in the righthand photo below from the ceremony, there Ray is seated in the vicinity of Roots drummer/philosopher Amir Questlove Thompson. I would not be a bit surprised if it were to emerge later that Ray took this opportunity to sign up The Roots for another Bob Wills tribute project.
Tags: Andrea McArdle, Billie Holiday, Bob Wills, Cinderella, Disco Inferno, Hopscotch Music Festival, Jimmy Fallon, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame, Questlove, Ray Benson, Sweet Child o' Mine, The Roots, The Trammps
Sunday afternoon will find me anxiously wandering the halls of the State Capitol in Austin, trying to locate the right auditorium (Room E1.004) in time for my 4:15 p.m. appearance with Ray Benson at the Texas Book Festival. Being scheduled into the capitol building represents a nice upgrade from my last TBF go-round, in which I talked about “Losering” with a couple of my fellow music-book authors on the patio of a bar three years ago (an event that actually turned out just fine, despite my apprehensions).
Photo by Martha Burns.
Once Ray and I and moderator Doug Freeman (author of this week’s nice Austin Chronicle review) have assembled and the audience gathered, we’ll chat a bit about the whole book-writing thing in regards to “Comin’ Right at Ya” as well as Asleep at the Wheel’s long-running history. I believe Ray is bringing a guitar, so you can expect him to play at least a song or two. And if the audience has any questions, those will be entertained before Ray and I retire to the book-signing tent around 5:00. Margaritas to follow.
It’s entirely possible that this will basically turn into everyone in the room listening to Ray tell stories. Having spent a lot of time doing that over the past two years, I can just about guarantee that they’ll be worth hearing. It should be fun, and the fact that it’s free makes it low-risk — so come on out if you happen to be in the greater Central Texas vicinity.
Good to see that “Comin’ Right At Ya” isn’t just providing entertainment in unexpected places, it’s also keeping some readers (or at least one reader, anyway) up late.
It never fails: Publish a book about somebody and people will show up as soon as it appears, relating stories you wish you’d heard in time to use. That happened a fair amount when “Losering” came out three years ago, and the pattern is holding with “Comin’ Right at Ya,” too.
After an excerpt from the book appeared in this past Sunday’s News & Observer, I heard from a gentleman named David Weiss, who lives in my neck of the woods nowadays but knew subject/star/co-writer Ray Benson in suburban Philadelphia way back when. He had a few tales and details about Ray’s childhood that would have been great to try and work in. Too late for that now, but at least I can share them here. Writes David:
I grew up across the street from the Seifert clan. Ray’s older brother Mike was my best friend from the time we were 4 years old all the way through high school. Little brother Ray was always tagging along with us (even though we tried to ditch him most of the time). I last saw Ray at Mike’s funeral several years ago and was pleasantly surprised by how warmly he greeted me, considering that we weren’t always very nice to him as the tag-along little brother.
The Seifert house was such a wonderful contrast to my own home across the street that I spent most of my time there. I said at Mike’s funeral that Bobbie (Mrs. Seifert) probably felt like she had five kids instead of just her own four. Their house was always filled with music. Bobbie Seifert was very creative and artistic, and Mike was an all-county saxophone, clarinet and recorder player. Funny that I don’t recall Ray being particularly musical as a child.
Their household was also, to put it politely, chaotic. You could jump from the open stairwell onto the living room couches with your shoes on (which we often did) and nobody said a word. Ray was as accident-prone as anyone I ever knew. Whenever he showed up at Chestnut Hill Hospital emergency room it was, “Ray, are you back again?” He split his chin open on a trampoline, got a large fish hook stuck through his finger, was hit in the head with a pipe. I’m sure there were other incidents that Ray may remember better than I do.
If you read “Comin’ Right at Ya” (and I sure hope you will!), you might find yourself seeking some of the music to listen to while turning pages. Well, folks, I’m here to help. At the behest of the very fine book/music blog largehearted boy, I’ve put together a playlist of songs from Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel as well as some of the group’s key contemporaries from throughout their 45-year history. That’s LHB’s “Book Notes” column for today, and you’ll find it here. While you’re reading, take a listen.
I also did one of these LHB playlists for “Losering” back in 2012, which you can find linked from here.
Today, Oct. 1, is the “official” publication date for “Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel.” I’m marking the occasion here because I won’t have any time for celebrating. Today will find me scurrying around all day and long into the night covering the big World of Bluegrass festival here in Raleigh, which is keeping me plenty busy this week — especially with Hurricane Joaquin apparently bearing down on us. Fun!
As for how co-writer/subject/star Ray Benson will mark his authorial debut, it should come as no surprise that he’ll do it onstage. Asleep at the Wheel is playing its traditional opening slot for this weekend’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, taking the stage just after noon Central Time Friday.
Down the road a bit, Ray and I will both do some bookstore-type events, separately as well as together. You can find me Oct. 8 at Books & Brew in Southern Village and Oct. 21 at Quail Ridge in Raleigh; and Ray is doing a hometown reading at Austin’s Book People on Nov. 18. And on Oct. 18, Ray and I will also appear together at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, at the State Capitol Auditorium.
My name appears on the cover of “Comin’ Right at Ya,” but below Ray Benson’s name and in much smaller type — and rightly so. This is his story, not mine, and he’s a lot more famous (not to mention taller) than I am. It’s not unusual for autobiographical memoirs like this to involve co-writers; and if you’re curious about what the co-writing gig is like, I penned an essay about the experience. It appears in the October issue of Walter, Raleigh’s city magazine, in a spread that includes a short bit of excerpted text from the book. Check that out on page 104 of October’s Home & Garden Issue, or here.