In the 40 years “Big” Ray Benson has been Asleep at the Wheel’s frontman, he’s had the chance to work with country music royalty, including Willie Nelson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, George Strait, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Huey Lewis, Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. It wasn’t until this year, however, that Benson and his band made it into the recording studio with his friend Leon Rausch, a member of Bob Wills’ legendary Texas Playboys.
“I met Leon the day of Bob Wills’ last recording session,” Benson explained during a telephone interview from his office in Austin. “It was really neat because Leon was one of Wills’ premiere singers. He had been working for years before he joined Willis.”
The result of Benson’s and Rausch’s collaboration is “It’s A Good Day,” released in July. The CD is a collection of old tunes, given a fresh twist.
Benson said his duet with Rausch on “Basin Street Blues” took him back in time.
“I just love it,” Benson said. “It was the early, early stuff that Bob Wills based his career on. He always grabbed from the country hit parade, the popular hit parade, the old blues music, the old jazz stuff and made them his own.”
Rausch, who will be 83 next month, is in fine voice, and his style blends seamlessly with Benson’s. He really shines with Elizabeth McQueen on “Alright, Okay, You Win.” Rausch’s voice belies his years, and McQueen, as always, is full of light and joy.
Although they didn’t get to the studio for 38 years, Rausch is responsible for the Wheel’s most recognizable hit, “Route 66.”
“We (the Texas Playboys) were playing for a radio station promotion,” Rausch said during a telephone interview from his home in south Fort Worth last week. “They (Asleep at the Wheel) hadn’t been playing but three or four years.”
According to Rausch, the musicians were backstage, talking, laughing, playing jokes and kicking things around.
“I said to Ray, ‘Hey, there’s an old tune that fits the boogie woogie theme you’ve got,’” Rausch explained. “Have you ever tried ‘Route 66’?”
“No,” Benson answered.
“I told him to look it up,” Rausch said. “First thing I know, he called me.”
“We cut that song,” Benson said.
“What song?” Rausch asked.
“That thing you mentioned – ‘Route 66.’”
“Well, great, I want to hear it,” Rausch answered.
“Route 66,” originally recorded in 1946 by Nat King Cole, is just one of the golden oldies covered by The Wheel and Rausch on “It’s A Good Day.”
Other tracks include “Truck Driver’s Blues,” featuring Willie Nelson; “I Didn’t Realize;” “Sugar Moon;” and “Osage Stomp,” the CD’s lone instrumental, featuring some great licks by fiddle player Jason Roberts and steel guitar guru Eddie Rivers.
“Eddie Rivers – he’s hot, hot, hot,” said Rausch, who has lived in Fort Worth since 1973. “He’s not one of those pedal fiends that goes around playing waaa, waaa, waaa. That bores me to tears. Eddie plays the instrument the old-time way.”
When it comes to music done the old way, Raush thinks he knows why Western Swing has endured more than 60 years. In fact, he and his wife of 61 years often wonder why there aren’t any good songs being written these days.
“They’re beautiful songs that had some sense to them. Those songs had good words, nice melodies, and the orchestrations were so nice. What’s out there today is not music. I haven’t had my blood pressure medicine yet this morning, so I’d better hold off on my opinion of today’s music. But Western Swing is timeless,” he said with a hearty laugh.
Rausch has fond memories of his time with Wills, especially the gigs the band had at Panther Hall in Fort Worth. The 32,000 square foot, world-famous live-music establishment started life in 1961 as a bowling establishment. It closed in 1978.
“I sure do miss that place,” Rausch said wistfully. “We were on TV there on Saturdays. It was our home base. Every time I drive by there, I get a little tear in my eye.”
While Rausch’s touring schedule isn’t as grueling as The Wheel’s, he stays plenty busy.
“We’re playing here in town Sunday (Sept. 26),” he said. “Then, we’re headed to Lubbock to play a one-nighter at the Cactus Theater. Then we head out to Ruidoso, New Mexico, for a week.”
Of all the places he’s been, he still enjoys the Land of Enchantment the most.
“From all the states I’ve run – and I’ve run a bunch of them – I like Northern New Mexico. It’s a different feeling. People don’t realize how peaceful it is.”
When Rausch and his band play gigs and festivals, they are amazed at the diversity of their audience.
“We like to watch the younger people,” he said. “It’s very interesting. They’ve never heard our songs. They start looking at each other and say, ‘Wow. I like that.’”
Rausch says the most popular tune on their set list is Wills’ “Milk Cow Blues.”
“Imagine this,” he said. “We’re promoting this music to a third generation of fans. That song holds up with time. I mean, it’s been out for about 65 years.”
Rausch has also stayed busy this year by making appearances in “A Ride with Bob,” a musical about a night on the road with Bob Wills.
“I’ve done the play eight or 10 times,” he said. “I love it. I’ve seen it over and over. I never get tired of it. They got it pretty authentic, too, about the [road] trips.”
Rausch knows the music he plays and loves does not rule the airwaves or top many Billboard charts, but he’s never lost the enjoyment of playing Western Swing.
“We’re a little corner of the world, I understand that,” he said at the end of the interview. “We’re not the most popular, but we have a fan base that is unbelievable. They come out to see us and we all know each other. It’s kinda like a family reunion.”
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