by David Menconi
Co-writing someone else’s memoir involved a number of firsts, but probably the biggest was this: It was the first time I was ever interviewed for a job on a band bus. It happened in the summer of 2013 outside Durham’s Motorco music hall, where the Texas band Asleep at the Wheel was playing. That was the first time I met Wheel main man Ray Benson. He was sitting at a table rolling a joint, and to this day, that’s still how I picture him in my mind’s eye.
Ray gets called “larger than life” a lot, because he is. Imposing six-foot-seven frame, deep drawl, booming laugh – he tends to be the focus of whatever space he occupies, and he takes up a lot of it. He’s also one of the great characters in the music business, having kept an old-time Western-swing band going long and strong enough to win nine Grammy Awards in four decades while surviving disco, grunge, and a dozen other trends.
As they say, Ray’s been around the world twice and talked to everybody at least once, coming away with a million tall tales about Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, and other celebrity-jet-stream types. Perfect memoir fodder, in theory. But turning his anecdotes into something readable was proving to be a challenge. Ray was in the market for a co-writer; his publisher suggested me; I walked onto his bus and we did our one-question job interview.
“So,” he said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, “whattaya think?”
“Let’s do this,” I said.
“Let’s,” he said, and we both kind of cackled. This is going to be fun, I thought, and it was.
My usual job is writing for a newspaper, which I’ve done at The News & Observer for 24 years. Frequently that involves chasing after people who’d just as soon not be interviewed – my last book was an unauthorized biography in which the subject (Ryan Adams) refused to cooperate. So being able to ask any question, no matter how tawdry, and actually getting an answer every time was kind of a dream come true.
“So, Ray – how no-holds-barred do you want this?” I asked him at our first interview.
“Hundred percent,” he said, without hesitation. Okay then.
The publisher’s lawyers weren’t completely down with that, so the finished product Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel wasn’t quite 100 percent. Close, though. My time behind the curtain with Ray came at a difficult time for him. He was still licking his wounds from a romantic breakup, which he explored in an exceedingly dark solo album, and that informed a lot of our conversations.
I met with Ray a half-dozen times over the course of a year, mostly in his hometown of Austin, and we also talked by phone and email a good bit. He kept asking when I was “gonna get on the bus with us,” so I spent a few days on the road, too. Probably the most memorable meetup was at Vince Gill and Amy Grant’s Nashville mansion when Asleep at the Wheel was recording in Gill’s in-home studio. I tried not to be too obvious in my attempts to count all the Grammy Awards in that house before giving up because there were just too many.
One night in Austin, Ray suggested we spend an evening at a dinner party with some old friends of his. As spirits flowed and tongues loosened, Ray and friends told stories on each other and various peers. I tried to make myself invisible, taking notes under the table for questions to ask later – the god awful TV movie Ray made with Dolly Parton, drug freakouts in the studio, lurid gossip about various record executives – while doing my best to keep my eyes from getting too wide. Getting Ray into his social element became a key part of the interview process. Not coincidentally, it was also a blast.
Co-writing a book like this doesn’t involve sitting together at the computer arguing over punctuation. And it wasn’t as simple as he talked and I wrote it down, either, but it went something like that. I’d liken it to being someone’s speechwriter. Once I’d been around him a bit, Ray’s voice was easy to get on the page. So mostly, I just had to keep out of the way and let Ray be Ray.
It’s a remarkable tale: Jewish kid decides to become a country singer and by God turns himself into one. Drops out of college at the height of the Vietnam War, convinces some friends to do the same; they move to West Virginia to start a country band. If it weren’t true, you wouldn’t believe it as fiction.
Somehow it worked, and Asleep at the Wheel is still in business 45 years later. I’m only sorry I won’t be on the bus for the rest of the story.
An excerpt from Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel, by Ray Benson and David Menconi
I’ve always been a good salesman – skilled at peddling ice to eskimos, as they say. But this was a harder sell: “Come with me to middle-of-nowhere to start a country band. We’ve got no money, jobs, prospects or even electricity or food, and we’ll be playing music that’s sure to confuse everybody. So whattaya say?” Somehow, I talked a few people into it. Don’t ask me how.
By the end of 1969, we had a destination picked out for our adventure: an outback tract near Paw Paw, a town of 706 souls in the wilderness of deepest West Virginia. It was in the middle of nowhere, but owned by a friend’s family. As Antioch’s winter term wound down and on-campus conversations turned to plans for the spring, I started telling friends the news: “Me and Reuben and another guy named Gene Preston are all gonna move to a farm outside of Paw Paw, West Virginia, and start up a country-western band.” To a person, everybody looked at me like I’d lost my mind. Two of us were Jewish and all three of us were long-hairs, going into the redneck wilds of West Virginia to start up an old-time country band – what could possibly go wrong? Cue “Dueling Banjos.”
I couldn’t wait.
My parents, however, were decidedly less than thrilled, especially my dad. When I told him I was quitting school, he flipped his lid and thundered about how I better not expect any more money out of him. I told him I didn’t want any of his money; ah, youth.
So anyway, that was the end of my formal schooling. All these years later, the only paper I’ve got is a high-school diploma – everything else has been post-graduate work in the school of hard knocks. I still have people coming to me all the time, asking what to do if your kid wants to be a musician. I tell parents to be as encouraging and supportive as they can while drilling into their kids that they’ve got to either have a Plan B or accept that they’ll never make much money. A career in music is a vow of poverty for most people, so you’ve got to love it.
This excerpt (copyright © 2015 by Ray Benson) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit utexaspress.com.
David Menconi will read from the book Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave.