March 2020 should have been a huge month for Asleep at the Wheel.
Frontman Ray Benson’s annual birthday bash is always a hot-ticket South by Southwest side party and one of the largest fundraisers of the year for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. This year, the band’s spring festivities were set to be bigger than usual. It’s been 50 years since the standard bearers for the Western swing genre donned matching jackets and hit the road backing country singers like Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. Benson had a grand celebration agenda.
Instead, SXSW was canceled, the world went haywire and Benson caught a mild case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"It was very disappointing," Benson, who has fully recovered, said in late April, when he joined us on Zoom to record an episode of Austin360’s new streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup. On March 7, he said, "the original band was coming down here to make a record, do a film."
Steel guitarist Lucky Oceans was flying in from Australia. Bassist Tony Garnier was on a rare break from his work playing with Bob Dylan. Guitarist and songwriter Leroy Preston was coming down from Vermont. Producer Buddy Miller was popping in from Nashville, and "Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris and a bunch of people" were also involved, Benson said.
But a few days before they were scheduled to start recording, Benson, the one constant through many years of revolving Asleep at the Wheel lineups, started getting distress calls from his former bandmates.
"All of a sudden, everybody's going, ‘We can't get on a plane,’" Benson said. "Oh, gosh, so that all went down the tubes."
Benson’s birthday party was canceled, then briefly rescheduled, then canceled again. When the Luck Reunion was canceled and then resurrected as a March 19 livestream, Benson "gamely stepped in as host from Austin’s Arlyn Studios," the American-Statesman’s Peter Blackstock reported, noting that Benson closed the festivities by quoting the late, great local radio legend Joe Gracey: "Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can."
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It was advice, it turned out, that Benson would need.
"I went over and hosted that, and I came back home and went to bed and didn't get out of bed for two days," Benson said.
On March 21, suffering from dizziness, nausea and fatigue — but not COVID-19 symptoms like a cough and high fever — Benson went to his doctor and asked to be tested. He was told there were no tests available. He was given a flu test, which came back negative, and sent home.
"It was very stressful," he said. "Turn on the news and, you know, the president says, ‘We have tests, we have tests,’ you know, and I couldn't get a test."
No one suggested that Benson should begin wearing a mask in public or self-quarantine.
"Three days later, I'm still feeling terrible," he said. He returned to the doctor’s office and asked for a blood test. Maybe it was anemia, he thought. This time he was given a COVID-19 test. It came back positive.
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The diagnosis, which came in as Benson was on the upswing, was a relief, he said. After "two weeks and a day of really just being beaten down," he recovered fully.
"I'm very fortunate, very fortunate that I had no respiratory distress," he said, adding that "the good news was I lost 25 pounds."
Benson grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he was a child performer playing with a folk-music group and square-dance bands. He put in an appearance with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was 10.
He briefly considered a career in film, but after a post-college internship in New York City, he decided music was his true passion. Along with his friends Lucky Oceans and Leroy Preston, he moved into a 180-year-old log cabin on a friend’s farm in West Virginia.
"We went there, to get away from the cities, which were burning in 1969," he said. "It was a crazy time."
They lived "quite the country life," working the land on the small farm and playing music. They were influenced by the country music they heard on the radio from artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams.
One day, a painted bus showed up "filled with hippies" who had heard there was a band on the farm. They invited Benson’s crew to come to Washington, D.C., to play a concert with Hot Tuna and a band called Stoneground. Asleep at the Wheel ended up opening for those bands, as well as Alice Cooper, in a gig that kicked off the band’s career in the nation’s capital.
A year later, Commander Cody, leader of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, convinced the band to move to California. Out on the West Coast, Benson became friends with Austinite Doug Sahm. He met Threadgill’s owner Eddie Wilson, who was then running the storied Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, when he came to the Golden State to book Commander Cody. Benson’s crew played the Armadillo for the first time in 1972. Less than a year later, persuaded by Wilson and their new friend, rising country artist Willie Nelson, they decided to relocate to Austin.
"Willie said, ‘Yeah, I'll put you on shows,’ and Doug was my friend, and Eddie Wilson introduced us to Austin. So it was a no-brainer, getting down here in 1973," Benson said.
It was the heyday of the Armadillo and an idyllic time for Benson.
"It was really neat. Most of us lived in South Austin or out at the lake. I lived out at the lake, and (we’d) spend our days in the lake, and then come into town at night," he said.
They played regular gigs at the Armadillo, a club they would close out in 1980, as well as Shoal Creek Saloon and later the Rome Inn, the campus-area club (now Texas French Bread) where Stevie Ray Vaughan launched his career. It was a fine era to be a musician in Austin.
"Rent was $100 a month, there was a dozen honky tonks to play and pot was real cheap," Benson said.
Asleep at the Wheel rapidly rose through the ranks of Austin bands, but popularity didn’t always translate to financial success. When they were nominated for their first Grammy Award in 1978, they were too broke to travel to California for the ceremony.
"We were in Lubbock, playing a bar called the Eight Second Ride, which is, you know, about bull riding," Benson said. "Things weren't going very well, and the road manager comes in after the thing and says, ‘Ray, they haven't got the money. ... We're going to empty out the pool tables and the Coke machine."
Benson was sitting on the bus "not very happy" when someone knocked on the door and said, "Hey, y'all just won a Grammy in Los Angeles."
Over the years, the band would go on to take home nine more of those trophies, release more than 20 records and tour the world, providing a perfect two-stepping soundtrack to audiences across the globe.
Benson is still planning a grand 50th anniversary for the band, but for now, everything is still up in the air.
"Hopefully in October, the end of October, if things loosen up, then we'll be at the Long Center for two shows and also a celebration of the Armadillo, whose 50th anniversary is this year," Benson said.
If it’s still not safe to travel this fall, the band will push the celebration to 2021.
"Things will work out," Benson said.