Happy Birthday Ray Benson!
Legendary musician and Asleep at the Wheel front man turns 67 in style
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Andrew Bennett
There’s a long list of musicians who, natives or not, Austin claims as our own. One of those notables is Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who moved here with the band from Berkley in 1973. After releasing over 20 albums, the enchanting entertainer is still going strong with the Grammy Award-winning group that he co-founded in 1969. They country-swing ensemble has a new record out this summer.
We snagged a few minutes with Benson before his most recent “Birthday Bash” – his actual birthday is March 16 – where the musician described the annual event as “standing on stage for three hours with some of my favorite people.” An Austin tradition for over 20 years, the show is now held outside GSD&M with proceeds benefitting Health Alliance for Austin Musicians [HAAM]. Over the years Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers and George Strait have all made surprise appearances; this year, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in town for their own SXSW occasion, closed out the night. The bash is a celebration of Austin’s cosmic country past — a loving reminder of how lucky our city has been to ride passenger seat in Benson’s historic career.
Delbert McClinton, who Benson teased beforehand, “Delbert is comin’!” also performed at the event, in addition to Paul Thorn, Brent Cobb, Nikki Lane, Jonathan Tyler, and more. “This year is a jazz, blues and a rock n roll year,” said Benson.
On the birthday party’s origins: “It started about 20 years ago when people kept asking what I wanted to do for my birthday…well, I like to play music with a bunch of my friends so let’s do that.” The event was grew in size over time, big enough that a country king wanted to join in. “A few years ago we were having a regular ol’ party,” says Benson, “and George Strait called and asked if he could play.”
In 2015, Benson made the decision to have the event benefit HAAM, who helps provide affordable health care of Austin musicians. Since, Ray Benson’s birthday party has raised nearly half a million dollars for the organization.
The bash, the goal of which Benson says is to “raise a little money and have fun,” is a celebration of Austin’s cosmic country past — a loving reminder of how lucky our city has been to ride passenger seat in Benson’s historic career.
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2018