Ray Benson and MilkDrive
A Little Piece
For his first solo album in more than a decade, Asleep at the Wheel main man Ray Benson went into the project with a simple mission: To break out from his band, and to try out a few different things. And he had just the right material for it, a highly personal collection of songs, which makes A Little Piece very possibly the most personal album of Ray’s 45-year career. And it has as tasteful a guest list as you’d expect, including Willie Nelson as duet partner on one track.
“The songs on this album came out of a lot of upheaval,” Ray says. “Mostly with women, that’s just what happens. Unfortunately, that old cliché applies: I do tend to write better songs when I’m going through tragedy. It’s a pretty dark album. And the other idea this time was to explore other rhythmic stuff. Asleep at the Wheel mostly plays within three or four rhythmic parameters – 4/4 time, waltz, 2/4, 6/8. For this one, I wanted to try out Latin, folk, rock. This is where I get to do that.”
A Little Piece follows Ray’s previous solo effort, 2003’s GRAMMY-nominated Beyond Time, which ventured beyond the Western swing he’s best-known for with forays into jazz crooning, straight-up pop and even sleek funk. Piece is another solid step forward in Ray’s career, which includes but is not limited to leading Asleep at the Wheel, the much-beloved ensemble that has spent the past four-plus decades keeping the tradition of Bob Wills’ Western swing alive. A true institution in Texas, the Wheel is going stronger than ever and will be heard from in the fall of 2014 with its third Bob Wills tribute album (featuring another cast of big-name guests). But first, A Little Piece is Ray’s main order of business for 2014.
Much has happened in the 10-plus years since the release of Beyond Time, including a pair of GRAMMY nominations for that album. Ray co-wrote an acclaimed musical about Bob Wills with Anne Rapp, which has had multiple and very successful runs. And he was even named “Texan of the Year” by the Texas State Legislature in 2011, as decreed by House Resolution 844 (which somehow passed without objection, a rarity in this era of political contentiousness).
Mostly, though, Ray has been just living, as evidenced by the songs on A Little Piece. The album has a number of songs that would have fit right in on Beyond Time, especially “In the Blink of an Eye” – which has the timeless feel of a late-night salon-jazz standard, and a similarly forlorn vibe.
“I had the melody and needed a theme, and my own life offered one up,” Ray says. “So many times it seems like everything’s going great. But then, all of a sudden, boom, it’s gone and you’re asking yourself, ‘How’d THIS happen?’ I was trying to find the right metaphor, and there it was: Blink of an eye and you’re out of luck, and out of love. It’s an original melody, with a surprise change worked in. That ain’t easy in the ‘standards’ genre.”
Ray’s backup band on A Little Piece includes Asleep at the Wheel’s longtime drummer Dave Sanger, bassist Glenn Fukunaga (Robert Plant, Dixie Chicks) and pianist Floyd Domino, a Wheel co-founder who has also played with Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Members of Austin newgrass band Milkdrive and Latino rockers Del Castillo also show up in cameo roles. Ray co-produced the album himself, aided and abetted by his son Sam “Lightning” Seifert and Lloyd Maines, the Lubbock legend whose credits include Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and (of course) Dixie Chicks. Ray, Sam and Lloyd also played the guitars.
“Except for being told repeatedly that my guitar was out of tune by someone whose diapers I used to change, working with my son Sam was a great experience,” Ray says. “As an engineer, guitarist and producer, he was instrumental in choosing, arranging and recording everything. Lloyd brought impeccable taste and incredible instrumental virtuosity to my songs. I’m so lucky he had the time to help out. We’ve co-produced numerous projects, and his great sense of style and arrangement smarts are always welcome.”
With the cast in place, the final piece of the puzzle was Ray’s singing, and special care went into getting the vocals on every track just so. He’s never sounded better, in or out of Asleep at the Wheel, than on A Little Piece.
“It sounds counter-intuitive, but my singing voice really has improved year by year,” Ray says. “And I’ve had more than 50 years of getting it right, surviving 150 nights a year on the road for more than 40 of those. I’m not a tenor, I’m a baritone, and us low-register singers have a longer vocal life. But I’ve got a pretty big range for a baritone. Staying voice-healthy is the most important skill for any singer, and I’ve done pretty well in that department. It helps to have learned from the best, when I’ve had opportunities to back up, produce or collaborate with some of the greatest singers of all time over the years.”
Notable cuts on A Little Piece include the Don Williams-style crooner “Lovin’ Man”; “Killed by a .45,” a forceful country-rock stomp-along that’s as much about vinyl revolutions per minute as caliber; “Give Me Some Peace,” which finds Ray taking stock of himself and his life; and “JJ Cale,” a bluesy rocker written in memory of the recently deceased author of “After Midnight,” “Cocaine” and other ’70s rock standards. Among the choice covers are a previously unrecorded Waylon Jennings co-write, “It Ain’t You,” a duet with Ray’s longtime friend and running partner Willie Nelson, and a lovely acoustic-guitar version of Randy Newman’s “Good Ole Boys” chestnut “Marie.”
“’Marie’ might be the most twisted love song ever,” Ray says. “I’ve wanted to do it for years, and I worked up a solo guitar version. Not virtuoso, but it is unique. I always have a woman in mind when I’m singing a song like that.”
The album’s centerpiece is “A Little Piece,” a reflective ballad that counsels listeners to avoid doing things that might cause them to “lose a little piece of you” – sage advice, that. But it goes further by laying out the road to inner peace: “I know a little about a lot of things that is true/One thing I know, what you give comes back to you.”
“’A Little Piece’ took somewhere between six and eight years to write,” Ray says. “I hadn’t ever finished it because it was so personal, I was embarrassed to play it for anybody. But then I played it for my then-girlfriend, and she reacted very emotionally. ‘Ray,’ she said, ‘you’ve got to finish that.’ It’s a what-I-believe kinda song, I guess.”
Joan Myers Media email@example.com