Ray Benson Steps Out: 'Wheel'man Goes Solo In New Album

Since 1969, Ray Benson has been the frontman for country swing band Asleep at the Wheel. The band's wild productivity has meant that Benson has released only one solo effort, 2003's Beyond Time. On Jan. 21, he releases his second solo album, A Little Piece. Meredith Ochs has a review.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For more than 40 years, Ray Benson has been the front man for the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOO CHOO CH'BOOGIE")

SLEEP AT THE WHEEL: (Singing) Choo, choo, choo choo, ch' boogie. Woo, woo, woo, woo, ch' boogie. Choo, choo, choo, choo, ch' boogie. Take me right back to the track, Jack...

BLOCK: A few more numbers for you. Those decades have brought nine Grammys, more than 20 studio albums, and numerous lineup changes. So with all that going on, it's no wonder that Benson has only released one solo album. Well, this week, he releases his second. It's called "A Little Piece." Reviewer Meredith Ochs says it was worth the wait.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PIECE")

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: With a boisterous, outsized ensemble like Asleep at the Wheel, sometimes it's easy to overlook just how good a singer Ray Benson is. He makes up for this on his new solo album. From the very first track, his emotive baritone proclaims the introspective and personal nature of the songs here, and of the journey you're about to take with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PIECE")

RAY BENSON: (Singing) Beware of stormy nights, neon lights, dogs that bite. Be good to those you love, God above, don't push and shove. You wait around. Every time you do, you lose a little piece, a little piece of you...

OCHS: At 62 years old, Ray Benson has reached that point in life that many do in middle age. A desire to simplify things sets in, to be neither seeker nor sage. And he eloquently expresses that on his new album. Yet somehow, the approach opens up a world of possibilities for Benson. Working outside the confines of the Western swing music that he spent a lifetime mastering also frees him up to experiment, which you can hear in the shifting time signatures and new grass soloists on this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T LOOKING FOR NO TROUBLE")

BENSON: (Singing) I'm not trying to find the answer to the questions that we all face every day. I'm not trying to solve the puzzle of an old love that got away. I'm just looking for a feeling that I lost somewhere along the way. I've had some hard times, but you beat all I've ever seen. Pay no attention to the man there behind the screen...

OCHS: Though Ray Benson wrote most of the material on his new CD, he found an obscure, previously unrecorded gem co-written by the late outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings, that fits in seamlessly with the album's theme. In a nod to his lengthy tenure in Texas music, Benson enlists the man who first lured him to Austin in the 1970s - his longtime friend and cohort Willie Nelson - to help bring the song to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T YOU")

BENSON: (Singing) The years fly by. We're surrendered to age. We're like a wild bird that has chosen the cage...

WILLIE NELSON: But it ain't you. It ain't you. But it's the only ride you've got to get you through. Keep on trying to remember the reflection in the mirror. But it ain't you. No, it ain't you...

OCHS: Ray Benson's career with Asleep at the Wheel has been widely acknowledged and well-rewarded. But this solo work cements his legacy, revealing great depth and range from a guy who has already done folks a service by keeping them dancing for more than four decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLED BY A .45")

BENSON: (Singing) It was a country song about a love gone wrong. Brought a sigh and a tear in his eye...

BLOCK: We've been listening to the new album from Ray Benson. It's called "A Little Piece." Our reviewer Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ at SiriusXM Radio.

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