Since forming Asleep at the Wheel in 1970, Ray Benson has seen his band win 10 Grammy Awards, play for the last three U.S. presidents, and perform more than 100 shows annually.
Honored in October with a star on Philadelphia's Walk of Fame, the 6-foot-7 bandleader offered a short explanation for his success at the ceremony.
"How did a Jewish kid from Philadelphia become a western swing icon?" Benson asked. "Two words: Sally Starr."
The longtime children's television host caught the young Benson's eye with her western wardrobe.
"I bought my first cowboy hat, a Stetson, in Philadelphia," he recalled. Starr was one of many local influences he absorbed while growing up in Springfield, Montgomery County. "Philadelphia had a great music scene, great jazz and rhythm and blues, when I was growing up," Benson said in a phone interview from Austin, Texas, his home since 1973.
Benson, who turns 65 on March 16, isn't slowing down. In October, he published Comin' Right at Ya (University of Texas Press), an entertaining, anecdote-filled memoir cowritten with David Menconi, and he saw Asleep at the Wheel win a Grammy in February for best recording package for Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Bismeaux Records). It's the band's third tribute album to the western-swing pioneer who combined jazz and country instrumentation.
"I got into this business to play with people I admire. That's why I'm here," Benson said, citing advice he received from best friend Willie Nelson.
While Still the King features Nelson and Merle Haggard, Benson was equally enthusiastic about working with younger artists on the album, citing Old Crow Medicine Show's rollicking version of "Tiger Rag" and Philadelphia native Amos Lee's soulful rendition of "I Hear Ya Talkin'."
Benson is already looking ahead to the band's next album, with plans record in the fall. There's one other achievement he'd like the band to accomplish.
"The goal is to make it to our 50th anniversary in 2020," he said. "As long as I stay healthy, I don't see any reason we can't make it."
Asleep at the Wheel is to play at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Colonial Theatre, 227 Bridge St., Phoenixville. $22-$39.50. 610-917-1228, thecolonialtheatre.com.