Jewish singer towers over country music scene

craponne-sur-arzon, france | If you’re asked to name a Jewish country music singer, the person who comes to mind is probably Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys.

Say that name out loud and you’ll get an argument from Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning Jewish leader of the Austin, Texas-based country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

“Kinky’s not a country-western singer — he’s Kinky!” Benson says with a laugh during a conversation at the annual Country Rendez-Vous Festival in France, where Asleep at the Wheel wrapped a five-nation European tour.

The 6-foot-7-inch Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.” In performance, Benson towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a ponytail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ’til I die.”

Benson, 57, was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has — until now — kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country-western singer,” he says. “I wanted to be known as a country-western singer who happens to be Jewish.”

Benson, who grew up in a Reform Jewish home, founded sleep at the Wheel in 1969 in West Virginia. The band moved to Oakland in 1970, at the behest of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, before settling in Austin in 1974. Over the decades, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of the band’s lineup, Benson has remained its anchor.

In the 1970s, when Asleep at the Wheel first started touring, country music was a “Southern, conservative, Christian, white domain — period,” Benson recalls, saying he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there was the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,'” Benson recalls.

“So the stereotypes are there,” he says, adding, “I always felt myself to be an ambassador. I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, Benson started doing this publicly, explicitly referring to his Jewish identity on stage.

It comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,” a musical Benson co-wrote, based on the life of his musical hero, Western swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sellout performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills, who asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play Western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play blues and jazz, as Wills did.

“I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag — hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of Western swing,'” Benson says. “In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context.”

The point Benson wanted to make is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he says, “is what’s in your heart, or what’s in your mind, or what’s in your talent.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.