Ray Benson

Ray Benson has a great kitchen. It’s not fancy, mind you, yet it’s admirably equipped. He also has nine Grammys—ranging from best instrumentals to best packaging—a regional Emmy, 20-plus albums as leader of the iconic band Asleep at the Wheel, a guiding hand in about two dozen singles on the charts and a big ol’ tour bus sittin’ in the driveway. In addition, his studio—Bismeaux Productions—has helped build the careers of popular artists such as Carolyn Wonderland and Dale Watson. Yet, he sure has a great kitchen. “I’ve always liked good cooking stuff,” he says. “Since the bus got internet, I buy cooking utensils.” Benson uses an impossibly sharp Japanese knife to aerially tick off items visible out on his porch, “Right there’s my smoker, portable deep fryer, outdoor pizza oven, grill.”

He effortlessly moves around his kitchen, barefoot, with a demeanor so warm that his impressive height feels less imposing. And he talks as he cooks—filling the space with stories and wisdom accumulated from a full life on the road. “I got to play at the White House,” he says. “My picture with Bush is in the laundry room if you want to see it.” 

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And much of his talk is about recipes—both for food and for experience, and what it’s like when things come together just so. It’s something he calls “soup.” Benson describes the feeling as knowing when a song, or the band, or dinner, is blended just right. “In the studio or the kitchen,” he says, “if you’ve got a great recipe and great ingredients, then you can tell that it needs a little more salt, a little more pepper, a little more guitar or a little more fiddle.”

Benson is humorous and is a good storyteller. References come and go and are sometimes peppered with lyrics from songs. “The Anaheim peppers and tomatoes came from my garden right out there,” he says. Then he quickly launches into Guy Clark lyrics: “Only two things money can’t buy…that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” Today, he’s focused and very calm for a man just hours away from boarding his bus to do three dates in Georgia. “This soup is a favorite of ours that I’ve made many times for Christmas, family dinner and the bus,” he says. He moves to his large cutting board covered with fresh veggies. “These are the ingreediments…agreedreadyments,” he jests. “Check ’em out!” Then he gestures to the spread as if to suggest a round of applause is in order, much like he does when he introduces his fellow players in the band.  

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When asked what’s one thing that’s kept the Wheel going for so many decades and accomplishing so much, Benson points to perseverance. “I know that sounds cliché,” he says. “Yet, it’s sure true that life’s too short to let anybody get in your way. As a bandleader, I know my job is to give those people the best setting to show their abilities…where they can become better players.”

Now Benson’s cooking groove kicks in and the soup’s on. Butter and onions go in the pot, then come the chile powder, cumin and lots of plump sweet corn. “Awww…looka that!” he says. “I use fresh organic corn instead of frozen corn, and I need to remember I don’t need to measure! And here’s a BIG SECRET I never showed another human being.” Benson takes the back of his knife and scrapes the corn milk off the naked cobs, then adds the liquid gold to his burgeoning pot. He stares into the pot like a wide-eyed, hypnotic, pony-tailed musical Merlin as a sweet, spicy smell fills the kitchen. Benson finally reaches for the milk and then the masa harina. “This masa is one of the things that gives it the right texture and that kinda tamale hint of flavor.”

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Then, with a beaming smile and in a milder version of his showbiz voice, he says, “And here it is…the Vitamix!” He loads up the blender, punches the button and clasps his hands solidly together as it whirrs. He lets the blended soup rest back in the pot as he makes fresh pico de gallo and grates cheese. “It’s vegetarian,” he says. “And if you use nut milk and skip the cheese, it can be vegan!”

Benson gives it a quick smell then says, “It’s soup! Time to eat! Bowls are over there. I usually serve it in this,” he says—pointing to a beautiful porcelain terrine he found while on the road. “Yet, it’s nice straight outta this pot.” 

By Les McGehee • Photography by Melanie Grizzel