Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.
The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.
At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”
He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.
“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.”
Now 57, Benson 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.
By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.
“Kinky’s not a country western singer — he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.
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; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7″ and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”
Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.
“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”
Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.
The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.
On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House — they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.
Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.
In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain — period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.
He cites as an example 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’s 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 recalled.
“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.
“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “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, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.
The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,” a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the 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 sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills 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, as Wills did, blues and jazz.
“Basically in this play 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 said.
“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.
The point he wanted to make, he said, 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 said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”