Benson's Not Asleep At The Wheel

On his 56th birthday, Ray Benson may have been sharing the stage with Willie Nelson, but this moment belonged to him.

Benson was almost speechless. But normally, as they say in Texas, Ray Benson has a ten-gallon mouth that he pours into his music. With his band Asleep at the Wheel, the life Benson loves really is making music with his friends.

Asleep at the Wheel started rolling in 1970, and never stopped. Benson quit college to start the band. Within a couple years, they had a hit record. Later came gigs on the TV show, "Austin City Limits."

They play a style of music called Western Swing, which is infectious and eclectic.

"I loved jazz. I loved swing. I love blues. I love fiddle music and it was jazz with a fiddle — Count Basie with a cowboy hat," he told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman.

Western Swing is a mix of big band, country and dance music. It was popularized in the 1930s and '40s by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

"I think Bob Wills is one of the iconic figures of popular music — one of the people who set the standard in the way we do music today," Benson said.

In 1973, Benson finally shook hands with his musical hero. But the night before they were supposed to have a real talk, Wills had a massive stroke. He never recovered.

More than 30 years later, Benson had that conversation he had always imagined. He wrote it in his play about Wills, a traveling musical called "A Ride with Bob."

"So I wrote this play to explain what mighta, coulda happened," Benson said. "But it's been a very strange thing as to why did I either get chosen or choose to carry this mantle of Bob Wills on."

Still, Western Swing sounds like just the sort of music you'd expect this tall Texan would play ... except Ray Benson's not from Texas. He was born Ray Seifert, a Jewish kid from Philadelphia.

He took to singing and playing the guitar early. Little Ray grew into a booming baritone, with a big hat and a Texas-sized sense of humor.

"I call it the geographical imperative," Benson said. "Do you have to be from the South to play country music? No. Do you have to be from Texas to play Texas music? You have to know Texas to do it."

In the '70s, another Bob Wills disciple — Willie Nelson — first heard Benson play and he was impressed.