By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute... isn't a bad disc; it's simply a bit more sparse than Benson's splashy, opulent releases, which feature dozens of musicians on single tracks. Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Trouble in Mind" would sound at home on one of Benson's discs, and Kelly Hogan's "Drunkard's Blues" staggers like the real thing. But Benson isn't a tremendous fan of Langford's small-star assemblage -- he respects it for what it is (an indie-rocker's primer), but rejects it for what it ain't (fun).
"They approached it like Bob was a songwriter, and that's not what it's about," he says. "They threw away the style. I didn't hear anything I liked. It's not like those lyrics are that great. Most of them are of the moon-June-spoon variety. I didn't get it. But I sure did appreciate it."
Perhaps no one has more of a right to criticize a Bob Wills tribute than Ray Benson, the unwitting heir to the throne long ago left vacant by Wills -- a fact he's been reminded of for decades. Benson tells the story of the first and only time he met Wills, during the recording sessions for 1974's For the Last Time. On December 3, 1973, Benson arrived at the Sumet-Burnet studios in Dallas just in time to greet Wills, who was being wheeled out of the studio and back to his hotel. The man was old, nearly 70, and in poor health, and when Benson introduced himself, Wills merely nodded and grunted.
Wills never returned to the sessions at Sumet-Burnet: He suffered a stroke during the making of his final album with the Texas Playboys and died two years later, on May 13, 1975, of pneumonia in his Fort Worth home. That very same day, Asleep at the Wheel rolled into town for a gig at the Longhorn Ballroom. Benson did not know of Wills' death until he stepped out of the tour bus and was greeted by reporters from the Associated Press, the UPI, and the local papers. They all wanted to get Benson's reaction to the news. The King was dead; how did the prince feel about it?
"All those coincidences," says Benson, who dreams of doing another Wills record with lesser-known swing bands, among them Cowboys and Indians and the Hot Club of Cowtown. "It was spooky. It was this mantle, and I've tried to accept it. I've always felt this is what I am supposed to do. That's why I do these albums. Until mainstream America knows Bob Wills and his music and his players, I'm not done."