SXSW 2017: Ray Benson Celebrates 66th Birthday In Style with Willie Nelson, Avett Brothers

American Songwriter’s 2017 SXSW coverage is sponsored by D’Addario.

Charlie Sexton, Shannon McNally, Ray Benson, Scott Avett and Seth Avett back Willie Nelson at Benson’s 66th birthday bash Tuesday, March 14, at GSD&M ad agency’s backyard in Austin. Benson’s popular party, a benefit for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, is one of the biggest among many attractions annually heralding the opening of Southby’s music segment. Photo by Lynne Margolis

Ray Benson’s annual birthday bash, the traditional Tuesday-night kickoff to South By Southwest’s music segment, is considered a must-do event for both visiting industry types and longtime Austinites. Hundreds of both mingled outdoors under a waning moon on March 14 while listening to some of the finest talent they’ll see all week — including surprise guest Willie Nelson, whose mere presence proved the title of his new song, “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Today,” is indeed true. Despite recent concert cancellations, he seemed fit and sounded fine. (It should be noted that around these parts, many people are convinced the 83-year-old outlaw country co-founder will never be dead, even though he’s insisted that when his famous guitar, Trigger, finally becomes dust, he will, too.)

Benson turns 66 on March 16, finally reaching the number he’s sung countless times in one of his band Asleep at the Wheel’s signature songs, Bobby Troup’s “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”

Both Nelson and Benson had a great deal to do with turning Austin into “the live music capital of the world,” but Benson might never have landed here had it not been for Nelson, who told Benson he should move his then 5-year-old band from California to Austin. That was 43 years ago.

Most of the artists Benson invited onstage during his party weren’t even alive then. But they’re all well steeped in musical history. On this night, they paid respects to Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard and other tunesmiths connected to Texas and/or outlaw country. Early on, Brennen Leigh followed Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers with Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You a Thousand Ways” and her own cute tune, “Analog.”

Shannon McNally and Charlie Sexton (who plays Van Zandt in Ethan Hawke’s upcoming biopic, Blaze, about late Austin songwriter Blaze Foley) performed “No Place To Fall,” a song Van Zandt co-wrote with Susanna Clark, Guy Clark’s wife.

“They were soulmates, Susanna and Guy,” Sexton said. “We are, too.” (He may have meant to say “Susanna and Townes”; though she was married to Guy, she and Van Zandt were famously close. Sexton produced McNally’s 2006 Southside Sessions EP.) 

Carolyn Wonderland wailed on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” aided by Shelley King, before Marcia Ball joined them for the Ike and Tina Turner tune, “A Fool In Love.” (Though the night was almost free of political references, Wonderland made a statement by wearing a T-shirt reading, “Still, she persisted.” Two nights earlier, at the Austin Music Awards, her shirt read, “Resist.”)

Sunny Sweeney poured some ache into Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” before romping through “Folsom Prison Blues” with Benson and a playful Sexton on harmonica. After an intermission and round of “Happy Birthday,” Benson received a custom-made Collings electric guitar. Strumming it, he proclaimed, “Wow. I’m in love,” and continued to play it through the night.

As the Avetts returned to the stage — they also played last year — Benson promised the sons of one of his birthday twins were going old-time. And so they did, pairing the reel, “Floppy Eared Mule” with “The Girl I Left Behind Me” — a song they’d recorded with Benson for the Bob Wills tribute, Still the King. Seth played banjo, Scott played acoustic guitar, Bob Crawford fiddled and Joe Kwon bowed his cello as they harmonized, clearly having a blast.

They also covered “The Prettiest Thing,” by David Childers, “a very under-celebrated country songwriter.” They also swang through Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Crawford occasionally trading licks with Wheel fiddlers Katie Shore and Dennis Ludiker, before luring Nelson to the stage with “Stay A Little Longer.”

By now, Nelson could do his set in his sleep. It always starts with “Whiskey River” and usually contains “Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and a medley of “Crazy,” “Night Life” and a few others. But he was fully present and engaged, singing well and plucking Trigger with incredible dexterity as Scott and Seth Avett watched intently. As Nelson played “You Were Always on My Mind,” “Pancho and Lefty” and an extended instrumental interlude, they stood close together, sometimes whispering to one another. That ability to awe not just audiences, but fellow musicians, is just one of Willie’s many charms.

His wit is another; he announced “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” as “a new gospel song.” When he sang, “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Today,” he cracked Benson up with the line, “Don’t bury me, I got a show to play.”

Then Willie got “On the Road Again,” and so did the partiers. But not before being encouraged to donate or purchase auction items to raise funds for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which has assisted thousands of artists and grown into one of the city’s largest charities in its 12 years of existence. The goal for the evening was $66,000; chances are, in the still-live music capital, they did far better than that.

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Several people who attended Benson’s shindig started their evening at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, where BMI held its 17th annual Howdy Texas party with performances by Ron Pope, Langhorne Slim and Valerie June. The latter two are slated to join Willie Nelson — and many other artists — Thursday at Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion in Spicewood, Texas. That requires getting on the road again, all right — it’s a good 45 minutes or so outside of Austin.