On a recent Tuesday night at The Saxon Pub, a small honky-tonk in south Austin, Texas, Ray Benson took the stage and addressed the standing room-only crowd.
“It’s so good to be back at The Saxon Pub,” the 6-foot-7-inch, 70-year-old Benson said to the adoring crowd.
He’s up there wearing the getup he’s been rocking for the better part of five decades as the frontman of Asleep at the Wheel. Tonight it’s a black pearl-snap shirt, white cowboy hat and dark leather boots. When his guitar is in tune, he starts them out with a staple: “Miles and Miles of Texas.”
In the last year, The Wheel, as the band’s known, didn’t rack up a lot of miles in Texas or anywhere else.
The band was only able to play a few shows here and there to small audiences, because music venues were shuttered.
And the timing for this slowdown was especially bad. Benson had hired a film crew to document The Wheel’s 50th year as a band.
“I had people coming from Australia, from Rome, Italy, from all over the world to come down to Austin for a big concert and a record and a film, but all of a sudden on March 7, the whole thing went away,” he said.
That’s when Benson, himself, was diagnosed with COVID-19.
He was one of the first cases on record in the Austin area. He had a mild case, but he still couldn’t do his job because the band didn’t have anywhere to play.
“We lost 75% of our income, you know? We lost over a million dollars of income in 2020,” Benson said.
A band like Asleep at the Wheel is a small business. And when small businesses lose revenue streams, one of the first things to do is cut expenses.
“We were pinching pennies,” Benson said. “The first thing we had to do was a turn off all of the accounts that relate to touring, i.e., the bus and stupid things like the satellite TV on the bus, you know, [which] cost $200 a month.”
Benson also suspended insurance on the tour vans, because they didn’t have anywhere to go. The band didn’t need liability insurance for gigs because they weren’t playing them anymore.
Something else the band did as a small business: It applied for federal pandemic relief through the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We have payroll, like any small business, you know. We just applied and got it, and it saved our company,” he said.
The PPP money allowed him to pay his three salaried workers for a few months and support band members who earn their money on the road.
That includes members like Katie Shore. She’s been singing with Asleep at the Wheel for eight years. When the pandemic hit, her husband lost his job as an engineer and her limited gigs just weren’t enough to cover the bills. So she got a job waiting tables.
“I mean, there were times we were looking at each other just going, ‘What happened,’ you know? ‘I’m literally waiting tables,’” Shore said.
Her new gig was at a little restaurant outside of Austin called Hill Top Cafe. It happens to be owned by a former member of Asleep at the Wheel, Johnny Nicholas.
“And for me, you know, I kind of found a little bit of a hack,” Shore said. “If Johnny was playing, you know, on a night that I was working, and I went and sat in and played a few tunes with him, I would always make better tips. So we kind of had a hustle. But sometimes it was just so busy, I couldn’t do that.”
Shore’s no longer waiting tables. Texas has been open for live music for a few months, which means The Wheel’s basically back out on the road touring behind an extended-play record the band cut during the pandemic called “Better Times.”
“We’ll be together in better times is all about this pandemic and what we’ve experienced,” Benson said.
Benson said he feels like we’re on the way to those better times. He recalled something the band experienced just a few weeks ago in northwest Texas that got him smiling again.
“We played a dance in Amarillo. It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was 1,000 people. And it was so nice to see, you know, 500 people out there kicking it up.”
And with more than half of the Texas population now vaccinated, Benson said he expects even more people to be kicking it up at The Wheel’s next shows.