“You can always try to shoot a famous person”: Collin Raye on country music and the folly of seeking stardom
Anyone who listened to country music radio in the 90s has probably heard a song or three by Collin Raye, who had a string of chart-topping hits as well as a number of platinum-selling albums. Raye’s rich voice is best-known from ballads like “Little Rock” and “Love, Me,” though he also had some upbeat songs like “I Think About You” and the humorous “That’s My Story.” More recently, he has released an album of classic religious hymns, His Love Remains, and a tribute to Glen Campbell, Still on the Line. Ignatius has now published Raye’s autobiography, A Voice Undefeated, which chronicles not only his road to success as a country singer but his conversion to Catholicism and ongoing faith journey.
While Raye has been blessed with a wonderful career in music, his life has been far from easy. Many of his lessons were learned the hard way during an ongoing process of conversion, and he discusses his failures frankly. In many ways the core of the book is his account of the suffering and death of his nine-year-old granddaughter, Haley, from an undiagnosed neurological disease. This event (as well as the severe injuries and health problems suffered by some of Raye’s other loved ones) forced Raye to come to a deeper understanding of suffering in the Christian life, and spurred him to become a public advocate for the sick and vulnerable, both in charitable work for special needs children (his Haley Bell Blesséd Chair Foundation) and in speaking out against euthanasia.
Aside from his own life, Raye devotes an interesting chunk of the book to his thoughts on what makes the country music tradition great, and on how contemporary Nashville has strayed from those roots. In my interview with him, I asked him to expand on these opinions, but also tapped him for insights into the broader pop world, the dangers of fame-seeking, his creative process, and the integrity of the professional musician.
Were your motivations to pursue a career in music (as distinct from pursuing stardom) purified during the process of becoming a working musician, or was it only after you “hit the big time” that you realized fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be?
In retrospect, it would be easy to say that the stardom part never meant anything to me, but I’m sure it probably did when I was younger. But I think that more so than being famous and being recognized, it was about wanting to be accepted. In those days, before karaoke and before American Idol, if you had talent, you still had to fight your way through a very difficult maze of swallowing a lot of pride. In other words, the musicians were always told to come through the kitchen door, not through the front. So the desire to be appreciated for being good at what I did was certainly a big motivator. But I always was wise enough, I guess, even at my young age, to realize that being famous seemed pretty plastic. There are a few Paul McCartneys or Michael Jacksons, people who have a name so big it will carry them through the rest of their lives, but usually most fame is fleeting. It’s up and it’s down, and I realized it even as a kid. I’m sure I enjoyed fame at first, but to me it was always more about being accepted. I wanted people to say, “This guy is good at what he does.” That meant more to me than the recognition factor.
One of the most interesting parts of your book is the chapter in which you reflect on what makes country music a great American tradition, and strongly criticize the shallow songwriting of contemporary Nashville. But you focus mostly on lyrics. What are some of country’s defining musical traits?
The great Harlan Howard, who’s arguably one of the top five most successful country songwriters of all time, was once asked to describe country music, and he said “Three chords and the truth.” That’s not far off – it’s simple music and having interesting chord changes has never been the focus. It’s always been about the lyrics and the story. Much like old-time folk music from Europe or the great Irish songs, “Jack Duncan” and “Danny Boy” and things like that, the melodies are great, but it’s primarily just telling stories that make those songs ring true. So when the level of lyric drops drastically, like it has in the last fifteen years or so, it’s hard not to notice, and it’s hard not to be bothered by it if you love the genre.
I’m afraid that country is losing its identity. I was recently told by a radio programmer – who agreed with me to some extent – “Well, it’s the biggest musical format in the world right now, so how can you argue with that?” I reminded him of when I was a kid in the 70s, someone came up with the marketing idea of pet rocks. Everybody had to have one. Just because something is successful does not make it worthwhile, and we’ve seen countless examples – well, it’s always been this way, but especially in the recent years – of stuff that was just horrible but people were buying it anyway. I’m sure the children of Israel were pretty excited about that big huge golden calf they had made, too, but that doesn’t mean it was a good thing to do. But people will always come back to the fact that “It’s bigger now than it’s ever been!” And you go, “Yeah, but what is it?” It’s gotten to where it’s no different than any other kind of music, and you’ve got rappers performing with country music “artists” – because now nobody knows what it is; what’s the difference anymore?
Aside from the lyrics, and on a purely musical level, is today’s pop country music really country?
I think musically it’s kind of the same. If you’re a student of music, most country records now sound like a Rolling Stones wannabe, when it comes to the actual track. It’s just straight-up rock and roll, like “Honky Tonk Woman,” and that’s good because people respond to that kind of groove – that’s proven, and I had a couple of those in my day; I had a song called “My Kind of Girl,” which was very much a straight-ahead rock and roll track. But where it really falls flat is in the lyrics. It’s fine to start a song that way, get a good groove going and make people want to dance, but if all you’re singing about is partyin’ in the truck and tryin’ to get lucky in the front of your cab, and you’re gonna get drunk till you can’t walk…
People say, “country music has always had drinking songs.” Yes, but – those classic songs that Merle Haggard and Hank Williams wrote that involved a guy drinking himself into a stupor, they were always lamenting the station of life that person found himself in. Like Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” – This old smoke-filled bar is somethin’ I’m not used to / But I gave up my home to see you satisfied / And I just called to let you know where I’ll be livin’ / It’s not much but I feel welcome here inside. He’s basically saying “All I’ve got left since you left me is the bottle.” So it’s not really praising debauchery as something you should seek after. But nowadays it’s like [sings] “Just got offa work, gonna gas up the truck, gonna drink a fifth,” like that’s the greatest thing you can achieve on your weekend is to get wasted and hopefully get lucky. That is a far cry from the stuff I was just describing.
At the level of Nashville and the major record labels, the country music business has clearly changed since your career began. You’ve written of the dangers for those who suddenly achieve stardom without having first spent years as a working musician at the ground level, playing thankless gigs at bars and casinos. Does that route exist anymore? What’s the path today for serious young country musicians looking to pay their dues?
That part is still very much the same. If you just want to make a living playing music, you’ve got to get good enough to get in a band, and then by being in bands is how you get better. Although I will say that the venues kids get to work in now are far better than the ones we had to play back in our day – we played some very dangerous places. They weren’t venues; they were joints. Very few of those actually exist anymore, thankfully.
As far as making it famous and getting a record deal and trying to achieve stardom, I think we’ve made it far too easy because of television. American Idol, The X Factor, The Voice; these shows show kids that all they’ve gotta do is pass the audition and they can immediately get on national television and will develop some sort of a following for a while. You’ve got Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban, who have all been very successful, sitting up there and telling them that they’re great. They can’t be great; they haven’t done enough yet! But they’re telling them that just because they can sing in tune and look good on camera, “You’re great!” And that’s not reality! That’s why so few of the people who win those shows go on to do anything – because they really haven’t learned to do it yet.
There are thousands of those regional American Idol contests going on now, and all these kids are thinking, “If I can win that, then I can get onto this – and then if I can win that…” Music shouldn’t be a competition. Talent shows are nothing new, but I’ve never seen one where the person with real talent came anywhere near winning. It was always someone who just stocked the house with more relatives. Talent shows are a joke and I don’t think they really amount to anything, but since American Idol, they’re elevated to a point where you have to notice it. The artists that are really succeeding in rock, pop and country – let’s say a Katy Perry – it’s never someone who won a talent show. It’s someone who honed their craft to some extent, got their break and came up the traditional way. Talent shows are just kind of muddying the water.
Here’s the thing that gets me bothered: I remember when Simon Cowell used to ask, “Why do you think you’ll be the next American Idol?” And their answer would almost always be something to this effect: “I just really want this. I want to be famous. I want to be the next pop icon.” What a horrible answer that is! It’s not saying, “I have this music in me and I feel like I’m gonna burst if I don’t let it out; I wanna share this thing God gave me with the world.” It’s always, “I wanna be like Miley Cyrus. I want to have money falling out of my pockets. I want to be able to go into clubs and act like an absolute buffoon and be famous everywhere I go.” Sometimes when I’m in my most sarcastic mood, I’ll say, “You can always just try to shoot a famous person, and then you’ll be famous for the rest of your life!” If you just want fame, if you just want to be known, there’s a lot of other ways of doing it!
While I’m sure the Beatles and Bob Dylan wanted to make money – there’s no doubt they did – they didn’t make that the primary thing. It was sort of a nice symptom that came along with the greater thing – being really good at writing songs, or singing, or arranging, or producing, and wanting to go as far as possible with that, and make an impact. The money just comes along later or not. Now it’s all about “Recognize my face! I want my face to be known worldwide.”
I think that’s why a lot of people get into politics today, too! “Why do you want to run for President?” “Because I can.” If I decided I think I could be governor of my state, make a great change, get things back on track, and I think I have the qualities necessary to do it, the first thing I would do is explain that in depth to everyone, instead of just showing up [for people] to say “Hey, he looks good on camera, he’s pretty glib, he fields questions pretty well, he doesn’t ever really answer the question too deeply, but he skirts by – I think he’ll do just fine!”
Abraham Lincoln would not win a seat in the state legislature today because he was too physically ugly. He couldn’t have made local postmaster, because he would have looked weird and uncomfortable on TV! George Washington had wooden teeth – he wouldn’t have had a chance! It’s all about who can be the best actor, who can get around the tough questions and make people look the other way. TV rules everything; we’re all spectators and we watch everything go by like it’s a sporting event.
Frank Zappa talked about how record companies were far more willing to take risks on different kinds of music in the 60s and early 70s than they are now. [Zappa said that the executives at the time were “not hip young guys – these were cigar-chomping old guys, who looked at the product that came and said, ‘I don’t know – who knows what it is! Record it, stick it out, if it sells, all right.’” Eventually, according to Zappa’s narrative, the old guys brought in young guys to give advice on what to record, but the young guys, who presumed to know “what the kids really want,” were less willing to take chances.] Do you agree with that assessment?
Yes – I’m so thankful in many ways that I grew up when I did, because I got to experience all that. Every time The Eagles’ new album came out, I was the first one in the store to get it, because I wanted to see what they had done to improve on the last one. The Beatles started that whole phenomenon – let’s be as creative and off-the-wall as we can and see how far we can take this thing called rock and roll, which started as dance music for teenagers to get out and twist to. Because of that freedom, bands were given a lot of money to experiment. There were huge album budgets in that era. I think Queen, when they did the Night at the Opera album, they took it as far as you can take it musically. The famous song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which is a brilliant mix of raw rock and roll mixed with opera – when we first heard that, everybody’s jaw dropped. We thought, “Holy smoke, who’s gonna top that?”
Mixed with what Zappa said, you had the new generation of label heads that thought, “Look, I’m being put in charge of this label to make money. The kids seem to like this, so we’re going to record this.” And if some band comes along that’s avant-garde – if that thinking had been around in the early 70s, Pink Floyd would’ve never happened, Queen would’ve never happened, Jethro Tull would’ve never happened, Yes… No rock band is going to get together, four guys in a garage, and say “Let’s do something that’s never been done before.” That’s over! The whole Seattle grunge thing – any band could be Nirvana. I don’t mean to disrespect Nirvana, but any guys that have some amps and can sing decently, with one guy in the band that can at least sing relatively in tune, and can crank it up and be angry – they can have a very successful rock band now! But the thought of doing anything like Queen did, something so avant-garde – no one’s even attempting anything like that.
I think rock and roll is kinda dying – I mean, you watch the Grammys and it’s all about hip-hop. The rock band as we know it has gone by the wayside. We’re seeing that in country music and other areas too: “Let’s just give them what they want, let’s stop trying to lead the populace, to give them something that might elevate their taste; let’s just crank out the lowest possible common denominator, dumb it down…” What if Michelangelo and da Vinci and the guys in the Renaissance had just said, “What folks really want is just nothing but pictures of pastoral scenes. That’s all we’re gonna paint; we’re not gonna sculpt anything.” If they had done that, look what we would have missed. But because there was that freedom, even in those days, to try what they wanted to try and take it as far as they could, look what we got from that! Unfortunately, we’ve gotten to a place where music is a business, that’s all it is, and there’s not really a place for artistry any more.
Did you ever have formal training as a singer?
No. God gave me – I say this with all humility, because I know He giveth and he taketh away, and I could lose my voice at the end of this interview and never be able to sing another note if that’s what He wills – but I knew He had given me a good deal better than most. When I would sing, even as a young man, people would turn their heads. I would see that, and know that God gave me something. And still, to this day, I’m 53, and people may not know who I am, but when I start singing they always turn around and look. So I knew I had been given an ability that was special. But I still can’t read music; I can’t even read the Nashville number charts. I play everything by ear; I play guitar and every instrument I play by ear. In many ways I wish I would’ve had the chance to take formal training, so I could sit down and play piano and read a chart, but it’s too late for that now. I’ve done well just doing it my way – it was in my family, my mother could sing, and several of my relatives on her side could sing. We just understood harmony; we understood how to sing parts. It just was there.
I think many of the great artists came up that way. Especially in country music, very few of those guys – Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, they had no formal training. They just knew how to play a few chords on the guitar, opened their mouth and sang about what they wanted to sing about, and something good happened. Even in rock music, for every Paul McCartney or Bill Joel, who had piano lessons and learned how to read music, there’s probably twenty Dylans or John Lennons or Paul Simons, who went on to be incredibly musical and great composers, but did not know how to read music.
There’s a difference between someone who can sing harmonies and get the job done and everyone’s happy with what they did, and that other level of people where everyone takes notice and is stopped in their tracks because they can hear something special. I think that’s a God thing – He just gives it to you. Unfortunately many people never realize why God gave them this, so they don’t give Him credit for that talent, or they misuse it or use it just for personal gain. God either gives it to you or He doesn’t – but He does give everybody something. There is no such thing as a non-talented person on the earth. There’s people who recognize what their talent is, and people who have not recognized it yet.
You learned by doing it, then?
Just repetition. People would love to be able to swing a golf club like Tiger Woods does – well, from the time he was 3 or 4 years old, he had a golf club in his hand. You also have to have the desire to get out there every day on that course, or somewhere, and swing, and practice. It’s about realizing what you have and wanting to work very hard to make it better and better and better. I heard Michael Jordan say that many times after he retired – he said that he never stopped trying to get better, even in his last season. He still didn’t feel that he had reached his potential yet. In athletics, you peak, and at a certain point you’re not going to be able to play like you used to. But in things like I do, I believe you can continue to get better at it. If you don’t lose your voice, if you don’t smoke or drink or trash your voice physically, there’s no reason why you can’t get better and better and better.
What does your practice routine look like, if you have one?
I really don’t have one, but I’ve learned to protect my voice – I can’t be around smokers for more than about a minute and a half. But I don’t really do anything when I’m home, out of the studio or off stage to enhance it. What I do to make it better is, when I do get a chance to make a record, when I’m in the studio and get in the creative process, I try to do it in a better way and a smarter way than I did years before. Like, I listened to my old records, especially the first few albums – “Love, Me” and “Little Rock” and some of those big hits that we had early on – and I think, “I sing so much better now than I did back then!” Because I’ve grown up! I’ve learned how to manipulate the lyric better than I did back then; I’ve learned how to make my voice a better-sounding instrument than it was back then – I mean, it was pretty good back then, obviously, ‘cause it worked, but I feel like I sing those songs better now because I’ve continued to hone my craft.
But my improvement always takes place on stage and in the studio. In between, I’m a family man, I spend time with my granddaughter and I don’t even think about music. When it’s time for me to get back on stage or go in the studio, then I get serious about it. I think about it as I do it. A lot of it just comes with self-confidence. Once I know I can do something, I’m aware that I’m in my comfort zone and then I can try to step out of it and push myself a little bit. “I’ll try that again, it’s a good idea.” Every once in a while it’s a bad idea, but I’ve got the ears to know, “That was a mistake; I shouldn’t try that again.” But if it is working, I keep going with it.
In your book you suggest that the ethos of country music should be somewhat like that of jazz, insofar as it keeps its integrity and identity intact despite commercial forces. As a jazz pianist, I’m wondering what inspired you to make that comparison?
Well, in the book I mention a young girl who was my musical director for about three years. Her name’s Melanie Shore; she’s from Salt Lake City. The finest musician I ever played with in my life. I’ve played with the great pianists like John Hobbs and Matt Rawleys, really all-star musicians, but Mel was the best I’ve ever been with, because of her ears, because of the way she absorbed in such a quick fashion, and when she played, she played effortlessly and could take it anywhere you wanted to take it. She’s an anomaly in that respect because she is a jazz player – she has a master’s in jazz studies and is a professor. But she also understood popular music in a way that a lot of jazzers don’t. Many jazz musicians I’ve known kinda look down on popular music. But Mel understands country; she understands mainstream pop; she knows when you have to stay in the pocket.
My time around her made me appreciate jazz in a way that I had not in many years. I learned to appreciate Oscar Peterson and Monty Alexander and people like that, because I saw through the eyes of someone who understood it. Jazz is something you either get or you don’t. Kind of like country, in a way! The point of jazz, as I understand it, is that you should never play the same thing the same way twice. To push it and push it, and always to elevate it. By the second or third time [the form of the song] comes around, it’s growing. It’s an amazing thing to witness. One night, I remember, in Salt Lake City, we saw Jeff Hamilton on drums, John Clayton on bass, and Monty Alexander on piano. I said, “How long do you think they rehearsed for this?” And [Mel] said, “They don’t rehearse at all!” I thought, “That is so cool!” Compared to country and mainstream pop, which are very regimented, it’s a whole different mindset.
Now one of my pet dreams is that I want to do a big band standards album. You listen to Ella Fitzgerald and realize why she’s the one, and you say “I want to try to sing like that! I wonder if I can?” But you have to be in a situation where you get to do that kind of music, and those kinds of opportunities you really have to create for yourself. Nobody’s going to make a record [in the style of Ella Fitzgerald] and ask a country singer to come do it. You have to prove to the world you can – if you can! – before anyone’s gonna take that seriously.
Jazz music is the one American musical art form that never sells out. To sell out means it’s not jazz any more. If you become a jazz musician, you’re not doing it to make money. If you want to make money, you play country or pop or whatever. If you play jazz, it’s because it’s in you and it’s gotta come out. That’s what makes it beautiful. It’s always evolving and it’s not about the money.
What would you say to encourage working musicians in their daily struggle?
Keep doing it, because we need people like that. That’s what keeps music alive. The stardom doesn’t keep music alive; that’s just a business. What keeps music alive and relevant is people who do it because they can and because they’re good at it. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make a buck now and then; if God gave you a skill to be a carpenter, you should be able to make money being a carpenter. But the primary thing you should aspire to is to play and be as good as you possibly can. And if you treat people kindly, the chance that you’re gonna advance is pretty strong. If you’re a really good player, someone bigger, at the next echelon, is going to ask you to play with him at some point. If you’re really good at what you do, you will be noticed without having a manager or an agent to pitch you around. Good players are needed. When I spot someone who’s special and different, man, I try to get ‘em, because I want them before somebody else gets ‘em.
Play because you love it, get better because you want to be better, and give the rest of it to God. God has a plan for your life – we screw that plan up every day, but He’ll lead you where He wants you as long as you sit back and be still and know that He is God. To me, wanting to be famous is a character flaw. And I certainly had it. I wanted to show everybody that I could bust up through the top drawer – and it was a character flaw! A wise person doesn’t require his face to be recognizable to find his own identity and be comfortable in his own skin.
To me, the greatest musicians are the ones who are quietly confident – they know they’re a bad-A, they know they can play, and when they get a chance to show it, they show it, and then they go home. That leaves a mark far greater than someone standing on TV or doing an autograph line. That crap is far overrated, it’s not fun, and it’s silly, because as a person of integrity you feel so stupid standing there doing that for three hours at a time. You think, “I’m not a saint! I’m not the Pope! Why are you standing in line to get a picture with me?” I personally believe it’s of the devil, really. I don’t want to go too far and offend anybody, but the Grammys – it’s uber-vanity. That’s why we see things like with Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber [who become successful and succumb to vanity]. Fame is intoxicating and it’s destructive. So it will always be a balancing act to know how to deal with it. That’s all smoke and mirrors. At the end of the day, what really defines you as a musician is your ability to play.
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