It’s hard to keep up with Marty Raybon on the phone. He’s the sort of guy who’s never met a stranger and can, in a matter of minutes, fill you in on the pressure washer he just purchased, the bootleg eight-track tapes of Jimmy Martin his dad once picked up at a flea market and plenty else in addition to his own unique career arc.
Besides being a real talker, he happens to be one of the most emotionally resonant hardcore country singers of his generation.
Raybon grew up singing bluegrass in Florida some four decades ago and reached the country Top 10 well over a dozen times as lead singer of Shenandoah with hits like “Next to You, Next to Me” and “The Church on Cumberland Road.” Since then, he’s made a string of gospel and bluegrass albums, leading up to his latest, The Back Forty.
CMT Edge: I understand that you’re celebrating 40 years in music this year.
Raybon: Yeah. Forty years.
Set the scene for me: What did music making look like for you in 1973?
Well, what it consisted of was [listening to] Keith Whitley and Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs. My daddy would bring us to the festivals, and we’d get a chance to see ‘em. Big fans of the Osborne Brothers, too. You know, the Osborne Brothers were doing the drums and electric, and some folks liked it and some folks didn’t. Me and my brothers loved it. We thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread.
My daddy was in a bluegrass band. … My brothers and I had already developed singing because my daddy had taught us. We were just playing the standards of what bluegrass was — doing “The Fox on the Run” and that type of stuff. Everybody would have us over there at their campers. Man, we’d be picking.
That was the scene we grew up in. We grew up with folks coming over to the house and spending the night and my daddy having all night pickin’. You’d wake up in the morning and there’d be people laying all over the floor on pallets when they played the night before and the smell of biscuits cooking in the morning with coffee. It was a big get-together. … My family loved music. My mother was a big Ray Price, Hank Locklin, Charley Pride, George Jones, Merle Haggard fan.
How did all the stuff you were exposed to — on records, at festivals, at picking parties or wherever — help prepare you for what you did with Shenandoah down the road?
What I seen in my daddy was how much that he absolutely loved it. That caused me to love it because I could see how much enjoyment he would get out of it. And before it was all over with, I guess that stuff landed on me, as well, and I loved it. So the preparation was just a love for music and then as it carried along through the bluegrass stuff.
In 1984, I left Florida. … Ricky [Skaggs] went to Nashville and Keith [Whitley] was in Nashville by this time. Vince Gill was in Nashville by this time. It just really seemed like the time to go to Nashville. In the bluegrass world, everybody would keep saying, “Man, you need to go to Nashville like Ricky and Keith Whitley.” So I did.
I left with a trade of being able to lay block and brick. I made my daddy a promise. I said, “Daddy, I’m not coming home until I’ve done something.” … And he said, “Son, I’ve taught you a trade. The love that you have for music, [see] if you can make a go of it. If you can’t, son, I ain’t got to worry about you starving to death when you’re up there.” I left with a level and a trowel and a hammer and a ruler and a tape.
You mentioned Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs. All three of you have had distinct seasons to your careers: bluegrass backgrounds, mainstream country success and what you’ve done since. There’s no one model for how to sustain a career after the hits. How clear of a vision did you have for what this season of your career would look like? Did you think you’d be making solo albums for bluegrass labels?
To be honest with you, I really didn’t. I think what I probably tried to do more than anything was I just kept trying to reinvent myself. I just wanted to be a singer. I didn’t really want to have a label. … The stuff that I grew up with, I love — the Gene Watson and the Haggard and people like that. I absolutely love those people. With loving that stuff as well as bluegrass, I always knew that bluegrass was there.
Coming out of bluegrass, I played with some country bands in Nashville, then from there I moved to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where I met up with a bunch of guys. We were nothing more than a club band. We did Top 40 country music, and we done Top 40 pop. We were doing anything from Huey Lewis & the News to Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” and all that other kind of stuff.
We were doing all of it because of where we played and what the club owner wanted. So I felt like I could do some Lionel Richie stuff as much as I could do some Merle Haggard stuff. Singing demos for a lot of writers in the Muscle Shoals area, different material and [styles], I found out that I could sing stuff other than country, bluegrass and even gospel.
Were you figuring out what your voice could do while in those Muscle Shoals clubs?
Yeah, I think so. It introduced me to stuff. The club owner said, “Look, you’re gonna learn ‘Deep River Woman.’” I mean, the guy’s given me a job. I’ve gotta do what the guy asked me. … We played every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Everybody in the band had to learn two new songs every week. … When this song became a hit on radio, everybody would come up to the stage and go, “Hey, do y’all know ‘Deep River Woman’?” And we could do it.
I was wondering about the songwriting piece of your career because you were saying that what you wanted to be was a singer. On some Shenandoah albums, you had co-writing credits here and there, but you’re doing a lot more of that now, including for the new album. How did songwriting become a focus for you?
The group called Heartbreak Mountain, we were playing on Printer’s Alley at a place called the Western Room. And Bud McGuire [brother of Shenandoah drummer Mike McGuire] came in and [asked], “Do you ever sing demos?” “Yeah, I can sing demos for you. That’s extra money. I’m ‘bout to starve to death up here.”
Bud had wrote a couple of Alabama hits, and Bud and I started writing together, and he’d go, “No, no, no, that’s not how you wanna say that.” Before you know it, Bud started teaching me. A lot of stuff that Bud and I wrote would be stuff that I had written, but he would change it and he would fix it and he would make it stronger.
One of the songs that Shenandoah did, “There Ain’t No Beverly Hills in Tennessee,” was one of the first songs that I’d ever played for Bud. But it was way, way yonder different. He said, “You want to put this in a structure. You don’t want to keep going on and on and on. You want to put something different in it and add more imagery.”
Just like “A Little More Sawdust on the Floor” that John [Fountain] and I wrote [for the new album]. It’s that same type thing. The premise was trying to relax. Throw a little sawdust on the floor. Take your gal and go down there, and it’s a dance floor. Do something with yourself. Don’t be some fuddy duddy, some stiff. Live some.
That wasn’t where I expected the song to go, based on the image in the title.
When you songwrite, as they say, in collaboration, one person says one thing, and before you know it, what you had in mind for it has turned out to be something different. … Things materialize as you write, which is a good thing, because the more you talk about it, the more you open it up, and the more you can open it up, the more you appeal to other people about the simple things of life.