Invited to play a surprise birthday party for Texas businessman Larry Barnett six years ago, Eddy Raven approached the gig with some skepticism. It would turn out to be one of the most important shows of his career.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play a private party in a living room with a six-piece band, myself and all our equipment,” Raven recalls. “But I was assured that there would be room. I did the show and it was great. He was a good guy and it was fun. When I went to leave, he began telling me that he wanted to be in the music business. I said, ‘No, you don’t. You don’t understand what you’re dealing with.’”
Barnett, a fan who used to hear Raven perform Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, convinced Raven otherwise. Weeks after the birthday bash, Raven and his wife, Sheila, became partners with Barnett, and his wife, Debbie. They launched Row Music Group (RMG), which includes a booking agency, Great American Talent, and four publishing companies including Slick Puppy Music, co-publisher of the 1997 Lila McCann hit “Down Came a Blackbird.”
Their most recent venture is RMG Records, a label for Raven and fellow veteran acts Ricky Lynn Gregg and Don Williams. Raven would like to sign Gene Watson, and the label has one new act, country duo James/Dean, comprising songwriters James Watson and Steve Dean. Music industry veteran George Collier is the label’s president. Distribution is handled through Navarre, a key player in Kenny Rogers’ recent comeback.
Raven, 56, released Living in Black and White on March 6. The album is RMG’s first release and the singer’s first studio album of new material in a decade.
“For years Larry has wanted to start a record company for established artists,” Raven says, “people that have been around and have some name value and can sell some records. That has been his philosophy all along, and that is what we wound up doing. I just happened to have the first project ready.”
Raven will celebrate his 40th anniversary as a recording artist next year. In 1962 he cut his first single, a self-penned song titled “Once a Fool,” for the Georgia-based Cosmos label. Following the record’s release, he moved from Georgia back to his hometown of Lafayette, La., and worked at the La Louisianne record store. He became involved with the store’s recording studio of the same name and played alongside local legends such as Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Bobby Charles.
Raven recorded his first album in 1969, then visited Nashville the next year at the encouragement of Grand Ole Opry star and fellow Louisiana native Jimmy C. Newman. The budding songwriter signed to Acuff-Rose, the powerful publishing house in Nashville started by Roy Acuff and Fred Rose, and began turning out songs for Roy Orbison, Connie Smith, Don Gibson, Lefty Frizzell, Jeannie C. Riley and many others. Acuff himself hit the charts in 1974 with Raven’s “Back in the Country.”
Raven spent the early ’70s touring with the Jimmie Davis Band, before recording his own sides for various labels such as ABC/Dot, Monument and Dimension. He broke into the country Top 20 in 1981 with “I Should’ve Called” on Elektra. A year later, the Oak Ridge Boys scored a Top 5 hit with Raven’s sentimental song “Thank God for Kids.”
In 1984, the singer reached the top of the charts for the first time with “I Got Mexico.” Raven scored 17 straight Top 10 country hits on RCA, Universal and Capitol throughout the rest of the ’80s, hitting the No. 1 spot with “Shine, Shine, Shine,” “I’m Gonna Get You,” Joe Knows How to Live,” “In a Letter to You” and “Bayou Boys.”
With the arrival of a new decade and the emergence of hot newcomers such as Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Travis Tritt, Raven’s fortunes started to falter. He last cracked the Top 10 in 1990 with “Island.”
Raven recorded Living in Black and White with producer Ron Chancey and top-shelf musicians including Reggie Young (guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle and mandolin), Michael Rhodes (bass), Eddie Bayers (drums) and Sonny Garrish (steel guitar).
The singer enlisted world-renowned accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco (aka Stanley Dural, Jr.) to play on a Raven original, “New Orleans Is a Mighty Good Town.”
“We were brought up together in Lafayette,” Raven says. “He used to play organ in a blues band called Little Buck & The Top Cats, and he wasn’t even Buck, it was another guy,” Raven laughs. “I used to set up all the sessions at this little studio [La Louisianne] and I’d bring Stanley in to record with different artists we were working with.
“All of a sudden I move away and I’m doing what I’m doing in Nashville and Stanley has gone from blues to Zydeco, because he started working with Clifton Chenier. I kept up with Stanley through the years, calling him every now and then.”
Producer Chancey was taken aback when Raven suggested that Buckwheat Zydeco help out on the New Orleans party tune.
“I told Ron, ‘We need an accordion on here; I need to call Buckwheat,’” Raven recalls. “He asked, ‘Buckwheat who?’ I said, ‘Buckwheat Zydeco.’ He asked, ‘You know Buckwheat Zydeco?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we go back as kids in Louisiana.’ He said, ‘He’s my favorite player in the world! I got his music on my boat and in my house.’”
Fittingly, Raven and Buckwheat Zydeco reunited at the La Louisianne Recording Studio to lay down the accordion track.
Living in Black and White features the broad range of musical styles that Raven’s fans have come to expect.
Frank J. Myers and Gary Baker, the team behind John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” contributed two songs. They wrote the title track – a shag number — with Tracy Lawrence and penned “Don’t Worry About Me” with Lonestar lead vocalist Richie McDonald.
Raven had a hand in writing the leadoff single, “Cowboys Don’t Cry,” and the ballad “‘Til I Can’t Hold You Anymore.”
“New Orleans Is a Mighty Good Town” and “Hearing It in French” showcase Raven’s spicy Cajun side, while the Caribbean-flavored “Bermuda Triangle” would sound at home on a Jimmy Buffett album.
“I think there is a lot of apprehension about what’s being played on country radio,” Raven maintains. “I work 100 dates a year and I hear it over and over from fans I talk to on the road. ‘Why can’t we hear more than the same 20 records? Where are your records at?’ The first few times you hear it, you say, ‘Yeah, right.’ But then you hear it over and over and you start watching which radio stations are doing well in certain towns, and you start seeing that all of a sudden now what they’re calling classic country is doing very well.
“It looks to me like there are a lot of people at radio that want some new product, not just from me, but anybody that has been around awhile who has a recognizable name. We work hard for every radio add and for every record sale. However, we can sell a lot less records here and everybody makes some money, and you don’t have to pay all these exorbitant, questionable bills.
“I still owe $200,000 on an Elektra album that sold a lot of records,” Raven continues. “I’m trying to figure out how, when I know the bill wasn’t but $100,000. Damn, we’re talking about 1981. How do you cut a $200,000 album in ’81 if you’re not the Eagles? Lord!”
Raven continues to play at Barnett’s house each year. Now he does so without trepidation. The small gathering of family and close friends that came together to celebrate Barnett’s birthday six years ago in Poolville, Texas, has grown into an annual gathering, drawing crowds of around 3,000. Slated for May 19, this year’s event also will feature the Bellamy Brothers.