Marty Raybon, former lead singer for Shenandoah, gives an interview the way Sonny Dewey, the high-energy country minister portrayed by Robert Duvall in The Apostle, delivers a sermon.
Raybon comes ready to talk, full of fervor about his music, his career and his “walk with the Lord.” In a heavy Southern drawl, he speaks charismatically, punctuating his observations with colorful expressions. “Let me tell you something, brother!” the Alabama-based singer says, opening with one of his favorite phrases.
Less than 15 minutes into a conversation with a perfect stranger, he quotes Scripture, talks about his passion for Jesus and proudly mentions that his son is attending seminary. Adopting a mannerism used by many preachers, Raybon often sets up discussion points by asking rhetorical questions: “Am I ever going to save anybody? No brother, I can’t save anybody, and the reason why is because I didn’t die on a cross.”
Raybon isn’t being preachy, though. He’s simply sharing his passion for music and people, and for life in general.
“I’m a firm believer in the white hat,” Raybon says, leaning back in a desk chair at his publicist’s office in downtown Nashville. “I still believe without a shadow of a doubt that people still believe in people with the white hat. I believe that. I do. I don’t believe I’m alone in that. I don’t believe people would rather hear the negative. People want to hear things that are positive.”
While Raybon has recorded a number of sad, broken-hearted ballads (Shenandoah’s “Ghost in This House” is one of his masterstrokes), the singer has largely made a career out of performing what is sometimes called “positive country,” songs with little or no trace of angst, cynicism and indecency.
A bluegrass performer with American Bluegrass Express (his family band) and Heartbreak Mountain in his early years, Raybon became famous in the late 1980s as the lead singer for Shenandoah. His pure, emotionally intense vocals gave rise to hits such as “Mama Knows,” “The Church on Cumberland Road,” “Sunday in the South,” “Two Dozen Roses,” “Next to You, Next to Me,” and “I Want to Be Loved Like That.” The group’s duet with Alison Krauss, “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart,” won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Event of the Year award in 1995. After leaving Shenandoah in 1997, Raybon and his brother, Tim, recorded briefly on MCA Records as the Raybon Brothers. This alliance yielded a country version of “Butterfly Kisses” and “Falling,” a duet with Olivia Newton-John. Along the way, he also recorded a solo gospel album for Sparrow.
Now, Raybon, 40, is trying to break into country music again, this time as a solo act. His debut, self-titled solo album will be released Tuesday, Feb. 15, on TriChord Records, a new independent label in Nashville headed by Bill Glenn, a former member of The Lettermen. The label has adopted the slogan, “You may have forgotten the face, but you’ll never forget the voice,” to re-introduce Raybon to listeners. Ace producer Rick Hall — known for his work with Shenandoah as well as soul greats Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others — recorded Marty Raybon near the singer’s house, at renowned Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
With the same positive energy and goodwill he brings to his new solo career, Raybon insists he has reconciled with events and people in his past. As he moves forward, the singer clearly cares that old friends not bear grudges inspired by the twists and turns of his past career.
Raybon maintains that he’s not bothered that former bandmates Jim Seales and Mike McGuire are continuing to record under the Shenandoah moniker with a new lead singer (Brent Lamb), even though, at least in the public’s mind, Raybon is Shenandoah.
“I’ll never be able to get away from [being identified with] Shenandoah,” Raybon reasons, “and I don’t want to. There are still a lot of times when people come up to me and ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing there, Shenandoah?’ They think that I’m Shenandoah. That’s fine. That’s absolutely fine.
“I don’t care that the other guys are going to continue on without me. I’m just proud for them as I can absolutely be, and I hope they succeed. I really do. Everybody needs a job.”
As a sign of his sincerity, Raybon willingly gave up all legal rights to the Shenandoah name after leaving the group. That’s nothing to take lightly, especially considering that the name nearly cost him his career just when it was beginning to take off in the early 1990s. No one had bothered to check whether the name Shenandoah was copyrighted. It turned out that the name was already in use by several other bands.
The three-year legal mess forced the band to forfeit their recording contract with Columbia (the group later found success on RCA and Capitol), lose their career momentum, watch their concert fees plummet and contemplate quitting altogether. Each individual member of the band filed for bankruptcy as a result of the lawsuit, which racked up over $1 million in legal expenses. The legal tussle ended when they literally bought the rights to their own name.
Raybon admits his decision to forfeit the band name now, after fighting so hard to keep it, has left some people scratching their heads.
“Somebody told me, ‘Marty, you’re an idiot to give up your rights. Why in the world would you want to do that? You worked so hard to make that what it was. Marty, there are people who honestly and truly believe that you are Shenandoah. Why would you do that? It might come in handy one day.’
“That might be the way that logic sees it, but in a lot of ways I just wanted some closure on it,” he continues. “I wanted to step away from something that I didn’t feel good about anymore. I just seriously needed some closure. I needed to literally get away from it. It wasn’t a situation where there was hatred. I didn’t have hatred in my heart or anything like that. I just wanted to get away from it. Call it burnout, call it what you want.
“I know when the MCA [Raybon Brothers] deal went south on Tim and me, I could have very easily said [to Seales and McGuire], ‘Look fellas, we’re just going to pick the ball up, and we’re going to keep going.’ But I didn’t want to do that. It’s no reflection on Jim and Mike whatsoever. I just didn’t want to do that.”
Just as he harbors no bad feelings toward his former bandmates, Raybon has mended his friendship with Rick Hall, who produced Shenandoah’s first three albums and Raybon’s new disc.
Raybon and Hall became estranged during Shenandoah’s legal battles over the band’s trademark. Involved with Shenandoah’s career from the beginning, Hall was the one who suggested the band name that got the group in hot water. Raybon acknowledges that some people might be surprised they are working together again.
“I’m not wore out or tore up about any of that stuff,” Raybon maintains. “That stuff happened, it had its place. He wishes it never happened. I wish it never happened. The rest of the guys wish it never happened, too. But it did, and there’s nothing going to change that now. Being hateful would not be an answer for anything.
“I went to talk to Rick a few years ago about his salvation. He listened and all that stuff, but he was so consumed with feeling bad about the way things had come down. And you know, man, we all felt bad.
“But it was easy going back and working with Rick,” he continues. “First and foremost, Rick knows that I don’t harbor any ugly feelings, so that is not an issue anymore. One thing about Rick Hall and I, we’ve always been brutally honest with each other. There’s only one time it was ever strained. He and I had a big blow up, and after that it was never strained again. I understood where Rick was at, and Rick understood where I was at. Rick ain’t ever been one to hang around yes-men, because yes-men don’t ever answer anything. That’s the truth. That’s just ol’ country boy knowledge, is all that is. You don’t have to have the IQ of a freshwater trout to know that don’t get you anywhere.”
And you don’t have to be a genius to sense that Raybon has great passion for his life’s work. Singing, it seems, it what he was born to do, and he’s not giving up yet.
“I just want another run at it,” Raybon says. “Just another run. I enjoy it so much. I really do. I thoroughly enjoy people. Yeah, I want the records to be successful. Yeah, I want some notoriety and fame. I think if anybody told you they were in this business for any other reason, they’d be telling you a story. But I really do want to be able to reach people with the music.
“I’m not talking about being a crusader. I just want to be able to get out where people are at. It’s no different than when I was with Shenandoah or the Raybon Brothers. The relationships, the friendships I’ve made down through the years mean a lot to me. It’s all about people.
“Yeah, I want all of it to work,” he says as he winds down the conversation, “and the reason why I want it to work is so that I can keep doing it. So that I can stay out here and do what I really love to do. Hopefully, I’ll be able to touch people and make their lives a little bit different. I kind of stay new at that, I guess you might say.”
Amen to that.