Understanding the need to remain flexible in order to survive on country radio, Collin Raye is making tracks toward re-inventing himself. The CMT May Showcase Artist early this year released a children’s album, Counting Sheep, which included “A Mother and Father’s Prayer,” a duet with pop singer Melissa Manchester. With the May 2 release of his latest Epic album, Tracks, Raye illustrates his desire to remain in the mainstream market by changing producers and recording lighter songs than listeners have come to expect from him in recent years.
First emerging in 1990 with “All I Can Be (Is a Sweet Memory),” he has forged a successful career with 17 Top 5 Billboard country singles including chart-toppers “I Can Still Feel You,” “In This Life,” “Love, Me” and “My Kind of Girl.” For Raye, the challenge of staying fresh is invigorating.
“I haven’t had this kind of adrenaline rush since I made my first album, All I Can Be, 10 years ago,” he enthuses in a recent interview with country.com. That debut spawned hits such as the title track, “Every Second” and the song most responsible for kicking off Raye’s career, “Love, Me.” However, even major success does not guarantee security in the marketplace.
Working with in-demand producer Dann Huff gave Raye a new outlook on recording. “If you look at the acts that are selling big numbers, let’s face it, it’s people who are playing to the kids,” asserts the 40-year-old singer. “Dann makes great, young-sounding records, and he and I were a perfect fit. We think alike, and it was like having a mirror image of oneself. I think that’s where the excitement on the album comes from.
“When I knew we were doing something different and stretching the horizons with a new producer like Dann, I really felt like a brand-new artist again. The time is so right just now to go to the center and maybe edge it up a little bit, to do things that even two years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do.”
The first visible step Raye has taken toward a new creativity is reflected in the first single, “Couldn’t Last a Moment,” which alternates between spoken-word verses and a singing chorus. The recording follows Alan Jackson’s “I’ll Go on Loving You,” released a year and a half ago, which also mixed speaking and singing. “Couldn’t Last a Moment” is a Top 20 hit and still rising on Billboard‘s country chart.
The lighter feel of Tracks is likewise a change in direction for Raye, who has used his music to make strong social statements. Songs and videos such as “Little Rock,” “I Think About You” and “The Eleventh Commandment” dealt with alcoholism, domestic violence and child abuse, respectively.
“I like songs that hit people hard,” he says. “After I did ‘Little Rock,’ I realized that maybe I was put here to do more than just entertain, so on the next couple of albums I recorded a lot of songs that had social and other impact messages. I’ve found my music to be healing to a lot of people over the years, and it’s made me feel more gratified than anything else has.
“With that in mind, this is also why I’ve pulled a little bit away from that on Tracks. It’s kind of like going to the well a little too often. I think people will eventually get a little tired of such heavy songs, and it’s time for me to lighten up.”
Lighter does not necessarily mean lightweight, however. The tone of Tracks is less preachy, with the focus on love and heartbreak. “She’s All That” evokes the same tongue-in-cheek humor as 1994′s “My Kind of Girl.” “Loving This Way,” a duet featuring actress and singer Bobbie Eakes, is a breakup song of sweeping proportions. Sony plans to release the song as the next single, but getting it recorded for the album was a hard-won battle for Raye.
“We found ‘Loving This Way,’ which to me was the closest thing to [Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond's] “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” that I’ve ever heard, which is my favorite duet of all time,” he relates. “But my label said, ‘You don’t need it, we’ve already got nine or 10 No. 1 songs on here, and it’s enough.’ I said, ‘It’s important for me to do this because I have one of those once-every-10-years songs, and I’m not going to let it go by.’ So I’m glad it worked out.”
Raye also likes to reach his audience through music videos. He views the medium as another form of artistic expression. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t listen to the radio as much as they watch CMT,” he reasons. “Video can take a song to another level. It’s like its own art form. We can take video seriously and work with the director to come up with something very unique.” He should know; his video for “I Think About You” won the 1996 Academy of Country Music’s award for best music video.
For Raye, the offerings are all part of his continuing desire to relate to his audience in the face of a changing marketplace.
“Nashville seems to have a way of being so afraid of demographics,” he says. “After the [early 1990's] boom, sales dropped and we all thought, ‘Oh, no, we’d better hold back now.’ I’ve never understood that thinking. I think that’s when you need to get more aggressive instead of saying, ‘Well, the fad’s over.’ You have to question yourself, ‘Are we putting out music that’s keeping them interested?’ If not, we just need to get more aggressive and try to not only keep that audience, but also expand to a broader audience. That’s why this record is so different than anything I’ve done before.”