“I’m not giving up. I really believe I’m going to get my turn.”
Ray Herndon sounds a bit frustrated as he utters this vow — and he has every right to be. Here’s a performer who demonstrated his considerable musical talent in hundreds of concerts and on dozens of records with Lyle Lovett and McBride & the Ride, and he’s still struggling to get past the “who’s that?” phase.
However, with the release of Livin’ the Dream, his solo album for Compendia Records, Herndon is taking a giant step toward center stage. His first single and music video from the new project is “My Dog Thinks I’m Elvis,” a sly reflection on underachieving he co-wrote with Jimbeau Hinson. After the song got some airplay on Sirius satellite radio, Radio Shack picked it up for a national TV commercial.
As proof of the respect Herndon has earned, Lovett, Clint Black, Jessi Colter, Jon Randall Stewart, Sonya Isaacs and McBride & the Ride alumnus Billy Thomas all take guest turns on the album. His co-producer is the award-winning pianist Matt Rollings, who has also produced records for the likes of Keith Urban and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
A native of Phoenix, the 44-year-old Herndon grew up immersed in country music. His family owns the Handlebar J club and restaurant in Scottsdale where he still performs.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m ancient, because I’m not,” he says. “But I have been doing this a long time. My whole life is music. That’s all it’s ever been since I was 3 years old. It’s not like something I started doing in college. All those years, I’ve gotten to play with some of the best players and gotten to know some of the best musicians in the world. Matt Rollings and I played together in [a band in] Phoenix. That’s where I met him. … He was 16 years old. We played at Mr. Lucky’s, a big club out in Phoenix.”
Herndon began playing guitar in Lovett’s band not long after the two met in 1983. “In about ’89,” he recalls, “Lyle was getting ready to go out on, like, a three-month tour. I had already toured with him several years, and I really wanted to concentrate on doing my own solo thing. So I thought, ’I’m going to tell him no this time.’ Right about the time that started happening, Tony Brown [an MCA Records executive] called me up — I was still living in Phoenix at the time — and said, ’I hear you’re not going out with Lyle.'”
Herndon knew of Brown’s prowess as a record producer and had even worked with him briefly as Lovett’s sideman. Brown proposed creating a band that would include singer and songwriter Terry McBride, whom Herndon had not yet met.
“Basically he was telling me this,” Herndon explains, “because he wanted me to go out with Lyle on that tour. So I went out with Lyle and met Terry in Austin. He came to one of our shows. We hit it off, of course. We were both excited that Tony had put us together for this band.”
In June of that year at the annual Fan Fair in Nashville, Brown introduced the two to drummer Billy Thomas. He would become the third member of the new band, which would be dubbed McBride & the Ride. Soon after, the band signed to MCA Records. They were managed by the same company that handled the Judds, a connection that enabled the band to open shows for the hot mother-daughter act.
McBride & the Ride’s first two singles failed to chart, and the 1991 album that spawned them, Burnin’ Up the Road, gained only modest attention. “It was slow going at first,” Herndon says, “But then ’Can I Count on You’ came out. Thanks to CMT … they started playing [the music video], and that’s where we really discovered the power of what a video could do for our career. They’d also played that video in a loop at Country Radio Seminar. The next show we did with the Judds, it was somewhere in Alabama, we played ’Can I Count On You’ and the whole crowd stood up. … From that point on, our career had a steady growth.”
While “Can I Count on You” reached only No. 15 on the country charts, the band followed it with four consecutive Top 5 singles — “Sacred Ground,” “Going Out of My Mind,” “Just One Night” and “Love on the Loose, Heart on the Run.” MCA released the band’s second album, Sacred Ground, in 1992.
“Our career was building,” Herndon says, “but we got caught up in the era of Garth Brooks, ’Achy Breaky Heart’ and all that stuff where country acts were selling multi-million records. We’d done pretty well. I think Sacred Ground sold half a million records for us. But that’s not a million records. By the end of the ’94 tour, we were just out there kicking butt. The band just sounded great. We got standing ovations everywhere we were playing.”
After the tour, McBride and Thomas returned to Nashville, while Herndon headed home to Phoenix. Then things rapidly unraveled.
“We all, of course, wanted to have recognition for making this thing happen,” Herndon says. “But it was kind of getting misconstrued in the eyes of the management. Billy and I could feel that. So we had expressed some concern about it, saying, ’Hey, this is a band, and we want to keep it that way.’ The next thing I know, I got a conference call from our manager that the powers-that-be at MCA wanted him to talk to Billy and me and let us know that because they wanted to propel McBride & the Ride to the multiplatinum level, they wanted to focus all the attention on Terry. That was fine if it had been a solo deal, but it wasn’t. That’s not really what I got involved for. … They wanted to take Billy and me and shove us way back into the background. But it was really a trio. That was the act.”
Herndon and Thomas both left the band, which by now bore the name Terry McBride & the Ride. After charting three singles in the lower reaches of the charts during 1994 and ’95, the revised group folded. Herndon retreated to songwriting, performing locally and more work as a sideman. One of his songwriting successes was Kenny Chesney’s 1996 hit, “Me and You,” a co-write with Skip Ewing. (Herndon includes his own version of that song on his new album, with Sonya Isaacs singing harmony.)
In 2002, the original members of McBride & the Ride reunited under the original name to create an album for Dualtone Records, a small independent Nashville label. The result was Amarillo Sky. While it was an admirable piece of music, the album didn’t ignite substantial interest. “A funny sidenote,” Herndon says, “was that ’Amarillo Sky’ was written by Big Kenny and John Rich of Big & Rich.”
In April 2003, Herndon and Jessi Colter hosted the Outlaw Connection concert at Handlebar J in tribute to Colter’s late husband, Waylon Jennings. Herndon also performed on the show. Sirius satellite radio sponsored the event and recorded it for broadcast. It was here that Herndon became acquainted with Carol Yumkas, Sirius’s vice president of artist relations and a former agent for William Morris.
The following year, Herndon recorded Livin’ the Dream and released it on his own label. When he went to New York for a show with Lovett, he gave Yumkas a copy of the album. She was impressed enough to program it. Better still, she set out to find Herndon a real record deal. After being turned down by some major labels, Herndon ultimately signed a contract with Compendia. Later, when Radio Shack asked Yumkas to suggest some music for a commercial, one of her recommendations was Herndon’s “My Dog Thinks I’m Elvis.” In the commercial, Herndon’s name and the song title are displayed on the satellite radio while Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long roar down the road in a convertible.
As might be expected, Herndon has encountered some sizable bumps in this generally smooth scenario. He’s had little luck getting his songs played on conventional radio stations, and Compendia was recently sold to a larger company, shedding several key staff members in the process. While he’s looking for a manager and waiting for matters to shake out at the label, he continues to tour as a solo act, usually accompanying himself on guitar.
“I’d much rather go out and play with a band,” he says. “That’s really what I do best.”
But since bands are expensive, he’ll have to bide his time until his record catches on. On Feb. 7, he and Colter will play the Palace in Prescott, Ariz. In the meantime, he promises, “I’m gonna work my ass off trying to get my ass out there workin’.”