20 Questions With Collin Raye

He Talks About "Little Rock," Miranda Lambert and Leaving His Label

Throughout the 1990s, Collin Raye notched 20 Top 10 hits, including “Love, Me,” “In This Life” and “My Kind of Girl.” After taking a few years off, he recently completed a new album, Twenty Years and Change. Here, in answering questions submitted by CMT.com readers, he talks about his new nickname, honoring Conway Twitty and the surefire way to make him put underwear on his head.

1. We, as a family, appreciate that raising your children has been so important to you. Have you been spending time with them, writing songs or just taking a break?

Never taking a break. My career, with a new album out, I have certainly been busy doing that. I’m always touring. But the No. 1 thing I always make time for is my kids — and now grandkids. I have two little baby grandgirls. People say, “What do you do for fun? What do you do in your spare time?” I like to hang out with my grandkids. They’re just babies. The oldest one is really attached to me. She calls me Poppy. When I’m home, I keep her every other night with me. To her, that’s like Disney World. Spending the night with Poppy is as good as it gets. She looks so forward to that.

That, in itself, helps my daughter so much. She is a young mother, and that’s a big load. Of course, my son still lives with me. We’re more like buddies than anything else. We spend a lot of time together. Considering the job I do, I feel so edified, grateful and thankful. My kids are at the age now where you ask either one of them who their best friend is, they say, “Dad.” Life doesn’t get any better, so I guess I must have done something right.

2. How do you decide what songs to put on the album? Is it a decision depending on whether everyone thinks it is a moneymaking song, or does it come from deep down inside your gut?

A little bit of both. When I was with Sony for almost 11 years, it seemed like we were chasing our tail a lot. We made records while we were touring, so you were always in a hurry. There was always a deadline to make sure the record was out by a certain time. This particular new record, I’ve had three and a-half years to make it. There was no one looking over my shoulder. There was no deadline. There was no release date. I was just putting my heart and soul into everything. For this record, it really was more from the heart.

I always tried to utilize that method in the old days, as well, all through the ’90s. But when you’re at a major label like that, there’s a lot of input you get from the A&R department, the radio promotion department, marketing, etc., so you get a lot of votes. But at the end of the day, I was the one to decide yes or no. There were some songs I would record in those days that I knew were money songs, and then most of them were because I really liked them. I thought I could gauge my audience really well, and I thought, “I think they’ll like this.” With very few exceptions, I was right.

3. How did you come to include a Conway Twitty song on your new album?

“It’s Only Make Believe” was strictly done as a tribute to Conway Twitty because I love him. “Hello Darlin’,” you just don’t touch it. That’s sort of his time capsule song. I really thought the melody to “It’s Only Make Believe” fit me. I did that song the week he died, which was in 1993, I believe. He died the night before Fan Fair began in Nashville. It was bad news, but it seemed like they got over it really fast. By the next day, nobody was talking about Conway Twitty’s death throughout Fan Fair. I just thought, “This is wrong.” With all the media that was there … it was just sort of blown off because they couldn’t wait to get to Fan Fair.

I was working at the Opryland Geo Theatre all that week. I first did it there, and then I also did it at the Sony show, in the grandstands, at the end of Fan Fair. The first time I did it, I just went into it. The band and I hadn’t learned it, but I knew they knew it. I just felt compelled. I started going, “People see us everywhere …” and everybody just loved it. The place stood up. Oh, it was really emotional. He had so many fans — and his fans were diehard. Kind of like Elvis, you know? I choked up as I was singing it. It was an emotional experience. I said, “Some day, I’m going to record a song for him.” I didn’t really try to outsing him. I sang it straight, like he did. That is strictly a tribute.

4. If you were to pick one song to define your entire career, which would it be? What song do you think is the biggest, the one you want to be remembered for?

I think a lot of people would pick “Love, Me,” because it was the first big hit I had. It’s definitely a signature song for me. To this day, I close my show with it. I do my set and then I come back for an encore and rock a little bit and do some up, smokin’ stuff and then I always finish the night by singing “Love, Me” with just the piano.

My own personal choice would be “Little Rock” because I think the song sums up the fact that I’ve always tried to be a very passionate singer and a very intense singer. That song’s a very intense song. I’ve never been afraid to sing a song about a social topic or something that might be not considered commercial. That song to me epitomizes that. That would be my choice.

5. What is your favorite song to sing to a live audience?

Probably “Little Rock.” I hate to sound like a broken record, but what I love about that song is that the older it gets, the better it gets. It’s like a three-and-a-half minute movie. When I’m singing it — and again I do that with just the piano as well — it’s so visual. I always feel like I’m singing it for the first time. You know what I mean? So many of the other hits are hits, and I’m thankful for them, but I know I’ve sung them a million times. “Little Rock” always seems fresh to me, and I always do it different. That’s a testament to the song.

6. Are you going to be making any videos for this album?

Yes, we will. At least one and probably two. We are going to do a video for the first single, “I Know That’s Right.” The way they do it now, as you well know, is different than the way we did it in the ’90s. Back then, you made a video first and put it out, knowing that it was going to help promote the single — or not. Nowadays, because it’s harder to get a video played, labels want to wait until the single looks like it’s rolling good on the chart before they spend the money to make a video.

7. What was your favorite video to make?

Probably “I Think About You” because my daughter was in it. That’s the one I won the ACM video of the year award for. I got to play a police officer, so the B-roll stuff was fun. It felt like doing a cop show on TV. I liked what the song was about, and we made a heavy-message video. But what made it so endearing was my daughter, Brittany, who was 12 or 13 at the time, was playing my daughter in the video. We had so much fun doing that. She was a natural. Every time I see the video to this day, it warms my heart. She’s a little mother now. Times have changed, but we’re still so close. That was a great little moment. It’s always great when you can include your kids in your work.

8. Do you sing the jingle in the Fruit of the Loom ad? It sure sounds like you.

Yes, it is. You’re talking to the voice of the tighty-whities right here. [Producer] Chris Farren asked me to do that. He said, “I’m doing this jingle for Fruit of the Loom. I wrote this song.” I said, “How do you want me to do an underwear jingle?” He said, “Just come hear the song and you’ll get it.” So I went to the studio and listened to it and just cracked up. I thought, “How are we going to do this with a straight face?” He wanted me because he wanted me to do my big, dramatic, over-the-top, big-high-note, you know. It starts in a minor chord and you think it’s this sad, dramatic song beginning, but you realize he’s singing about underwear.

I did it thinking, “This will be kinda successful,” but I did it because I thought it was cool. I had no idea it was going to catch on the way it has. They told us it’s the most successful commercial they’ve ever had. The feedback has been great. You never know, it might be Fruit of the Loom Presents Collin Raye here before too long. In the old days, I used to be really picky about endorsements. These days, if Fruit of the Loom would give me some road endorsement money, I’d come out on stage with a pair of underwear on my head — if that’s what they want. (laughs) I’ll put them on the outside of my clothes. It would be so nice. They’re a great company. It’s just fun. I’m glad it was a fun jingle instead of something so serious.

9. When will some new tour dates be announced?

We’re limited between now and the end of the year because it is getting so close to the end of the holidays. By the time February rolls around, we’re hoping the album will be out in the mix pretty good and the single, “I Know That’s Right,” will be doing well. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for that. That’s when we’ll start hitting the road heavier, definitely from March on. … I’m ready to go back on a full-fledged tour where we don’t leave any area untouched. I expect to be on the road a lot next year.

10. Are there any plans for you to do a Christmas concert this year?

Not this year. Last year was the first year we stopped. We’d been doing that for a while, for the longest time. Ever since I had my Christmas album in the mid-’90s, we had always done Christmas dates with symphonies and orchestras — always 35 pieces and sometimes 65 or so. I felt like we were maybe wearing it out. I thought, “Why don’t we back off a couple of years so it will seem fresh?” I didn’t want it to become too redundant. It seemed like we were playing a lot of the same markets every year, cities that wanted us back. That was great, but by the same token, I thought, “We’re going to burn them out if we’re not careful.” Next year we might start it up again.

11. If you could go back and change something concerning your career, what would it be?

Musically, I wouldn’t change anything. I’m really proud of everything I’ve done. Professionally, from a business standpoint, I think I would have tried to figure out an image for myself first. There is such a huge advantage of coming to a record label with a ready-made image. When I came to town, I was so na├»ve. I thought, “I’ve learned my craft. I know I can sing well. I know how to make records. I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio. I know how to put on a show. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old. That’s all I’ve got to do.” I knew I could handle every task that would be given to me, whether it was television, radio … I knew I could do all that. But that’s only half of it.

12. Which artists do you admire from a business standpoint?

To me, the most brilliant guy to come our way in a long time was Garth Brooks. Not just because he was a very talented guy, but he knew coming in what he was going to sell. I thought you left it to the record label, and they’d come up with something like that. Really, there aren’t many geniuses working there. They’re just going to sell what you give them. I think that’s the one thing that held me back for a long time: “Oh, he sings good and everything,” but people couldn’t glom onto what I was. I think people like that. They like to attach themselves to a certain look or a certain character that you portray. I mean, George Strait is authentic. He is that guy that he portrays. But it is an image, you know?

In our time, you look at Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. It’s the image that draws people to them, and that’s what they catch onto, I think more so than the actual music. That’s where I failed. I didn’t do that. If I had it to do over again, knowing that, I would have come up with something. (laughs) I should have known this from my history knowledge. I have been a historian in music for so long. Willie said it best. Willie couldn’t get arrested in Nashville for so long even though he had written “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” and all these great songs. But nobody wanted to hear him sing. But he came up with the whole ponytail/beard/bandana, and before too long, he was singing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” with an international Latin singer. You just go, “Jeez.” I should have remembered that, but I didn’t. Image is 90 percent of it.

13. Do you blame your last recording company for your lack of record and radio promotion toward the end of the ’90s, or does the blame lie with someone else?

That was a strange situation. That was its own version of Fear Factor at that time. There was a lot of noise about jobs. People were going to be moved out, this and that. I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t want to lie. I was bitter about it for quite a while because I had had 24 Top 10 songs, most of the Top 5, in a row, without fail. I had one single that struggled, and they immediately thought I was done. I thought, “Man, that’s not fair. So we picked the bad song — the song that didn’t work.” And they were immediately ready to move on. Not that they were ready to have me stop recording, it was just fairly obvious they weren’t going to give me the push anymore. I thought, “This is crazy. Give me another chance!” So they said, “Go make another album.”

That album became Can’t Back Down, which I produced with James Stroud. James really wanted to work with me, and I’d always wanted to work with him, and by the time that record was over, we both were tearing our hair out. I felt like we had 25 producers helping us, constantly saying, “This is no good. No, don’t do this. No, don’t do that.” I had never made a record that way before, and like I said, I had a really good track record when they left me alone. This was not the case.

I won’t say bad feelings, but there was a lot of mistrust going on. By the time the album came out, I knew that I didn’t want to be there anymore. They knew I didn’t want to be there anymore. So they gave a token push. They put a single out, sort of worked it for a couple of weeks, then pulled back. In this business, it doesn’t work that way. A label’s got to be behind you. It was very obvious to me that they were going to let the album sit. I said, “You’ve got to let me go. No hard feelings. This isn’t personal.” I don’t think it was personal on their end. They didn’t want to work with me, and I didn’t want to work with them.

I took a big business gamble by asking them to release me because my contract was not up yet and I still owed them one more record. Now, by me asking to get out early, I wound up owing them money. So, for that company, I sold almost 8 million records and wound up owing them money. (laughs) No one has ever accused me of being a good businessman.

But the alternative to that was to make another dead record, and I can’t make dead records. I take my records really seriously. It takes a lot out of you, it really does. I’m not trying to make myself sound important, but it takes a lot out of me to make an album. It’s a huge commitment. It’s like a director making a movie. I’m really proud of everything I do, and I put my heart in it. And knowing that I was going to have to do that, just to fulfill a contract, so that I could leave without owing them money, I couldn’t do it. Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true,” and I’ve always lived by that. I’ve got to do what I think is the right thing for my integrity. It wound up costing me a lot of dough.

14. Why didn’t you sign with another label when you left Sony?

By getting out of the label that way, there were some contractual things that held me back from going elsewhere right away. I didn’t know that because I don’t know how to read record contracts. (laughs) They look like Bibles, you know? They’re really thick. I didn’t really realize I was going to have that restriction, but I did. So by the time that probation was lifted, things had changed in Nashville, and I had been away for a good year.

The other labels we approached would say, “Collin, we’d love to have you. We think you’re a great artist, and we’d love to have you on the roster. Come on, we’ll sign you up. But we’ve got 32 other acts who are ahead of you, and we’ll be able to get an album out in three years.” I’m like, “Oh, my God. They will have forgotten me in that amount of time.” So I’d say, “No, let’s not do it. Let’s don’t do it.” So we waited and waited until the right situation came along, and it took this long to find it. But I don’t have any regrets. I believe that God leads you where He’s going to lead you. As long as you’re not making bad decisions or hurting anybody or just being dumb, I think providence has a lot to do with it. I think He wanted me where I’m at right now, and it took us a while to get there.

15. Did you have more control over this album?

By far, yeah. I had absolute, total control. In fact, I’ve been making this record the whole time I’ve been down. This is the product of three-and-a-half years of recording. We had originally cut 23 songs, almost all mixed but totally finished. We picked the 12 of those 23 to make this album. I paid for those tracks myself. So, therefore I had no one looking over my shoulder, and I could make the record I wanted to make. I’m not saying I want to do it that way every time. I look forward to working with other people. I look forward to the input that a new set of ears can bring me. That’s why I always changed producers a lot: because I didn’t want to get stale. But this one is totally me. I had some production partners helping me on it, but I was there for every note of music that went down, even through the mastering session, and that’s a first for me.

16. Who is your favorite new artist in country music?

I like Miranda Lambert a lot, if you want to get really new. I know she’s just scratching the surface. I’m not just saying this because I know her. … My brother works with her, so this sounds like a favored nation thing, but I really do like her. I like what she’s about, I like her voice, I like the fact that she’s so … ballsy about the way she handles herself. She acts 35 instead of 21. And I think she’s a really good songwriter. If Sony will continue to give her the push and be patient with her until she gets that song that breaks her through, I think she could have a really great career.

17. Will you be writing more songs in the future? You have written some songs on previous albums that I have truly enjoyed.

I write all the time. I write more than people realize I do. I always have. But my first job is as a record maker. So I’ve been very picky on my own songs. I’m very hard on myself when it comes to writing because I’m not as confident in that as I am in my singing and performing. Because it’s personal. Writing is very personal. You’re really sticking yourself out there. And I have a tendency to write a little wordy. I love metaphors. I love playing with the English language, much in a very rock ’n’ roll or pop style. In country music, you have to be careful because it has to be blatantly understandable to be commercial.

18. What are some of your favorite eras in country music?

My favorite time for me in country music, when I was a kid, was when Glen Campbell was having all those great records and Jimmy Webb was writing all those great songs. Kristofferson was writing so many songs. Those were really beautiful pieces of poetry. “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “For the Good Times.” It was really such a great time. That’s what I cut my teeth on. That’s what I wanted to be as a writer. Then, in the ’90s, it became, “No, this stuff is too deep. It doesn’t work now.” But invariably, that’s what I would always go for.

19. I’d like to know why you found it necessary to be so obnoxious in your political views, posting them on your Web site and thoroughly insulting those of us who make the very deliberate and moral choice to be liberals. I understand differences in opinion, but what I don’t understand is the arrogance with which you delivered yours, thus alienating fans whose views differ from yours.

That’s a good question. I appreciate the honesty of that question. It’s very easy to consider someone else’s view arrogant when you don’t want them to have it. I don’t think I ever put anything arrogant on my Web site. Anything that I have ever said was in retaliation. I did not start anything. When I began, that was when the left — so many people in the show business side of the left — were feeling compelled to come out and slam the military, slam the President, to slam everything that was going on. And I thought, “Wait a minute now.” First of all, you’re just entertainers, so keep your mouth shut. But they wouldn’t do that, so therefore I thought, “Well, you gotta fight back.” There are quite a few of us out there that do that, by the way. I’m not a fence-rider. If someone asks for my opinion, I’m going to give it to you. I’m not going to ride the fence.

To the person who wrote this, I’m very sorry that I offended them, but by the same token, we have to stand in what we believe in. I just wonder if this same person was offended by Natalie Maines’ comments at that same time. Probably not — because they agreed with her. It’s very easy to be self-righteous and say, “You shouldn’t stick your nose in,” but it seems very partisan when people have selective defiance. It’s OK for one side to do it, but not the other.

I know my American history. I base my comments on things that I know as fact. I don’t just speak off the top of my head. I know how this country began. I know how we got to where we are and I understand why we do the things we do, foreign policy-wise. I’m going to back that up with evidence. I think what may have offended this person — what he or she is calling arrogant — is the fact that you can’t really argue with what I said. I’m just reminding people of facts about our nation, which I happen to be pretty proud of. If someone has a problem with that, then God bless them. That’s their right. That’s what it’s always been about in this nation. But I know you sometimes take a chance of losing a fan or two when you do that, and that’s OK. I was willing to take that chance.

20. Where do you see yourself in 20 years?

Oh, gosh. Never retired … because I enjoy performing too much. I would hopefully be alive for one thing. Only the good Lord knows how long. I may not be alive then. I’ll be 65 in 20 years. I hope I would still have a voice, and if I can still perform at a good level, I would still be doing that. But certainly not near as much as I do now. I may still be lucky enough to make a record now and then, but I doubt it at that point. And since I’m already a grandpa, I would hope to get to be a great-grandfather and be the patriarch of the family, enjoying life and being thankful.