There are certain artists who could well afford to rest on their laurels, if in fact they chose to do so. Clearly Ray Stevens is one of those. Over a career that spans nearly 65 years, from the time his first songwriting efforts met with initial success, through to his signing with Mercury Records in 1961 and a series of songs that brought him both massive crossover hits and a reputation as a funnyman (Ahab the Arab, The Streak, and Gitarzan), as well as the serious songs that accompanied them to the top of the charts (Misty, Everything Is Beautiful, et. al.), Stevens has never remained idle. An astute entertainer, producer, songwriter, arranger, television host, studio owner, and entrepreneur — his 35,000 foot entertainment venue, the cleverly dubbed CabaRay Showroom hosted weekly concerts in pre-pandemic times — he still can be found as active as ever, even at age 82.
“I don’t know why,” he admits. “I’m a weird guy. Golf is great, but I’m not a golfer. I’m not very good at it. I don’t like to do something I’m not good at.”
That makes sense of course, but with plans for four new albums this year alone, he is clearly confident when it comes to his recording skills. As well he should be, considering the accolades he’s accumulated along the way. They include two Grammy Awards, nine Grammy nominations, inductions into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the Christian Music Hall of Fame, a star on the Music City Walk of Fame, and any number of awards for his top selling music videos. Indeed, he’s sold some 40 million albums over the expanse of his career, a credit to his talents and savvy as an artist and performer.
“I really enjoy making records,” he allows. “I’ve had my own studio for a lot of years now, and I don’t rent it out. So I just get in there and have fun. Since I can’t get out on the road, I might as well get in the studio and make records.”
With two albums released so far this year — his latest, Melancholy Fescue (High Grass Bluegrass) marks his first excursion into the realms of bluegrass — he’s clearly having the fun he mentions. At the same time, he’s enjoying the opportunity to revisit certain standards while rebooting them in a bluegrass vein. At first, the choices might seem somewhat unlikely — after all, most folks would agree that songs such as Ruby Baby, Oh, Pretty Woman, In the Still of the Night, Unchained Melody, People, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, and Goin’ Out of my Head, don’t seem like the type of tunes that would lend themselves to bluegrass. Yet, when a banjo break takes the spotlight in place of an orchestral flourish midway through MacArthur Park, it’s clear that Stevens has scored yet another successful coup in a career that’s filled not only with successes, but also with surprises.
“These are songs that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time,” Stevens says. “And this album is made up of songs you would never expect to be done in a bluegrass style. I put some big arrangements on it which is why I call it Melancholy Fescue (High Class Bluegrass).”
On the day he spoke with Bluegrass Today, Stevens had another triumph to share as well.
He announced that he had found out that very morning that he’s now become a great grandfather. Congratulations are offered but he hedges his response. “I’m way too young to be a great grandfather,” he insists.
So too, when it’s noted that the new album marks his first bluegrass outing, he suggests that in fact it might be his second. It’s pointed out that his publicist confirmed it was his first.
“He knows more than I do,” Stevens concedes, adding, “To be a bluegrass picker, you’ve got to be really good.”
Happily, he had no problem lining up really good musicians. “There are a lot of talented players in Nashville,” he notes. “There’s a pretty big pool to choose from. Many of them are guys that I’ve known for many, many years. And there are some new guys too. My engineer is married to Missy Raines, who is certainly one of the best, so he knows a lot of bluegrass musicians, and he was able to help me get a good crew.”
Stevens said the idea for the album came prior to the selection of songs, and once they were selected, the interpretations came naturally. “I just went in there out of left field and chose the songs,” he recalls, “And like I said, nobody would expect to ever hear these particular songs done with a bluegrass band. But here they are. I am an arranger, and I did a lot of the arrangements. I had a lot of fun doing that. I used to make my living in the studios, and when I came to Nashville from Atlanta in 1962, it was to be a session musician.”
Although the album only includes twelve choices, Steven says he didn’t worry about narrowing down a selection. He says it’s likely he’ll use others for another bluegrass album in the future. “I wasn’t excluding any songs,” he insists. “I just didn’t get to them yet.”
Stevens admits that he’s prone to feeling somewhat nostalgic at times, no surprise considering his accomplishments.
“I think everybody feels that way at some point,” he surmises. “The older you get, the more you reflect on the past. And, of course, I’m not to the point where I don’t look to the future also. But it’s fun to think back and remember some of the old songs.”
Of course, after more than six decades in the business, Stevens can clearly comment on the changes that the music business has undergone, especially as far as Music City is concerned.
“Everything changes,” he concedes. “That’s a foregone conclusion. I like some of the changes, but I don’t like some of the others. That’s the way it is. There are too many brains out there thinking about music, and some of them you agree with and some you don’t.”
That said, asked his opinion of bluegrass in particular, and its remarkable rise in popularity it’s seen in recent years, he offers a simple response. “It’s good stuff, and people like it,” he nods. “Why do you like anything? The movies have popularized it to some degree by featuring that sound, especially a lot of big hit movies. I remember Bonnie and Clyde had a bluegrass background in it, and several other great movies have featured bluegrass as well. It’s just a natural thing that happened. It’s pretty American, and America has always been the starting point for a lot of different styles of music, just about every music genre you can think of. We sort of lead the pack, with the freedom to record and to put out so many records that other countries have also enjoyed.”
At the same time, Stevens seems somewhat modest when it comes to his own singing skills, a talent that’s evident even now on the new album.
“I haven’t done anything,” he replies when asked if he has a warm-up regimen. “I just open my mouth and sing, and it feels good. I don’t practice. I just wake up in the morning and when time comes to sing, it’s okay. A lot of singers tend to over-rehearse. And they they practice so much that when the time comes to do the real thing, they’re just worn out. That’s my opinion anyway. I just walk up to the mic and do it. I don’t know. Maybe I’m lucky.”
He’s more than lucky, we expect. And he has other ambitions as well. He mentions that he hopes to take the bluegrass concept another step further, including merging a bluegrass band with a full symphony. “I think a symphony audience would certainly get a kick out of hearing some of the songs on this album done live with a bluegrass band standing in front of an orchestra,” he muses. “It would just be unexpected, a musical experience that most people have never even thought about. So maybe that will happen one day.”
Considering his seemingly boundless energy, it’s likely it will.