Skip to main content

Archive Interview: Ray Stevens (2014)

We are embarking on a project to republish all of our interviews, over the years, with some of great artists of the rock era.  Some were originally published on this page while others will be transcripts from our podcast. 

At 75, Ray Stevens may be one of the busiest men in Nashville.

Stevens has always been busy. Not only has he had numerous hit records (Everything is Beautiful, The Streak, Ahab the Arab, Mr. Businessman) and hosted his own variety show, but he has been very active behind the scenes as a producer, A&R person, studio musician, backup singer and much more.

Ray just released the book Ray Stevens' Nashville, a look back at his career and the history of Music City from the early 60's to today. The book has done so well through Amazon that the first printing is sold out (the digital download is still available) and they are awaiting a second printing from the publisher. The book will go wide to bookstores in the fall.

In August, his next studio album will be released, his 44th by some counts, returning him to gospel music, a genre he last explored in the early 70's with Turn Your Radio On and it's accompanying album. Then, later in the year, Ray expects the release of the movie Campin' Buddies, only the fourth credit of his career as an actor.  

Throw in some live performing and other side projects and you can see why Stevens has such a young spirit. 

VVN Music had the honor of talking to Stevens on all of his projects.

VVN Music (VVN): Congratulations on the new book. It's my understanding that the first run is already sold out.

Ray Stevens (RS): Yeah, it is and we're waiting on a second batch to come in. That's good, I guess.

VVN: When the second batch supposed to be in?

RS: I don't know. That's up to the publisher to get his act in gear [laughs]. They're supposed to be doing that.

VVN: Right now, the book is still available as a digital download but the physical book, which is sold through Amazon, is sold out and that later in the year it's going to be in the bookstores. Were you looking to do a two pronged approach to the release?

RS: If you're saying bookstores and downloading and internet sales are what makes up a two pronged approach, I guess so. I'm new to this business. I'm in the record business. Books are kind of a new thing for me.

VVN: When did you make the decision to put your life story down on paper but also to do it in a unique approach mixed with the story of the growth of Nashville.

RS: Well, actually, it's not my life story so to speak. It borders on that. It's just a book that lays down a few memories. I focus on Nashville because Nashville has sort of been the center of my life since I was 22 years old. I moved up here from Atlanta and so I've been here most of my life and it's played an important role in what my perceptions are. I immediately loved Nashville when I got here in '62 because it was where the music was. They had studios and they had really good musicians and I thought “Boy, I belong here.”

VVN: You said you had first gotten there in '62 but you had done some work as early as 1957, right?

RS: Well, yeah, I'm from Atlanta and I lived in Atlanta at the time and worked with Bill Lowery who was a music publisher. A very successful one. He had a small studio in Atlanta along with a record company and all the talent around Atlanta kind of gravitated toward Bill and his operation because that was where we could earn our wings, so to speak. Get our experience.

VVN: What was the music business like at that time? Obviously it was much smaller but was it as tight knit a community as it seems to be now.

RS: Well, yeah, in a way. You hit the nail on the head when you said much smaller. It was easier to get into because it wasn't overcrowded. The public liked to listen to music and they loved the records on the radio and the hit parade on TV. People liked music but they didn't consider themselves candidates to be in that business and those of us who did rushed in there with all the enthusiasm that we could muster. It was fairly easy to get started back in those days. Now, I feel sorry for a lot of the talented young kids because it is really crowded.

VVN: Is there something that the Nashville of today is missing or that has been lost from the early days?

RS: Well, I don't think it's lost anything. I think some of the early days had great characters in town and they were a lot of fun to be around and be with. I'm sure they are that way today but we're kind of fragmented. The offices are all over town in big buildings. Back in those days they were all down here where I am still in an area called Music Row. We could walk from office-to-office in five minutes and communicate with each other. Now, I'm sure we still communicate but it's a little harder.

VVN: When you first got to town, you worked with the Jordanaires.

RS: Yeah, the Jordanaires were a very busy vocal group. They were very good and they sang pm lots of recording sessions. Every now and then one of the guys would get sick or have to be out-of-town and Gordon Stoker, who ran the group, would call me to fill in for the guy that was missing. He'd also call another guy that I knew, Bergen White, who is still around. He still arranges strings and the whole orchestra, for that matter, for recording sessions and for artists on the road. We'd fill in for whoever was out. It was usually Hoyt Hawkins. He was in my range.

VVN: Obviously, the general public knows you for your records and hits but I don't think a lot of people realize what an impact and how busy you were behind the scenes as a producer and an A&R man and so forth. What are some of your proudest moments on the other side of the glass.

RS: I played on a lot of hit records. I'm a keyboard guy. I sang on a lot of hits. I sang the high part with Waylon Jennings on some of his hits. I produced Dolly Parton's first record. It wasn't a hit but we tried. I've just been in on the ground floor, so to speak, since the early 60's in Nashville. I'm proud to say that some of my best friends were Chet Atkins and people like that. It was a lot of fun back in those days.

VVN: Again, a lot of people know you for your comedy records but, in 1968, you put out the album Even Stevens that had three really classic singles (Unwind, Mr. Businessman and The Great Escape). What made you decide to go to a more serious side of music at that point?

RS: I don't know. I never had a plan. Being a songwriter, first and foremost, I always recorded the best song I could find and when I say best song I mean a song that would be commercial and would sell in the market. If it was a comedy song, great. If it wasn't, also great. I would just cut the best song I could find.

VVN: You have, throughout your career, mixed the comedy with the serious. Have you ever wished that the serious side took more of the forefront or, as you said, was it just whatever was the best at the time?

RS: I'm not saying that my formula is the best way to go but I have from time-to-time thought that I should have stuck with strictly serious songs and I might have had more of an impact as far as certain aspects of my career, but who's to say? Maybe I got lucky. I've been around a long time and maybe my longevity is due to the fact that people, contrary to popular belief, remember the comedy songs just as much or maybe more so than a serious song. I mean, The Streak is forty years old and I did it the other night on the Grand Ole Opry. People were just jumping up and down. They were so glad to hear that song. Some of the old comedy songs are really hanging in there. They're really holding up.

VVN: I think you proved a lot of that with your last release, the eight-disc set on the history of comedy recording.

RS: Yeah, I'm glad you know about that. I call it The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music and there were 108 songs on there. I left out a few, not on purpose, but I just couldn't get them in. Maybe I'll do a volume 2.

VVN: I was going to say, you have to have a little bit left over for the next one.

RS: That's right. Spoken like a true marketer.

VVN: Your next album does definitely fall on the serious side. I understand that you have a gospel record ready to go.

RS: I had a pop hit with a gospel song a number of years called Turn Your Radio On. I put out an album of songs with that but ever since then I've wanted to do another gospel album, so I finally got time and went into the studio to record 24 gospel songs. This first album is half of those and will be out in August. Bill Gaither is going to put it out and market it through his channels. I'm really glad about that because he seems to be the hottest thing in gospel music these days.

VVN: You see a lot of his albums hitting the Billboard charts on a regular basis so that's definitely a good thing.

RS: We'll see what happens. I'm real proud of the album. I did a lot of old gospel songs, old standards that people like to hear and I did them in a new, fresh way, I think and really produced it as well as I could with strings and the whole nine yards.

VVN: I know you said you performed at the Grand Ole Opry the other night. Any other plans for live performances, especially with the new album coming out?

RS: I've been off the road for a little over a year now and I'm kind of missing it. I think I might get the band back together and go out in the fairly near future. I don't know exactly when but I've got some more little projects to put to bed here and then I'll be seriously considering that.

VVN: What else do you have coming up in the future?

RS: Well, I just finished a little movie we shot down in Shreveport called Campin' Buddies. It's a comedy and the plot is “Dumb and Dumber go camping.” My camping buddy is Tom Lester who was Ebb on Green Acres. Victoria Jackson is in the movie along with Donny Most from Happy Days. It turned out pretty good. We had a great director, Tom Logan, and they're going to edit it in July. I'm not sure when it will be out. Maybe this fall.

VVN: Into theaters?

RS: I don't know if it is going to go into theaters initially or not. A lot of movies go direct to DVD and then, I think, if they do well they may book them in theaters but I'm not sure how that works. As I said, I'm new to the movie business. We'll see what happens.

VVN: We also happen to be big fans of your daughter Suzi Ragsdale.

RS: Oh, well bless your heart.

VVN: I was wondering if you had any plans to do any work with her.

RS: Absolutely. We're working on a one woman show. I want to video tape it. She's got some new songs that I think people are going to just love and we're going to produce. I think it will probably be about an hour. We'll see how riled up we get when we start shooting it. It may be longer than that. Like I said, she has some great new material and I want to produce a concert with Suzi and videotape it and see what we can come up with.

VVN: You have really embraced modern technology over the last ten years as far as YouTube and music videos. That's something that you don't see as much from veteran artists. How did you get into all of that?

RS: I've always tried to figure out what was the most commercial way to present my work. Lately, in the last fifteen years or so, it seems to me that video is the way to go. People love to watch their music as well as listen to it, ever since they came out with the VHS machine and then the DVD player. That's not taking anything away from radio because you don't need to watch anything when you're driving your car, but there's a big market out there for video, especially with YouTube and all those outlets and I just feel like that's the way to go, at this time anyway.

VVN: Did you ever think, when you first got into the business, that technology would change so much. From the 50's to the 80's it was all vinyl and then we had the CD revolution but so much is done now through downloading. Everything seems to be changing at such a fast pace.

RS: Nobody, I think, saw it coming. The internet is what made it happen as we all know. Change is inevitable, let's face it.