Marty Raybon's bluegrass-county road winds ahead

Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

Click here to enlarge this photo
Submitted photo
Grammy-winner Marty Raybon last recorded a country album, but he will bring a bluegrass outfit Sunday to the American Legion in Hughesville.

Marty Raybon grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., the land that hatched the Southern rockers known as Lynyrd Skynyrd. But his father was a Bill Monroe-era bluegrass musician, a fiddle player. And before Raybon (now in his early 50s) left Florida in 1984 to move to Nashville, Tenn., and moved on a year later to Muscle Shoals, Ala. — what would become the home base of a country band that would release nine albums and chart 26 singles — his story began much as it continues today: grounded in bluegrass.

Since the mid '90s, when Raybon gave up his job as frontman of Shenandoah, he has mostly performed as a solo artist, releasing a combination of Christian, gospel, country and bluegrass records. Last year, however, did signal a return for Raybon to country.

He was signed by an indie label named GrandVista Music and released "At His Best," which included a pre-released single, "Daddy Phone," a polished, pedal-steel driven tune about a father struggling to maintain contact with his son after a divorce. Even so, it's a bluegrass band that Raybon will bring to Hughesville's American Legion on Sunday — though his bluegrass band might in turn bring along a few Shenandoah hits: "Next to You, Next to Me," for one.

When Raybon and his two brothers were young, their father taught them how to sing and harmonize. The father and sons picked up a banjo player. Raybon sang lead and played rhythm guitar, while his brothers handled upright bass and lead guitar.

The American Bluegrass Express hit the road roughly every other weekend, traveling to festivals all over the South.

Weekend: That's quite a springboard to becoming a professional musician. Did you ever consider doing anything else?

Raybon: Unfortunately, my daddy was a masonry contractor, so I had to do that whether I liked it or not. And it really kind of worked out to be a good thing. We worked with Dad during the week, and when Daddy played in the band with us, it was kind of easy to go to our boss and say we needed to take off on Friday. We just made sure that whatever we had to get done that week — brother we just worked hard to get it done so by Friday we could get gone.

Weekend: Did you start branching out into country music before Shenandoah?

Raybon: When I left Florida, I got an offer from a group that had actually played a little bluegrass when we had met. It was called Heartbreak Mountain … They had moved to Nashville in '83 and were about to lose their lead singer. … So, in the process of time, they started adding electric stuff to the band: pedal steel player, electric guitar player, they picked up a drummer. They were the nucleus of a bluegrass band but they turned into a club band.

Weekend: So did it ever occur to you that the music of Shenandoah was the style of music you wanted to play, or did it just happen?

Raybon: When I left Nashville, I moved to Muscle Shoals, Ala., and took a job with a band working in clubs. There was no Shenandoah at that time. But what that band consisted of a year later was the group Shenandoah. A lot of the songs that we picked and a lot of things that we like kind of dictated where we were at. Jim Seales is a great guitar player. Being the lead singer, I just kind of found tunes that fit my vocals. And it was really nice because [producer] Rick Hall gave me the liberty to sing the songs like I felt them instead of exactly like the demo singers.

Weekend: Are you still writing your own songs?

Raybon: Yes, I still write quite a bit.

Weekend: How has your approach to writing music changed since you were in Shenandoah?

Raybon: Actually, to tell you the truth, the approach really hasn't changed a great deal. It's always a steady process of learning. Then the great thing about it is that you have the privilege and the opportunity to be around a lot of really great writers.

Raybon went deep into the specifics of the songwriting process, namely the importance of grabbing the listener with the opening line. He read the lyrics to a song he recently co-wrote with a friend, "You've Got to Move," which begins with the lyrics, "Billy was glued to the very last pew at the New Hope Church of God."

Weekend: Do you consider the song a gospel song or a Christian song?

Raybon: I would consider it message music, yes. It's message music. … I'm a Christian, and I value what Christ has done for me, and I'm willing to share that with anybody that wants to hear it. Not everyone wants to hear it, but that's doesn't keep me from sharing.

Weekend: When did you first feel compelled to write message music?

Raybon: I guess I kind of always did … Then I had the opportunity to do two or three gospel albums, and I put them on there. It was something that allowed the word of God to be exalted without trying to browbeat someone with a 90-pound Bible.

Weekend: Mainstream country music really started to change a lot in the '90s. What do you think about country music today?

Raybon: It's certainly different than what it was in the '90s. Although there are some really great songs, even as there was in the '90s, there were also some tunes that I didn't think lyrically were as a good as some others. … Periods of time have different things that say things to people. Just as much as I think gospel writing has changed a great deal from the stuff I heard long, long ago, the message is not different. People just had a different approach to it.

Weekend: What did it mean to have a country hit in the '80s and 90s? How much different is your life now than it was back then?

Raybon: Well, you know, honestly, it's not really a whole lot different. A lot of things we had the privilege of being able to do, I still do. It's probably opened up a lot of opportunities. It's helped me be able to take things from a little bit of a different angle without having to fight my way through it like we did it at first. When all that stuff first started, we were just trying to make it.

Weekend: Bluegrass musicians are amazingly accessible. Were you just as accessible to fans and reporters back then as you are now?

Raybon: The thing about it was it used to really aggravate people, like road managers. Because I grew up playing bluegrass, so I was always out amongst the crowd. Just because I started playing country music didn't mean my mindset had changed.

If you go

Jay Armsworthy and the Sons of the American Legion's concert series will continue with a concert by Marty Raybon at 2 p.m. Feb. 20. Tickets are $15. Doors open at noon, after which a fried chicken dinner will be served until 1:45 p.m. Opening for Raybon is Armsworthy playing with local bluegrass musician Charlie Thompson. Armsworthy recently announced the release of his new gospel album "I Couldn't Make It Without Him." The show will be held at American Legion Post 238, at the corner of routes 381 and 231 in Hughesville. Call 301-737-3004 for more information.