Just as the popular portrayal of Johnny Cash as a lawless hellraiser overlooks a nuanced man’s love of faith and family, painting 80-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Ray Stevens as just a comedy act undercuts his decades of work as a producer, businessman and multi-Grammy-winning singer of serious country and gospel songs.
Stevens’ role as an ambassador for country music began as soon as the Atlanta-area native inked his first record deal in 1957. Beyond making a mark with “Ahab the Arab” and other early-career novelty sides, Stevens worked behind-the-scenes in the Sixties for Mercury and Monument Records, producing singles by Jim Glaser (“A Pair of Loaded Dice”) and Dolly Parton (“Don’t Drop Out”). Early examples of his well-rounded songwriting spilled over into the repertoires of such popular artists as Sammy Davis Jr. (“Have a Little Talk With Myself”) and Brook Benton (“My True Confession”).
Of course, loose ties to Dolly and the Rat Pack hardly make an artist a Hall of Famer. A more pointed defense of Stevens’ legacy involves highlighting less jovial songs that dispel country music clichés without shattering an image that’s as wholesome as Opie Taylor.
Though Stevens’ musical output in his later years has been characterized by a far-right streak (see the unfortunate “Osama-Yo’ Mama”), his 1970 single “America Communicate With Me” reminds us of the open-minded, live-and-let-live attitudes that are as compatible with country classics as flag-waving jingoism. In the song, Stevens’ narrator gets fed up with the Vietnam era’s slanted headlines and societal pressure to veer further left or right. Such honest statements as “despite your flaming headlines, I’ll still keep my faith in you” aged gracefully, unlike the cringe-inducing “Osama, yo’ mama didn’t raise you right. When you were young, she must have wrapped yo’ turban too tight.”
Like with “America Communicate With Me,” Stevens was equally open-mined with 1970’s Grammy-winning “Everything Is Beautiful,” which endorsed the biblical Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Years before long hair was socially acceptable on men and schools began to integrate, Stevens was spreading a very progressive take on that gospel in the lyrics to “Everything”: “We shouldn’t care ’bout the length of his hair/or the color of his skin.”
To capitalize on the success of the track, Andy Williams’ Barnaby Records cobbled together cover songs for the 1970 album Everything Is Beautiful. On paper, Stevens singing the Beatles’ surreal “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” seems about as promising as Pat Boone, heavy-metal stylist. After all, it required the “Guitarzan” guy to drop hints about Paul McCartney’s supposed demise. Yet it’s one of the better Beatles covers to appear on a country album, and it helps prove Stevens’ range as a song interpreter.
Those serious 1970 hits gave Stevens the freedom to begin cutting albums aimed at adult contemporary and gospel audiences. Better-known songs that followed include a version of “Turn Your Radio On,” written by Alfred E. Brumley, the father of Buck Owens’ longtime steel guitarist Tom Brumley, in 1937. No less than Merle Haggard, the Statler Brothers and John Hartford have covered the song, but Stevens’ 1972 recording was particularly notable because its rural camp-meeting feel appealed equally to fans of Southern gospel and country music.
As a whole, the Seventies remained no joke for the entertainer. Only his defining single “The Streak” and the 1974 album its from, Boogity Boogity, strayed from his focus on spirituality and sentimentality. His courting of the easy-listening crowd paid off big in 1974 when he covered Erroll Garner’s pop and jazz standard “Misty” (Johnny Mathis’ signature tune) and earned a Grammy in the process.
But Stevens’ 1984 jump from Mercury to RCA signaled a return to the funny songs. It was a career shift, however, that revealed Stevens’ business smarts, as he quickly realized that his wacky voices and comedic characters suited music videos and as-seen-on-TV VHS releases. The success of Stevens’ audio-visual country comedy guaranteed, for better or worse, that a new generation unfamiliar with “Misty,” “Everything Is Beautiful” or “America Communicate With Me” would judge him solely as a jokester.
These days, Stevens operates and performs at his own Nashville-area dinner theater, CabaRay. It’s a return to Music City of sorts for the entertainer, who in 1991 decamped to Branson, Missouri, to sidestep country music’s increased focus on young performers and — like he did in the Seventies with the easy-listening set — fill a demand for a particular brand of entertainment.
Now, as he did then, he remains aware of his place in the country universe. Stevens represents more than that camel sound that your granny loathed in 1962’s “Ahab the Arab,” and has served country music well through varied roles for more than 60 years — earning a Hall of Fame plaque that should describe him as more than just “comedian.”