November 15, 2012

Ray Stevens: Golden LP Series, Part 23...

Good morning all Ray Stevens fans! We're up to studio album 23 in the career of Ray Stevens which brings us to an album chock full of comical recordings from 1986. As mentioned in the previous installment, the spring of 1986 saw the eventual climb to #1 of his 1985 LP on the Country Album chart. The follow-up LP hit in the latter part of the summer in 1986 on it's way to a Top-20 finish on the Country Album came ever so close to reaching the Top-10. The LP itself entered the Country Album chart in September 1986 and it reached it's peak position rather quickly...spending nearly 30 weeks on the best-selling chart.

This issue of Music City News is for the month of June. This was the first year that Ray Stevens won the fan-voted Comedian of the Year award at the annual awards program. Ray had been a frequent performer and sometimes a co-host on various awards programs affiliated with the Music City News publication but it wouldn't be until the 1986 awards that he captured Comedian of the Year. The awards program was part of what was once called Fan Fair. This event took place for several days in Nashville where artists/labels would set up booths and fans could stroll by and get their pictures taken or get autographs from the artists. Also, fans could purchase merchandise and have their favorite artist autograph it. This tradition was legendary amongst country music fans and historians, having started in 1972, but it's name was changed to CMA Music Fest. Some reports say that the name change was due to negative perceptions that the word 'fan' created...perhaps some thought the word suggested exclusion in some form or another...but anyway, the CMA Music Fest continues to this day every summer.

The 23rd studio album from Ray Stevens, Surely You Joust, contains 10 comical recordings altogether. The LP features a country comedy lover's dream act in that the opening track and second single release, "Southern Air", features Jerry Clower and Minnie Pearl along for the ride as Ray sings about a fictional rural airline that flies in the southern states. In the performance Jerry Clower, a fellow country comic, portrays the captain of the airplane while another legendary country comic, Minnie Pearl, portrays the stewardess. Ray plays the part of the nervous passenger who tells his story of the goings on in "Southern Air". The comical tale flew into the weekly country charts for several weeks in November 1986 and peaked in the Top-65 on the Country Singles chart by year's end but it reached the Top-30 on the Country Single Sales chart. Novelty songs, in general, weren't getting a lot of airplay in any radio format...even the morning radio shows on FM and AM radio had seemingly shunned the novelty song except for rare occasions. I believe it was a testament to Ray's popularity that his singles and his albums were continuing to sell and reach an audience...even if that audience was slowly becoming undesirable among radio programmers. As mentioned, the LP peaked in the Top-20, and remained charted for more than 25 weeks...without the benefit of a major Top-10 or Top-40 hit...and this sort of thing would become commonplace for Ray for the next several years as his music was hitting with consumers but radio, for the most part, would have none of it.

If radio was non-existent then how was Ray able to get his music to consumers? That's where the power of The Nashville Network, a heavy touring schedule, and the syndicated show, Hee Haw, comes into play. In a previous blog entry I mentioned that Ray began making numerous appearances on Hee Haw beginning in the mid '80s. He co-hosted quite a few episodes for a number of years, too, in addition to the many appearances on Nashville Now, the program Ralph Emery hosted on The Nashville Network for 10 years (1983-1993). Ray was able to reach a large segment of consumers by appearing on those shows. Whereas radio tends to single out certain age groups or certain genders, television usually attempted to aim for a more diverse and larger reach. I've often read that there's a saying in the music business that radio courts one set of music consumers while television courts another. It's not like that now but in 1986 there was plenty of evidence to support the idea that most artists who advertised their music through TV appearances were all over the age of 45 and couldn't be heard on the radio anymore. Since people of all ages watch TV the chances were more greater that an over 40 artist could reach an audience that the narrowly confined demographics at radio stations couldn't allow.

The first single release, "The People's Court", is based on television court programs. The song hit the Singles chart the same week that the LP debuted on the Country Album chart. Yes, that's right, before the court programming boom of the mid '90s during and after the O.J. Trial and the advent of cable channels designed to showcase all kinds of legal programs, before all of that there were quite a few court programs on syndicated television seen mostly in the daytime...some in the evenings. The top two were Divorce Court and The People's Court. This single blended both of those programs together...with Ray, at various times, doing an impression of Jim Peck, the low voiced host/interviewer on Divorce Court. The song plays out like an episode of "The People's Court" toward the middle of the performance. In the beginning of the story we hear Ray as a backwoods character in a one-sided conversation with Judge Wapner. Obviously this was completely fictional. In order to appear on the show you'd have to go through a series of qualification steps, of course, but for the purposes of comedy we hear Ray, in character, setting up an appearance for him and his wife to appear and tell the whole country their private issues. It's a satirical comment on reality show fans some 15 or so years before 'reality TV' would define a generation to come. The single charted a bit more modestly on the Country Singles list but it's a hilarious performance. Ray gets to show off his nagging wife character voice at various moments in the recording.

A third single release from Surely You Joust appeared with little to no fanfare in late 1986, early 1987. "Can He Love You Half as Much as I?" was actually a whimsical love ballad and it became a long time fixture at his concerts and it was even made into a music video...twice...but more on that much later in this LP series. In this single, Ray asks all sorts of questions to a woman that's dumped him for someone else. There are humorous sound effects at various moments and Ray's vocalization is upbeat, too, as he asks if the man's talents are a match for his own peculiar gifts. In other words it's a clever way of asking the woman if the new man in her life is any better of a person just because he may have more book learning and muscles and more money. Ray performed this song, if I'm not mistaken, on two separate appearances on Hee Haw...once in 1986 when it was still an album track and again in 1987 after it had been released as a commercial single. The single didn't chart which ended a mini-streak at six. His previous six single releases, dating back to December 1984, had all reached the Country Singles chart. Elsewhere on the LP we have three hilarious stories relating to the outdoors. "Smoky Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat" tells the story of a couple on vacation who mistakenly enter a church that handles rattlesnakes and the chaos that ensues. The couple were looking for a bible camp retreat but end up in the middle of all things rattlesnake. "The Camping Trip" tells the story of a camping adventure and all the headache and mayhem that takes place. It starts out quite peaceful and optimistic but soon it turns into a horror story triggered by a tremendous downpour and the muddy and bloody aftermath. A grizzly bear gets into the act! "Camp Werethahekahwee" is downright demented. It paints a wholesome all-American image as we hear of parents that send their son off to summer camp. The music sounds as if you're at a camp ground. As I told you many blog entries ago, Ray Stevens is a master at arranging music. The comic twist comes at the end of the song, though.

The original health food craze is a focal point in "Fat" where Ray sings about being hugely overweight. Along the way we're told of the various incidents and accidents that his weight have caused on total strangers. There's a clip on You Tube of Ray performing this song on an episode of Nashville Now from around the time this LP was originally released. You should really check it out.

In "Bionie and the Robotics" we hear a very unusual recording, even for Ray Stevens. In this song, with the help of a vocoder, Ray sings half of the song as if he were a robot or a cyborg. Ray had recently appeared on The Fall Guy, which starred Lee Majors. The previous decade saw Majors star as The Six Million Dollar Man where he played cyborg Steve Austin. I don't think it cost six million dollars to make Ray's 1986 recording, though. "Bionie and the Robotics" is an all robotic rock band. The name, Bionie, I assume is a pun on the word 'bionic'. In spite of the robotic sound effects you'll be able to, in time, decipher much of what the robot is saying. I have a difficult time understanding what some of the shorter words happen to be. I think the official lyrics would go a long way at deciphering the robotic language but so far there's not been any official lyrics supplied anywhere.

The album's closing track, "Dudley Dorite of the Highway Patrol", is in reality Ray's musical biography. In the song Ray sings about being pulled over by an over zealous highway patrolman. Ray has apparently been declared Public Enemy #1 in this small town. The fictional characters from several of Ray's previously released songs apparently exist in real life and much to Ray's horror they're out for revenge. They feel he's made their lives a laughing stock. It's an entirely surreal story blending reality and that seems as if it could've made for a good Twilight Zone episode.

All in all the 1986 LP ranks up there with his best comedy releases. Ray continued his successes into 1987 with several high profile television appearances and a super-hot single that was too hot to handle for some given it's topicality and controversial undertone. What could I be referring to?? What sort of single could generate even an ounce of controversy from Ray Stevens? What sort of Ray Stevens album would some music critics decry as R-rated and unsuitable for children? You'll find out the answers to all the above in the next Golden LP Series installment!!

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