August 23, 2014

Ray Stevens Gospel Collection Review

Ray Stevens once recorded an album titled Turn Your Radio On...the recordings took place in the early 1970's. The LP became a hit in 1972 and it boasted three hit singles. Since that time those recordings and some others he did in that same time period that fit the inspirational/gospel feel have made their way onto various compilation albums over the last several decades. In 1982 a re-issue of the early '70s album hit the market. In 1992 Ray compiled a gospel collection of his previous recordings that he titled A Brighter Day. The title of the collection comes from a song he recorded in 1970 that appeared on his Everything Is Beautiful LP.

In 1996, Curb Records issued Great Gospel Songs. This one is more or less a re-issue of Turn Your Radio On with a couple of other songs added. The 1972 LP seen another re-issue via Collectible Records as part of a 2-LP-on-1 CD project paired with his 1975 LP, Misty.

A couple of years ago (in 2010) a compilation from Ray surfaced titled A Funny Thing Happened In Church Today (spotlighting mostly comedic recordings centering around religion and church service). As far back as 2010 Ray had been mentioning in his various interviews that he'd hoped to put out a gospel album of newer recordings at some point. In 2012 it appeared as if a gospel project was on the horizon...excitement amongst fans of Ray Stevens really started to set in during a radio interview with Mike Huckabee as we all heard "If Jesus Is a Stranger" for the very first time in 2013 (December 4th). At the time of that appearance the gospel album had a release date set for January 2014...with the title being 'Onward Christian Soldiers'. Along the way something must have come up because the scheduled January release was pushed back without a specific future release date being announced.

Afterward not much was mentioned of an upcoming gospel release until the summer of 2014 during the early stages of Ray's Nashville memoir release. During an autograph signing at Fan Fair images of Ray's gospel CD appeared as booth decoration and pictures of him from the CD's photo session were on display. I did not attend Fan Fair but I've seen pictures of him meeting fans and signing autographs at Fan Fair and you can easily see images of the gospel CD in the background.

An announced release date of August 19 soon surfaced as did news of it's affiliation with the Gaither gospel music company. The CD carries a Gaither Gospel Series banner on the top left side of the CD.

In a word, this gospel collection is outstanding!! There are 12 tracks on here...5 of the 12 are medleys that combine 2 songs into one performance. This project is a music arranger's delight, too, due to the various tempo shifts and instrumentation accompanying the performances. As most fans are aware, Ray has long been the producer and arranger of the songs he records and this one is no exception...but considering the amount of production on display here I hope listeners appreciate the effort and energy Ray put into these recordings. Not only are you going to hear vocal prowess but musical expertise, too. It's in the medley performances that Ray's arranging skills are front and center. The opening medley "Swing Down Chariot/Swing Low Sweet Chariot" carries the usual display of gospel sing-a-long but it's in the production that Ray paints a clear picture of the a movie...and it comes complete with thunder claps. In the second medley "Shall We Gather at the River/Down By the Riverside", it starts out as a ballad and then turns into a hand clapping sing-a-long. In a possible nod to his 1972 gospel album Ray has also overdubbed his own harmony vocals multiple times...creating a choir effect heard on this song and in others throughout the collection. Track three, "Dry Bones", comes from his 2012 box set The Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music. Ray had performed the song on a telethon hosted by Gary Chapman in 2011...a studio recording surfaced in 2012 for the Encyclopedia project and it's making an encore appearance on this gospel CD.

I first heard and seen Ray perform track 4, "Farther Along", in a YouTube video. The performance comes from a special called God Bless America Again. In the studio recording heard on the gospel CD it clearly fits the country gospel has that 'sound' (to my ears at least). Given it's a studio recording it features a lot more production, obviously, than you'll hear on the YouTube video.

Once you get the CD chances are, if you're a long time fan of Ray's, that you'll get chills and maybe goosebumps as you listen to the familiar intro of "Have a Little Talk with Myself". The song, originally recorded by Ray in 1969, makes a brief appearance as part of a medley. It's paired with "Just a Little Talk with Jesus". Some more examples of Ray's production skills appear in "Onward Christian Soldiers" (in the planning stages of the CD that was to be the CD's title!). The recording blends the gospel sounds with military might and as far as the production goes it clearly holds the title for the most production value (aside from the opening medley). As you listen to "The Old Rugged Cross/Rock of Ages" and especially "Old Time Religion/When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" you'll find yourself caught up in the moment and there's some phrases in his rendition of the "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" that are great to the ears. I hadn't heard Ray sing like this in awhile!! He hits notes in the Duane Allen range (of The Oak Ridge Boys).

"Turn Your Radio On" makes an appearance on this collection...but it doesn't feature the lyrics that Ray Stevens fans are familiar with. This particular recording uses the 1938 lyrics rather than the other set of lyrics Ray used on his 1971 recording. The chorus of the song remains the same, though. "The Preacher and the Bear" is the only comical song on the collection...and some may wonder the reason it's here considering the dramatic and inspirational tone of the collection as a whole. Ray recorded this for his 2012 Encyclopedia box set and did a great job on it. It's more of a religious tale of comedic encounters rather than a 'ha ha ha' funny song. The CD closes with "If Jesus is a Stranger". This is the song that Ray's been performing and promoting on most of his interview appearances. As I mentioned earlier I first heard this song in December 2013 during an appearance Ray made on Mike Huckabee's radio program. I believe this is destined to be a commercially released 'single' and I say that because it jumps right out at you from the speakers as if it's tailor-made to be extracted from the collection at some later date.

After listening to the CD the Ray Stevens Gospel Collection, Volume One was definitely worth the wait!! You'd have to be one of the most bitter, mean, grouchiest people in America to not like this CD once you hear it.

Yes, this my sheet of paper containing my notes. As I listened to the CD I made notes of some of the things I wanted to say in my review.

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