MARTY RAYBON EMBRACES ALL
FACETS OF HIS MOUNTAIN SOUL
The lauded singer reconnects with Shenandoah while still remaining true to his Full Circle bluegrass heritage during performance at Lone Star Fest
Muscle Shoals meets mountain soul. Or better said: The rural south, with its hardscrabble simplicity and high lonesome honesty, mingles with the gut-rattling potency of a bluesy downtown.
Marty Raybon is that voice, that vocal ambassador of the sonic intersection that bridges bluegrass, country and R&B. We know him as the pipes of Shenandoah, the quietly influential country group that found big chart success in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with enduring staples “Sunday In the South,” “Ghost In This House,” “Mama Knows,” “The Church on Cumberland Road,” “Two Dozen Roses” and many more.
But Raybon is also a bluegrass prodigal son. As a solo artist and accompanied by his tight, inspiring band Full Circle, Raybon has spent much of his post-Shenandoah career returning to his bluegrass core without ever losing that soulful richness.
Yet before we go any further, let’s dispense with the obvious news – Raybon has reunited with Shenandoah. Along with drummer Mike McGuire, a Shenandoah founding member, bassist Chris Lucas, keyboardist Stan Munsey and guitarist Jamie Michael, Raybon will be touring once again as the voice of Shenandoah for the first time since his departure from the group in 1997. There are already several 2015 concert dates on the books to follow a small handful of gigs in late 2014.
He’s not giving up on Full Circle, either. In fact Raybon merges the two bands, so to speak. Raybon and Full Circle perform at Lone Star Fest, the bluegrass-centric festival picking its way into the Doubletree Hotel in Richardson, Texas March 13 and 14, 2015. Also on the bill are Suzy Bogguss, The Boxcars, Gold Heart, In Achordance, The Herrins, Tiger Alley and Dueling Hearts.
Tickets for Lone Star Fest, which is presented by Dallas’ Bluegrass Heritage Foundation, range from $38.50 to $63.50 for full weekend passes. To purchase tickets, visit lonestarfest.com.
Raybon, calling from home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, admits that a large portion of his Lone Star Fest stage stint with Full Circle will essentially be “Shenandoah Unplugged.” Since he’s been doing the bluegrass thing for 14 years, Raybon is pretty adept at how to put a grassy spin on songs that weren’t originally constructed as bluegrass fare. A mandolin supplants a piano. A fiddle fills in for a guitar. You get the idea.
“We do the songs as they were on the records but with the different instruments,” Raybon says. “People love what they are familiar with. You want to present it to them as much as they remember. That is what they are expecting. Don’t ever do what they aren’t expecting.”
So in addition to material from Raybon’s latest Full Circle effort, the beautifully bluegrassy opus The Back Forty, you’ll hear Shenandoah’s “Next to You, Next to Me,” “Ghost In This House,” “Mama Knows,” “The Moon Over Georgia,” “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” “The Church on Cumberland Road” and “Sunday in the South.”
Bluegrass, as it turns out, runs deep in Raybon’s veins. He found an affinity for the homespun tunes early in his life.
“I always loved the honesty of it,” Raybon says. “Even the poor grammar; it was their vernacular. People understood what they were saying. I grew up in the house of a brick layer. I didn’t know anything about the coal mines. But I know more about the coal mines than I thought I did because of those songs.”
Bluegrass is akin to home, and Raybon has willingly done his personal and creative 360 on albums such as 2006’s The Grass I Grew Up On, 2009’s This, That & The Other, and 2012’s Southern Roots & Branches (Yesterday & Today).
“You spend half your life getting away from where you came from, and then the other half getting back to where you came from,” he says. “It was always real comfortable there. It is such wholesome music.”
The Shenandoah reunion feels like a natural progression, a joyful return. Now dubbed Shenandoah Reloaded Featuring Marty Raybon, the group re-amps at a time when its artistic stock is at its highest. Current country music superstar Miranda Lambert name-dropped Shenandoah on “Another Sunday in the South,” a tune from her fifth studio album, 2014’s Platinum, that features Raybon on harmony vocals.
The modern-day influence continues: Gary LeVox, lead singer of Rascal Flatts, has called Raybon “the greatest singer on the planet to this day.” Young country traditionalist Josh Turner refers to Raybon as “one of the best soul singers in music.”
Even bro country goliaths Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean have covered Shenandoah’s “Sunday In the South” in concert. Raybon is grateful for all the attention, which gives him and Shenandoah an amazing amount of relevance in today’s cut-throat mainstream country music world.
Raybon remembers when Shenandoah first heard a demo of “Sunday In the South,” a song that instantly connected with the band.
“You literally could feel the presence of everybody even though nobody said anything. All of us knew what that song said. We all grew up in the rural south. Every one of us understood the steel mill houses. It was something that all of us could relate to. Sundays were easy. The whole day was like that.”
Returning to Shenandoah was also easy. Unlike most bands that splinter, Shenandoah never suffered the huge fallout, the big dramatic break up.
“That wasn’t us,” he says.
Raybon was simply tired of incessantly feeding the machine. He recalls that one year during the group’s heyday they were gone from home for 317 days. He just needed to get off the roller coaster.
Now as he steps back onto the train he’s older, wiser and comfortable in his bluegrass-meets-country-meets-R&B cocoon. It is the right time for the man from Muscle Shoals to reclaim his mountain soul.
By Mario Tarradell