Exclusive Interview—He may not be on the ballot this election day, but there’s a better-than-even chance that, if he were, Nashville’s legendary Ray Stevens would garner some votes based on the number of fans who have seen—and loved—his recent political music videos “Obama Nation,” “Mr. President—Mr. President,” “Obama Budget Plan,” “We the People” and his hilarious latest offering, “Grandpa Voted Democrat,” released just a few days ago.
While the tunes all have the infectious melodies that are the hallmarks of Stevens’ classics like “The Streak,” “Ahab the Arab,” “Guitarzan” and many others, the lyrics are what make his new tunes not only entertaining, but incredibly timely. In “Obama Nation,” no reading between the lines is required to see that Stevens—joined in cameo appearances by Larry Gatlin and Billy Dean—is definitely not Barack Obama’s biggest fan. And “Grandpa” gives a surprising and very funny take on the hot topic of voter fraud. But politics hasn’t been the only thing keeping Stevens busy in the past few months. He’s also recorded and released the 108-song Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music, featuring not only a great collection of his own previous hits, but Stevens’ renditions of comedy classics made famous by other artists through the decades. Go to RayStevens.com to learn more about the Encyclopedia and Stevens other projects. He sat down with Nashville.com at his Music Row studio to talk about his recent work, his long-held political views, what first attracted him to comedy and much more. Here’s some of what the iconic Stevens had to say.
Nash: Do you recall the first song you heard as a kid that made you laugh out loud? I think for me it was probably Spike Jones’ “Cocktails for Two.”
Stevens: It could’ve been. Could’ve been one of those Spike Jones things. But honestly, I’m not sure what the first comedy thing I heard was.
Nash: Was that something that was part of your life as a kid? Were you the kid who made the other kids laugh?
Stevens: No, not really. I’ve always been pretty laid back. And I’ve always loved music and always gravitated toward music.
Nash: Did you listen to a lot of non-musical comedy records back in the early days? Things like The First Family by Vaughn Meader?
Stevens:Yeah, that was early ’60s. Vaughn Meader, I recall that, yeah.
Nash: He was a really good impressionist. Is that something you ever did? I know you’ve created some great original voices for your own records, but what about impressions of other people?
Stevens: I can do certain voices, but most of them I’m not very good at.
Nash: I know you first got into comedy because your first couple of teenage love song records did well regionally, but didn’t get much attention nationally. Do you think if those first couple of records had really exploded on the national charts that you would’ve eventually found your way to comedy, one way or another?
Stevens: You know, that’s a good question. And I don’t know. I might have, because I’ve always been appreciative of the creativity that goes into writing a comedy song, as opposed to just writing a straight love song or a song that is non-comedy, I guess. But who knows? Life kind of dictates our schedules sometimes. And I may not have had time to pursue the comedy angle if I had been more successful in other avenues.
Nash: Tell me if I’m wrong, but were there some things that were played on radio back then, that couldn’t be today because of lyrical content that might be deemed politically incorrect. I’m thinking of things like a line in “Please Mr. Custer” about a “redskin waitin’ out there.” Could you even write a song with “redskin” in it now?
Stevens: I don’t know. It’s sad because people are too touchy. I don’t think there was any malice intended in that song at all. But people have gotta have something to bitch about. There’s always somebody out there going, “I’m getting a lawyer and suing you.”
Nash: Have you always been pretty willing to share your views on the political world or the state of affairs in the country? I’ve got some song writer friends who are one political extreme or the other and may tell me, “I’m a hard core right-winger, but nobody knows it because I don’t think they’ll cut my songs if they know.” Did you ever have any concerns about that?
Stevens: No, it never crossed my mind. Because when I grew up—I’m 73, be 74 in January—when I grew up, everybody thought like me. There was no right wing or left wing. We were just Americans. Hell, I’m glad Hitler didn’t come along in the last few years, or nobody would’ve done anything about it.
Nash: As much as I’ve loved your comedy stuff, probably my all-time favorite song of yours is “Mr. Businessman.” Was that the first song you wrote that had a strong element of social commentary?
Stevens: Could’ve been, I don’t know. I had been involved in a business deal . . . got the short end of the stick. And instead of punching the guy in the nose, I wrote the song to vent my frustration.
Nash: So it wasn’t a matter of just sitting back and observing society. You had a real personal connection to that tune.
Stevens:Yeah, right (chuckles). Turns out a lot of people in the business world always have been sort of leaning in the direction of the guy I was talkin’ about in the song. [Note: If you’re not familiar with “Mr. Businessman,” check it out on YouTube.]
Nash: Do you find it easier, in terms of writing lyrics for a song, to have that personal passion about? Like in a situation like that?
Stevens: Yeah, I think it always helps as a song writer to have a personal vested interest in what he’s writing about.
Nash: In terms of your workload today, do you feel you need to work as hard as you did and have the same drive you did when you were 35? Or is it more, “I’ve done my part, I’ll write when I feel like writing and play golf when I don’t?”
Stevens: I’m trying to get to that attitude. You know it’s been pounded into me so long that it’s hard to get over having a competitive spirit and an urge to get up every morning and go do something worthwhile. The older you get, though, the more you realize that a lot of things you think are worthwhile are really not that important. (laughs) Getting up every day and coming down here keeps me occupied. I’m glad I built this office and started this publishing enterprise back in ’63. It gives me something to do now.
Nash: Do you need a place to go? If you had this in your house would you get up and do as much? Do you need to physically get in the car and go to work?
Stevens: Yeah. I’ve gotta get out of the house. A lot of people have studios in their houses. And that’s fine. But I think that kind of diminishes the importance of the studio and it diminishes the drive to get in there and do something. When you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I can go down to the basement and cut this any time I want to,” you’re probably as likely as not to watch too much TV or whatever.
Nash: How did Larry and Billy get involved in “Obama Nation?” Was that just a spontaneous thing?
Stevens: Well, my PR guy, Don, represents Billy and Larry and me and Mel Tillis and Charlie Daniels and a whole bunch of people. We were gonna get more cameo appearances, but we ran out of time. But it was fun having them in the video.
Nash: They obviously have no problem being involved in a project that lets folks know of their conservative leanings as they proclaim their love of America.
Stevens: In my opinion, most of the artists in country music are pretty level-headed and conservative thinking and don’t mind anybody else knowing it. The ones who are not, I don’t know who they are. And I know a lot of pop people from L.A. and New York who are liberals, and I don’t understand how they could possibly be that way. I guess they’re just not paying attention . . . or don’t understand the gravity of the situation.
Nash: It really has gone way beyond the traditional . . . well, Democrats are going to tax and spend a little more and Republicans will want to cut taxes . . . hasn’t it?
Stevens: It’s gone way beyond that. We’ve been kind of angling toward the liberal side for years and years and years. And enough’s enough. We can’t afford this. Margaret Thatcher had a great quote. You hear it all the time: Socialists eventually run out of other people’s money. And when that happens, they inflate and send us all to hell on a skateboard.
Nash: How long have you really been concerned about it?
Stevens: I’ve been concerned about it for a long time, but it hadn’t gotten to the point that I was just terrified until Obama got elected. Then I said, “Whoa. Let’s stop this train . . . if we can.”
Nash: Let’s talk a little more about the Encyclopedia project. I know you re-cut your songs for the set and didn’t use any older versions. Was that nice to be able to do that so you could make some little tweaks you might’ve always wanted to do on the originals? And, when you do a big hit live, is it a fine line for you to walk . . . doing the song in a way that stays fresh for you, while still sounding pretty much the way the audience learned to love it on the radio?
Stevens: I don’t try to do that. If it’s evolved, I do it the new way. I’m not trying to exactly replicate what the record sounded like. But I’ve never gotten any complaints about not sounding exactly like the record.
Nash: How much do you play these days on the piano? Every day? And have you seen any diminishing of your chops through the years?
Stevens: No, I don’t play every day. But I play at least once a week and I’m in the studio all the time doing things. My chops may have diminished a little, but not too much.
Nash: Have you received any negative feedback from your political stuff . . . sort of like the Dixie Chicks who were told by some, “just shut up and sing; we don’t want to know your politics?” Or has it all been pretty positive?
Stevens: It’s all been pretty positive. I think maybe some people have not appreciated my viewpoint. But I don’t care. I don’t try to beat people over the head with my political views. And I try not to do anything in my show that’s not entertaining. And when I do something that has a political side to it, hopefully they’re good enough songs that people enjoy them.
Nash: What are your hopes for America? Are you optimistic?
Stevens: Yeah. I think the tale’s waggin’ the dog. But the reason for most of this is the mainstream media. And they’ve been brainwashed by God knows who or what. They act like communists. Why they want to be communists, I have no earthly idea. I cannot fathom that. But maybe we can get the right people in office and turn this thing around. Enough’s enough.
Nash: I know you have kids and grandkids. Is that a big motivation for wanting things to change?
Stevens: Well, sure. You always want your kids and grandkids to come into a world that your generation has made good for them to live in.
Nash: What else are you working on these days?
Stevens: I’m finishing up an album now and the concept is: songs you’d never expect to hear done bluegrass. I decided a little ways into the recording process to go to the other end of the spectrum and add strings and other orchestral instruments. And make an album that possibly could be done with symphonies. It’s got “Unchained Melody,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “McArthur Park,” “People,” “Twilight Time,” “Spring Is Here,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” a medley of “Ruby” and “Ruby Baby” . . . there are twelve of them. We’re calling it Melancholy Fescue, a high-class way of saying bluegrass. And I want to shoot a video with “Unchained Melody,” me and a bunch of bluegrass musicians. And we’re moon shiners. Dressed in typical moon shiner garb. And I’d love to record it live with the Nashville Symphony, if they are interested and have the time. I think it would draw a lot of people.
Nash: I think that’s gonna do it. Thanks for being so generous with your time. I really enjoyed it.
Steve: Yeah, this was fun. I enjoyed it. You’re a good interviewer.
Nash: Good luck with the new project . . . and the election.