arty Raybon, longtime lead singer for Shenandoah during their Grammy-winning heyday in the late '80s and early '90s, vividly recalls the 1986 film "Crossroads" in which Ralph Macchio plays a Julliard prodigy who becomes obsessed with the blues and seeks out a living blues legend, played by Joe Seneca.
At one point, Raybon remembers, Seneca tells his young protégé, "If you're gonna play the blues, you gotta take it from where you got it, and you gotta carry it through. If you're gonna be a blues man, you gotta carry it further."
"That," says Raybon, "is what I want to do with what I'm doing."
For Raybon, "carrying it through" has brought him to the brink of a project he has dreamed of for years - a return to the bluegrass music he grew up with and first performed. Slated for mid-March release on Tim Austin's Virginia-based Doobie Shea label, the album is appropriately titled "Full Circle," and Raybon enthusiastically acknowledges that he feels like he's come home.
"I had been in bluegrass music for several years. In fact, that's really kind of where I cut my teeth. My two brothers and my dad, we had a bluegrass band (American Bluegrass Express). When you get it in your blood, you just can't ever get rid of it, you know."
Like other mainstream Nashville stars who have proudly displayed their "grass roots" over the last few years - Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless all come to mind - Raybon convincingly demonstrates that he knows and understands the genre, both musically and historically.
"Full Circle" is a deft mixture of new, original tunes, old Shenandoah favorites, and new renditions of classics from the masters - Bill Monroe ("Rocky Road Blues"), Flatt and Scruggs ("Down The Road") and, in particular, three songs associated with the mercurial King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin ("Home Run Man," "Prayer Bells Of Heaven," "The Last Song"). He gleefully recounts the story of making his wife listen to the entire Bear Family boxed set of Martin's music during a long drive home and admits he's something of a "Jimmy freak."
"I'll never forget. My daddy had an eight-track tape of Jimmy Martin...my daddy, he said, 'Now boys, man, now listen to that - they don't miss nothin' in that timing. Of course, my daddy's a fiddle player, and he was right. That was the kind of stuff about Jimmy Martin that immediately got me."
Growing up in a musical family, Raybon says he and his brothers were also naturally drawn to the vocal harmonies of the classic brother acts in bluegrass, especially the Osborne Brothers and the McReynolds brothers, Jim and Jesse.
"But for Jimmy Martin, it was that timing, man, that backbeat, and son, he was always right on top of it, too. To me, that's what hard-drivin' bluegrass is all about."
Warming to the topic of what makes for good bluegrass, Raybon doesn't shy away from the fact that, like strong coffee or fine whiskey, not everyone likes the music when they first hear it.
"I have a lot of friends that I'd play a Bill Monroe record (for), and they'd say, 'Man, that sounds terrible. Man, he can't even sing'. But boy, there was just something about Monroe...it was like it literally captivated you. It was...tunes like 'All The Good Times Are Past And Gone,' that were album cuts, you'd listen to them and think, 'Man oh man, that's grass.'"
Of course, grabbing the attention of the many fans he garnered with his lead vocals on some 15 or so chart-toppers with Shenandoah prior to departing the group in 1997 is, he agrees, another important part of the "Full Circle," and so Shenandoah fans can enjoy newly grassed-up versions of "Ghost In This House" and "Next To You, Next To Me."
"'Ghost In This House' just really kind of lent itself to the feel of what we were doing, in the direction of the song selection, the picking of the material. And then, 'Next To You, Next To Me' was a bluegrass tune from the very, very get-go. I'll never forget when that tune was played to us for consideration for the 'Extra Mile' album, when I was with Shenandoah. When I heard it, I thought, man, that's bluegrass, we need to cut that, fellas."
Among the new songs, "That's One" is built on the classic "turn of phrase" hook that so much of country songwriting has been built on, but Raybon says it's not really a brand new song. It's a Shenandoah song that never made it to an album.
"We were sitting in a hotel room in Oklahoma City, or somewhere, and I had the guitar out, and I'd heard the old saying a million and 50 times, 'Boy, that's one if I ever did see one'. Stan (Thorn) was the keyboard player (for Shenandoah), and Mike (McGuire) was the drummer, and all three of us write, so I came out with that and Mike said, 'That's pretty catchy. Is that something you're working on?' I said, 'No, it's just a little old thing.' He said, 'Man, let's write that.' So, before it was all over, me and him and Stan sat down the rest of that evening in the hotel room, and we wrote it. Actually, what we were after was kind of another 'Next To You, Next To Me'. But you know, we played it for the labels (RCA and Capitol)...and neither one of them liked it. We couldn't figure out why, but I said, 'I'll tell you what's a fact, if I do this bluegrass album, I'm puttin' that song on there."