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Don't You Remember a Comedy Song?

Issue 91, Winter 2015

Photograph by Mike Smith. Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art

Ray Stevens is a slippery one. He’ll don an endless succession of zany personas, then suddenly play it straight and savvy when you least expect it. In the music video for “The Streak” he’s all over the place, making his entrance as a voluble TV news reporter, chasing down the scoop on a flashing incident at the local Bi-Rite. He shoves a microphone (unplugged) in the face of a colorful character (Ray Stevens, again)—a slack-jawed, hayseed bystander sporting a bright yellow Caterpillar cap—whose wife, Ethel, has just been scandalized by the buck-naked man racing down the jams and jellies aisle. A third Stevens, playing a grocer in an apron and bow tie, picks up the story from there, contributing a deliberately hammy vocal performance.

After the song concludes with a scene in a college basketball gym, Stevens slips out of character. Then he breaks the fourth wall. Into the shot huffs a dour, priggish, business-suited woman, a representative of the Department of Standards and Practices, who scolds, “Once again, Mr. Stevens, you have managed to—pardon the expression—barely stay within the bounds of what is permissible.” An impish Stevens waits a beat, then tugs the hayseed’s cap back on at a crooked angle and summons a doltish drawl: “Yeauuuh, Uh did.” He mugs for the camera, cutting his eyes to the side with a lopsided grin, his expression signaling that he knows exactly what he’s doing: championing his resolutely silly, lowbrow humor in the face of more buttoned-up sensibilities—and doing it at his own expense, for his audience’s benefit. He’s making sure they feel like they’re in on the joke.

In the early nineties, I watched “The Streak” and the rest of Stevens’s Comedy Video Classics compilation pretty much every time I visited my paternal grandparents in their decaying North Carolina town. My cousins, my sister, and I would inevitably go stir-crazy looking for things to do, so somebody would grab the tape from a shelf in the closet, where it sat next to Sister Act and Prancer, and shove it into the VCR. We kids would plop ourselves down on the plaid sofa, flanked by Papa in his recliner, spitting Red Man into an empty soup can, and watch Stevens clowning on the screen. By the time I became a preteen, I wanted to believe I was too cool for his cornball humor, but the antics entertained me in spite of myself. Stevens was our down-home, living-room jester.

Years later, after I became a music journalist, I’d see Stevens mentioned as a footnote to career histories of Nashville icons like Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Fred Foster, Chet Atkins, and Roger Miller. In 2010, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum spotlighted his work as a piano-playing side man. Long before that, he’d been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. These were no trivial accomplishments. I began to reevaluate. Maybe there was more to Ray Stevens than I’d realized.

The headquarters for Ray Stevens Music stands at the corner of Grand Avenue and Music Square West on Nashville’s rapidly gentrifying Music Row. From the outside, the building could pass for a tidy doctor’s office ringed in manicured shrubbery, but inside, it houses all of Stevens’s business and creative operations, including two separate recording studios.

In lieu of a receptionist—Stevens doesn’t currently employ one—the door buzzer summoned his tall, jolly right-hand man, Buddy Kalb. The boss, Kalb informed me, was at an actual doctor’s office. He offered to give me a tour of the premises. Just inside the door and throughout the building were rugs bearing Stevens’s Clyde Records logo, a camel silhouette with palm trees in the background. (It looks virtually identical to the Camel cigarettes logo, except the animals face in different directions.) We wound our way down hallways, past open office doors, through a handsomely appointed lounge, and into the “big studio.”

“This is the step where Tammy Wynette broke her arm,” Kalb cautioned, alluding to an incident that predated Stevens’s ownership. The space was prepped for Stevens to work. Song charts were piled next to the mixing console, and an array of keyboard instruments—pianos of grand and electric varieties, a Fender Rhodes organ—stood at the ready.

The path to the smaller studio cut through rooms lined with cardboard boxes of CDs, DVDs, and Stevens’s hardcover memoir, part of the mail-order operation he’s had going for close to a quarter-century. This studio was crammed with racks of costumes from videos—like the plush, pillowy muscle suit he wore in “Gitarzan”—and mounds of props. There was a treasure chest from “The Pirate Song.” A knight’s shield from the album cover of Surely You Joust. A red, adult-size tricycle left over from his years in Branson, Missouri, Las Vegas of the Midwest.

Stevens is impressively industrious at age seventy-six. He’s developing a television show and gearing up to build an entertainment complex just outside Nashville that will house both a Vegas-style supper club (the Stevens-designed CabaRay) and his new offices and studios. Blueprints were spread across his desk. When he strode in, he looked ready for the dinner crowd: dark jeans, loafers, a sport coat, and a red pocket square, his face framed by the same well-groomed beard he’s been wearing for decades. He settled into a chair with an air of purpose, ready to get down to the business of responding to questions, not to mention impatient to break ground on his new venue. “We’re kinda at the mercy of the permits people down at metro codes,” he said. “But we’re getting bids on building it. So as soon as my architect gets back from vacation. . . . ” Stevens trailed off and eyeballed the blueprints. “He’s got another week.”

Though his dad spent his working life in textile mills and impressed upon his son the value of an honest day’s wage, Ray Ragsdale, as Stevens was known in childhood, was more or less raised to perform—not through some passing-down of picking skills, but through formal instruction. While the Ragsdale family made a home in tiny Clarkdale, Georgia (where Stevens was born in 1939), then moved to slightly more bustling Albany (in 1949), and finally Atlanta (in 1956), his mom kept him in piano lessons starting at age six and insisted that he plant himself at the keyboard at least an hour each day. He picked up clarinet, trumpet, tuba, and drums in the school band program, and started a teen pop combo that played school dances.

He got his first chance to try to prove his singing and songwriting potential to somebody in the business when his Sunday school teacher, also a radio DJ, introduced him to Bill Lowery, an Atlanta-based music publisher, label head, and all-around entrepreneur. Lowery asked to hear a song, and Stevens wouldn’t settle for a make-do demo session in his bedroom or garage. Already he thought like a record man; he was after a particular, popular, reverb-bathed sound. Since those were more permissive times, he had no trouble convincing his school principal to fork over the keys to Druid Hills High for the weekend so that he could record the first song he’d ever written, the doo-wop ditty “Silver Bracelet.”

Lowery made “Silver Bracelet” into a minor regional hit and encouraged his young protégé, by then billed as Ray Stevens, to continue his formal musical education, including three years of music theory at Georgia State. Stevens gained valuable experience writing, recording, and producing for Lowery’s National Recording Company, alongside Kalb and guitarist-songwriter Jerry Reed, later of Smokey & the Bandit fame. At the time, Stevens liked to experiment in the studio and was taken with the popular youth music of the day. It was hardly a given that half a century later he would come to be seen as a novelty act, indeed, as one of modern country music’s foremost jokesters.

His piano playing took cues from the dashing syncopation of Ray Charles, and his early songwriting hewed to a popular, clowning hybrid of r&b and rock & roll, following on the heels of such late-fifties smashes as Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” and the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown,” and “Along Came Jones” (some of which Stevens would go on to record). It wasn’t lost on Stevens that these colorful, cartoonish song subjects and playful performances, often incorporating theatrical sound effects, were gargantuan crowd-pleasers. Charming a crowd was exactly what he wanted to do, so he learned the tricks of the entertainer’s trade: make it catchy and culturally resonant. He wrote a rock & roll song riffing on the sort of dubious health remedies that’d been hawked to minstrel show, radio, and television audiences dating back to Crazy Water Crystals. With its drolly exaggerated yet familiar-sounding claims, Stevens’s “Jeremiah Peabody’s Polyunsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills” landed on the pop chart, exactly as he had hoped.

Besides keeping Stevens busy in Atlanta, Lowery occasionally sent him to record in Nashville. After Stevens signed with Mercury Records there, he was offered a label gig plus a guarantee of session work. He and his young wife, Penny Jackson, moved to Nashville in 1962. Their one-bedroom apartment was so cramped that their infant daughter, Timi Lynn, had to sleep in a dresser drawer, and Stevens felt a pressing need to deliver a hit that would enable them to upgrade their living situation. Late one night he came up with the idea of spinning One Thousand and One Nights, the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales better known to American readers as Arabian Nights, into the utterly goofy, jive-talking “Ahab the Arab,” during which he bellowed in imitation Arabic and brayed like a daft donkey.

“I think what attracted me to the idea,” he wrote in his memoir, Ray Stevens’ Nashville, “was that I could make weird noises. I didn’t know what a camel sounded like so I made up a sound that turned out to be right.”

The song became a Top 5 pop smash. It is a composition of its time, though Stevens bristles at the notion that many contemporary ears can’t help but hear reductive, or even racist, undertones.

“So I wrote this song about a guy that’s gonna mess around with one of the sultan’s most valuable harem girls, and gets away with it,” he told me in his office. “Now a lot of people think it’s politically incorrect, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how they came to that conclusion, because there’s nothing political about it. It’s just a funny song.”

Even with a few novelty hits under his belt in the sixties, Stevens’s professional future was still wide open. His skill set was as diverse as any musician’s in town. He alternated between comedic material and more serious-minded songs and picked up work playing piano and singing on Nashville recording sessions, doing complex arrangements of strings and horns, and handling A&R for record labels; he’d find material for artists to sing and get them ready to record it, tasks he performed for Dolly Parton when she was new to town.

An early appreciator of Kris Kristofferson’s literary knottiness, Stevens beat Johnny Cash to the eloquently wasted “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down.” (Stevens recorded it in 1969, a year before Cash took it to No. 1.) So committed was Stevens to his interpretation of the song that he spent countless studio hours tweaking it. While preparing for its release as a single, he turned down a little number Burt Bacharach and Hal David wanted him to record for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—which is why the world knows “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” as a B. J. Thomas song.

Stevens framed “Sunday Mornin’” in grand, glistening orchestration and sang it with gentle vibrato, the ruefulness of his delivery edged in articulate warmth. But it was—he was, he’s said—a bit too “white bread” for the confessions of a hungover bohemian. He saw his rendition tank, only to watch Cash come along and score a major hit with the song. Stevens’s younger daughter, Suzi Ragsdale, who’s a singer-songwriter herself, affirms on the phone: “Yeah, he thought Johnny Cash was so successful with ‘Sunday Mornin’’ because people could see him drinkin’ beer for breakfast.”

Cash was known to dabble in humor himself (see: “A Boy Named Sue”), to say nothing of his heartfelt gospel material, but he frequently aligned himself with rough-and-tumble characters, boasting of their exploits in his songs, putting on concerts behind prison walls, and, when in the throes of addiction, living as hard as they did. With his sense of musical play and eager, polished showmanship, Stevens never conformed to the model of daringly dark artistry that’s been idealized from privileged perches throughout the rock era and beyond.

Sitting across from him, I floated the idea that he’s always come off as being more congenially mischievous than cool and dangerous.

“Oh, I’m not cool and dangerous?” he chuckled.

I changed tack. “Do you feel like your career has earned you the reputation you wanted?”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said. “It’s not up to me to voice an opinion on that, because I’m too close to the trees to see the forest. I’m not in any way aggrieved or disappointed by how I am perceived, because I am what I am and there’s nothing I can do about it. I mean, there is something that we can all do about it—we can do the best we can. But as far as entertaining and writing and being in the music business, I really have no role as far as my reputation.”

“Put it this way,” I said. “Have you ever felt underappreciated?”

“Do you think I’m underappreciated?” he tossed back, unwilling to budge, but not unkind.

I said I wasn’t sure.

“That sounds like sour grapes to me, and I don’t deal in sour grapes.”

Since Stevens more or less fought me to a standstill when I tried talking to him about perceptions of his music, I turned to his longtime acquaintance Don Cusic, a professor of music business at Nashville’s Belmont University.

“In this day and time, an artist is supposed to write in order to be authentic, and the writing is supposed to be self-expression: This really happened to me, or These are my deepest feelings,” Cusic told me over the phone. “And Ray’s not like that. Ray’s from that old school of what works. Those guys thought of the audience. Will the audience like it?”

Cusic added that he’s trying to help Stevens get into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Comedy is more important in the history of country music—in the history of recordings—than it’s given credit for.”

People do tend to overlook the wit and skill involved in country comedy, presuming it requires nothing more than a cheap set of prosthetic Billy Bob teeth. Really, though, there was down-home virtuosity in the performances of Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, and plenty of the other long-running characters on Hee Haw: a mastery and magnification of the cadences of vernacular speech; an upending of elitism; a strong grasp of situational comedy, glorious absurdity, and knowing caricature. Often there were first-rate, playfully deployed musical chops.

Long before Weird Al Yankovic became the reigning pop parodist, Stevens was goofing on familiar pop songs. In his hands, the Glenn Miller big band standard “In the Mood” became a cacophony of swinging, clucking hens (credited to the Henhouse Five Plus Two). When he did his first interpretation of a Kristofferson song since “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down,” he dispensed with emotionalism and gave a silly reading to the sensual plea, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Roughly fifty seconds into the track, the performance pivots from inflated countrypolitan finesse to hillbilly slapstick.

“That was on that video we sold on TV,” noted Stevens, gesturing toward the cover of Comedy Video Classics hanging on his office wall. (It’s emblazoned with a still photo from the end of “The Streak,” with Stevens bugging his eyes and showing his tongue.) “Sold five million.” Stevens’s words bear no trace of regret. If anything, he’s proud. Defiant even. He found his audience, he made them laugh, and he has the numbers and plaques to prove it.

Stevens released Comedy Video Classics, his collection of eight music videos, in 1992. Besides the Kristofferson number and “The Streak,” the titles include one of my personal favorites—“Mississippi Squirrel Revival” (the story of a rodent sparking a charismatic awakening in the First Self-Righteous Church)—and the lewd phone call escapade, “It’s Me Again, Margaret.” Perusing online customer reviews confirms that I’m not the only one with memories of multigenerational viewing. As a buyer recalled on Amazon: “2 of my grandchildren grew up watching this and laughing their heads off.”

Stevens, Kalb, and the rest of their team originally manufactured the videocassettes as a merch item to sell at Stevens’s Branson shows, then ventured into hawking them through vociferous television ads. Now, for the first time, you can see eight of his greatest, funniest hits! the announcer crowed in the sixty-second cut. You get it all on one hilarious VHS videotape! All that was required was a toll-free call and $19.95, plus $4.50 for shipping and handling.

The As Seen on TV approach carried with it a certain down-market connotation, the decidedly elitist notion that it was only unsophisticated products that got the fast-talking, low-budget, small-screen pitch. But Stevens didn’t sweat the possibility that the ad campaign might devalue his music in anyone’s eyes. “I don’t think about selling music to people who are that prudish,” he scoffed with a smile. “If you have the music people wanna buy, it doesn’t really matter where they’re exposed to it.”

These days, many of his fans are exposed to his music on YouTube. His intense displeasure with the current administration’s policies has become one of his primary songwriting themes, as evidenced by many of his more recent uploads. Green-screen music videos with defiant titles like “You Didn’t Build That,” “Obama Budget Plan,” and “If You Like Your Plan” seem to outnumber goofball efforts like “Taylor Swift Is Stalkin’ Me.”

Suzi Ragsdale acknowledged, “Some of ’em are a little more political than I would ever perform myself.” (She’s more in step with the folkie storytelling tradition, having sung alongside respected singer-songwriters like Guy Clark, Darrell Scott, and her ex-husband, Verlon Thompson.) “He’s gotten into that right-wing stuff pretty heavy, and he’s got a whole fan base from that. I just stay out of any political discussions, but I really enjoy that he can make his statement and still be fun and funny and kinda lighthearted.”

Stevens’s biggest comedy collection to date took an entirely different form than his video classics. He spent the better part of two years selecting and recording 108 novelty songs, plenty from various eras of his own catalog, as well as a slew of oddball sixties pop hits, pre-electric hillbilly rube numbers, parodies, and more. They’re all collected in his Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music, released in 2012. None of it is the least bit bawdy. He said, “I was just going straight down the middle: family audience.”

To go with the music, he compiled information on each song’s authors and original performers for an accompanying booklet and commissioned a short essay on the history of comedy music from Cusic, who rightly points out that Stevens’s writing and arranging prowess has led to some musically sophisticated comedy cuts.

In the booklet, Stevens lays out his agenda: “I would love for people . . . to understand that humor is often more memorable and ultimately more important in a listener’s life than some sappy love song.”

In person, he doubled down on his defense of the cultural importance of funny music. “Don’t you remember a comedy song?” he prodded. “I mean, it’ll just leap into your mind quicker, most times, than a love song. Sure, it depends on the song, but just because it’s a comedy song doesn’t mean it’s here today, gone tomorrow.” He had a point; his funny material has stuck with me for more than twenty years.

Regardless of what he said about his reputation being out of his hands, with the box set Stevens made a canny argument for attributing aesthetic and cultural value to his music. The fact that he titled it an “encyclopedia,” and treated it as a hefty research and recording project, suggests that he’d like to enjoy greater respect for the sillier side of his life’s work, and the comedic tradition of which he’s a part. “Every university should have one,” he said of his nine-disc behemoth. It sounded like he was only half-kidding.

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Jewly Hight

Nashville-based critic and journalist Jewly Hight is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio and NPR Music. Her work also appears in the New York Times and numerous other outlets. She was the inaugural winner of the Chet Flippo Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism, and helped launched WNXP, the all-music public radio station in her city, as editorial director. She last wrote for the Oxford American in 2017.