After nearly four full decades as a performing musician, anchored by a 13-year run of fronting hit-making country band Shenandoah, Marty Raybon is well aware that music is a business. His reason for remaining in the business all these years later, though, can be traced back to his earliest experiences with music and feeling connected to it through others who shared his and his family’s musical passions. That sort of kinship, he contends, is more likely to happen in bluegrass music than perhaps any other genre.
“Me and my brothers grew up going to bluegrass festivals,” explains Raybon. “Everybody that goes in there has something in common with the person who’s camped right beside ’em. You know, they like the music, and that’s why they came. Next thing you know, they’re going [to festivals] as a caravan, calling the promoter and saying, ‘We want 14 spaces together.’ The music’s great,” he says, “but when people find friendships, they find a place where they belong.”
Raybon also favors the bluegrass world, he says, because the bond that so easily forms between fans also exists between the musicians themselves. “As much as it’s about the music,” continues Raybon, “it’s about the relationships that people have in it—bands that genuinely care about and like each other, that are actually buddies. All that stuff goes hand in hand.”
If there’s a running theme throughout Raybon’s career, it would probably be one of family, both the extended and biological varieties. “My dad played fiddle, and I had another brother [Rick] who played lead guitar. I played rhythm guitar and had a younger brother [Tim] who played bass fiddle. And man, we’d just go to campers and jam,” says Raybon, sounding energized by the memory. “And before you know it, two or three other people waltz up with a mandolin, or a guitar…a banjo…we were smack-dab in the middle of it!”
The Alabama-born Raybon, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., remembers seeing such greats as Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe at the Lawtey [Fla.] Bluegrass Festivals in the early 1970s, but his and his brothers’ ears would especially perk up for harmonies produced by acts like Jim & Jesse, whose innate knack for phrasing could only come from shared genes. “The Lewis Family, when they would sing, you couldn’t tell who was singing what part,” recalls Raybon. “The Osborne Brothers would come up there and we’d look at each other and say, ‘They’re the best.’”
Raybon and his brothers formed the grandly-named American Bluegrass Express along with a couple of friends in, Raybon reckons, “around 1973, 1974.” Their father, Kenny, would later come aboard, playing fiddle and adding bass vocals, leading to increasing regional popularity and a total of five Florida State Band Championship titles. “We were playing probably forty weekends a year,” adds Tim Raybon, Marty’s younger brother. “It was pretty regional—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee every once in a while—but nonetheless, we were still pretty active. We were like big fish in a small pond. But the great thing about what we did,” adds the younger Raybon, “was that we always rubbed shoulders with the Osbornes, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, because they played the festivals that we’d play,” says Raybon, who was 11 when he began playing professionally. “Marty,” adds Tim, “would have been around 14 at the time.”
Amazing as it may seem, that early start in music means that Marty is now celebrating his fortieth year as a performer, a fact reflected in the title of his latest Rural Rhythm release, The Back Forty. With the blessing and encouragement of Rural Rhythm’s Sam Passamano, Raybon took some time to assemble an album’s worth of material to record along with his band, Full Circle, that would celebrate the forty-year mark and connect meaningfully with the winding journey that the musician has been steadfastly pursuing since his early teens.
The album is a bluegrass-rooted affair, with sterling musicianship from Full Circle mandolinist Zach Rambo and banjo player Chris Wade, several special guests and substantial vocal contributions from brother, Tim, producing the all-important sibling harmony that has been with the Raybons since childhood.
Still, The Back Forty necessarily encompasses the versatile singer’s country, bluegrass, and gospel sides, demonstrating his canny instinct for blending those Southern bloodlines. Among its many highlights are an accelerated-tempo on Webb Pierce’s “Slowly,” the tongue-in-cheek “Hurt Me All The Time,” and the sublime, three-quarter-time “The Late Night Cry Of The Whippoorwill,” featuring standout fiddle work from Tim Crouch. Raybon co-wrote five of the CD’s ten tracks, including “A Little More Sawdust On The Floor,” a statement of purpose that laments the loss of simpler times and calls for the return of a people-first lifestyle. As was the case with “Sawdust,” longtime friend and collaborator John Fountain worked with Raybon on the album’s nod to the Osbornes’ influence, “Only You, Only You.” Fountain had initially suggested that his friend revisit an Osborne Brothers favorite for the album, but Raybon had a different idea. “I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we write one? One that sounds like ’em.’”
Upon completion of the song, Raybon quickly enlisted his brother to arrange vocal harmonies, via a simple cell phone recording. Tim, a serious student of country, bluegrass, and gospel vocal arrangements, explains the song’s harmony approach in Osborne Brothers terms: “On ‘Only You,’ I do the high lead; I do what Bobby would have done, and then Marty comes in [on the verse], and he does what Sonny would have done.”
The song’s high-pitched chorus melody made it a natural for Tim, though more typically, he would cover Sonny Osborne’s tenor harmony role, one for which the younger Raybon has tremendous regard. “Sonny was one of the all-time great singers, too. People think, ‘Man, listen to that harmony.’ Bobby was a great lead singer, but the harmony came from Sonny. Sonny was really the sound of the Osborne Brothers.” The spirit of the Osborne sound indeed comes across in the new song’s tender melody and heartfelt harmonies. “It sounds like ’em,” says Marty, “but it’s not anything they’ve ever done. And that’s what really made it cool.”
The songwriting duo’s other contribution, “That Janie Baker,” continues a long-standing tradition of Raybon’s to openly reference and draw from his history with Shenandoah (in this case, the 1993 Top 20 hit, “Janie Baker’s Love Slave”). “That Janie Baker,” an energetic number that has since hit high marks on the charts and enjoyed success on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction, is a new wrinkle of sorts in the post-Shenandoah saga. As Marty explains, the lyric is meant to pose a curious question: “Is she fact or fiction? The point is, you can’t really tell,” he says. “But I know she’s got that something about her.” Clearly, Janie Baker is real enough to Raybon, over whom the Shenandoah shadow remains, never mind the fact that he’s been working under his own name for more than 15 years now.
“It’s hard for us to go anywhere where people don’t yell out ‘Ghost In This House’ or ‘Mama Knows.’ So we do ‘em,” Raybon says. And while the instrumentation and vocal styles of the highly capable Full Circle give those hits a distinctly bluegrass flavor, Raybon has long employed a strategy designed to retain the earmarks of the hits his fans still love to hear. “When someone comes into the band and wants to know the set list and what to concentrate on,” notes Raybon, “I don’t give them the versions we’ve recorded, I give them the original Shenandoah versions. ‘Listen, there’s a piano lick there, and that’s what the mandolin is going to play across that, so when you’re learning it, that piano lick is the one you want to learn right there,’” he says, demonstrating the kind of conversation he’ll have with a new bandmember.
“When we’re playing bluegrass, what has really worked well for us is, whatever the piano’s playing, to have the mandolin cop it. It sounds like that’s where it belongs. Now, you can do it on the fiddle,” Raybon points out, “but to me, the mandolin does it the best. You can add the banjo to it, to make it bigger—and we do this on some things. We have the banjo and the mandolin play the same thing…thicken it up.”
This arrangement style, says Raybon, is used so that folks can still recognize the key elements of those songs, regardless of the change in instrumentation. “A signature lick, as far as an intro or turnaround, or something like that…if they picked up on that,” says Raybon, “then apparently that’s something that needs to be with the song. You knew they knew it [based on their response]. If you’re gonna sing the lyric the same way, with the same emotion, then you probably need to play it the same way as well. ’Cause that’s what they identified with.”
While it matters to Raybon to please his longtime fans, he also feels that Full Circle’s reconstituted and ’grassified takes on the Shenandoah catalogue allow the band to feel more personally engaged with those songs, and, importantly, to be featured while performing them. In setting out to elaborate on this point, Raybon (as he is likeably prone to doing) lets loose a rushing stream of thoughts, enthusiastically outlining his democratic philosophy in the process and, once again, connecting it all back to his roots: “That, to me, is what being in a bluegrass band is all about, because everybody contributes. It’s not the guy that just stands out there and sings. You know, ‘That’s the star of the show, that’s who we come to see.’ It’s really all of it. If you go see Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, or Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, you see a band play. If you see Marty Raybon & Full Circle, you see a band play. If you see Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, you hear a band. Now, that doesn’t mean that what Ralph does or what Russell does doesn’t stand out, because it does. But you hear a band play. That’s really what I love about bluegrass music.”
As Raybon figures it, he was fortunate to have been reared in the family atmosphere of bluegrass festivals, which gave him a grounding that would later prove crucial when he first came face to face with the ravenous beast that is the commercial country music industry. “In country music, [Shenandoah] had to live and die by the last record. It’s hard to believe that. In fact,” he continues, “when I was first told that, when we got into the business, I didn’t believe that. Because I came out of bluegrass music, and I thought, ‘No, no, no, now wait a minute. That ain’t right! When people like you, they like you.’ The record label says, ‘No, they don’t.’”
The pressures of touring and maintaining commercial success eventually became oppressive, leading to the band’s dissolution in 1997, but it’s important to Raybon that people know there’s no bad blood between him and the other founding members of the well-known band, which is again touring in a reformed version. (Shenandoah drummer Mike McGuire, in fact, contributed vocals as well as engineering skills to The Back Forty.) Shenandoah members, too, were like brothers. They learned to live together in close quarters on lengthy tours that, at times, could be grueling and survived a battery of lawsuits from bands with the same name, all with no assistance from their record company (who then filed suit against Shenandoah after the band’s resulting bankruptcy terminated their label contract). He calls their breakup a “parting of ways that in some ways was sweet, but in other ways was kind of sorrowful. The country music business did show me a lot about the business. And to be honest, some of it I didn’t care for. But some of it, I learned a great deal from.”
Part of what Raybon—now both a dad and a granddad—learned, no doubt, was that he feels far more at home around the family-oriented bluegrass scene. Still, he has never been one to define himself by a single genre of music. A champion for diversity in music, he notes that the broadening boundaries of bluegrass make it easier than ever to bring variety to the genre without violating its core values. Ultimately, in Raybon’s opinion, it all comes down to the power of a song and the virtually infinite number of ways a listener can connect with music.
“You know, bluegrass has got so many different avenues now,” Raybon begins. “It really does. For the purist, you know, there’s still plenty of that there. For those [who prefer] the progressive, there’s plenty of that there. For those that love the heart and soul of a song and lyric…you know, I don’t ever see that goin’ away. And the reason why I don’t,” he says, “is because there’s always that song that’s going to speak to somebody in a different way than it will to somebody else.”
Music, of course, speaks with particular potency when loved ones are involved. Presumably, it would be difficult for Raybon to locate the exact point where his connection to music and his connection to his family (as well as the notion of extended family) first began to intertwine. His affection for music runs through his blood, as he sees it. “I probably love music because of my dad [who passed in 2005]. He loved it, and you could tell how much he loved it. And the love that my brothers and I have for it, I honestly believe that’s where it came from.” As long as Marty Raybon has anything to say about it, that circle will remain unbroken.