Right now, the big debate among country critics is over which way the music ought to be heading. Some say the recent infusion of pop and rock influences has made the music more dynamic than it has been in years, while others argue that a song isn't really country unless it has that traditional honky-tonk twang.
Collin Raye sees it a different way, however. As far as he can see, what's really happening right now is that today's country fans aren't afraid to listen to other kinds of music.
"A great example was when we were in Lewisville, Texas, working in a straight honky-tonk," he says over the phone while waiting for a flight out of Reno, Nev. "Every guy there had a Copenhagen [snuff] ring in his back pocket. They weren't attorneys by day, cowboys by night; these were true cowboys, out to dance and have a big time.
"We were going on in about 10 or 15 minutes, so I just poked my head out, and the dance floor was jammed. And Vanilla Ice was on the jukebox."
Did that mean these fans really wanted a rap show? Heck, no. "It's just that the music has a beat that they can dance to," says Raye. "That's all it takes to get 'em out there. Everybody is dying to dance now."
But for Raye, the sight of cowpokes dancing to "Ice Ice Baby" merely confirmed his belief that country fans are open to a wider range of music than most Nashville traditionalists realize.
"They've accepted a lot of different kinds of music in those
places now, instead of just sticking with traditional country," he says. "And I think I maybe have a little advantage, because I'm able to do both sides. In my show I do a little Elton John, I even
do a Rod Stewart, because the crowd loves it. I can see out there in those honky-tonks that they're dancing to that."
Raye comes by this ability honestly. "When I grew up, my biggest influences were probably Waylon Jennings and George Jones on one side, and then the Eagles on the other," he says.
His first band, formed with his brother when they were both teens in Texas, tended toward country, although he adds that the Eagles were "a prominent force in what we did." After the Rayes moved to Portland, Ore., however, Collin found himself playing more rock and roll because it was more popular there.
But it was the time he spent in Reno that truly formed his attitude and focused his ability. "Working in Nevada, you've got to be able to do everything," he says. "Can't stay with one vein. We did everything from Bob Seger to ZZ Top. I've even done Jethro Tull on stage.
"We had to kind of suit the audience, but I was tickled by it because it suited my needs too. It wasn't like I couldn't do that stuff that I love so much, like Eagles and Bob Seger. And I think that's probably helped me a great deal."
Boy, has it. Raye will be heading off to Dallas to shoot the video for his "I Want You Bad (And That Ain't Good)," a hard-core honky-tonk tune. But even as that song is being prepared for the country market, Epic Records is planning to pitch Raye's current single, "In This Life," to the pop market. And Raye seems ready for both.
Even so, Raye makes it clear that his view of crossing over to pop doesn't include abandoning country. "Country's where my heart is," he says. "If this works, then I'm prepared to work twice as hard to make that my market. But I'm not going to go away from country. I love the people; the fans are the best fans in the world, and the people in the industry seem to be some of the best.
"I'm real happy. So we'll see what happens."
When: Sunday, Nov. 15, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Steeltown, 2401 North Point Blvd.
Call: (410) 288-3400 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.