Ray Stevens says he made a cover album because he wanted to sing songs he thought would never be cut again.
“I chose some of the songs just because they seemed like songs that no one would record,” Stevens said. “I thought to myself that these poor songs need someone to take pity on them and make a record. See what the potential might be in some of these songs that are… forgotten.”
But Stevens – an 82-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame and owner of the Nashville club CabaRay that’s known for singing comedy and classic tunes for over six decades – didn’t stop at an album. He recorded four.
This spring Stevens released 48 covers on four themed albums, collectively called “Iconic Songs of the 20th Century (The Soundtrack of Our Lives).” Each now via Curb Records, the collection includes four installments of 12 songs:
- “Great country ballads”
- “Melancholy fescue (high quality bluegrass)”
- “Slow dance”
- “New Retro (What is old is new)”
Curb ties the albums together for an “Iconic Songs” box set to be released on June 18th.
In a new interview with the Tennessean, Stevens shares the stories of four songs included in the project. Read the highlights.
“Please help me I’m falling”
“Great Country Ballads” includes his interpretation of standards such as “Your Cheatin ‘Heart” and “Crazy” by Hank Williams, which Patsy Cline made famous nearly sixty years ago.
Stevens also cut the 1960 love ballad “Please Help Me, I’m Falling,” a Don Robertson and Hal Blair co-writing that Hank Locklin took to No.1.
“I came to Nashville in ’62. He barely beat me,” Stevens said of the song released two years before the Georgia native moved to Music City. He continued, “I thought it was a good song. Always. It’s one of the country songs that lends itself to any kind of arrangement. It feels good with a country arrangement, but you can take it. some liberties with and put instrumentation in the arrangement that wouldn’t normally be there. ”
Stevens gives the late 1960s pop epic “MacArthur Park” a six-minute bluegrass twist. Jimmy Webb, a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member known for “Wichita Lineman” and others, wrote the song, which actor-singer Richard Harris first released in 1968. Donna Summers took a version of the song to number 1 a decade later.
“Jimmy Webb is a genius,” Stevens said. “It’s such an unlikely song to ever have been made with a banjo. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always admired the arrangement, the production, the whole.
“Richard Harris,” Stevens continued, “he performed the song really well. When you consider that there are no images involved, just audio, he did a magnificent job.”
The project continues with “Slow Dance”, a collection of classic love songs, and “Nouveau Retro”, a recreation of traditional pop compositions such as “Earth Angel” and “April In Paris”.
The latter features the 1930s pop number “Blue Moon”, once recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and The Marcels.
“I didn’t think anybody would record this again,” Stevens said. “I said, ‘Not’ Blue Moon. ‘”
He added, “When I hear a song, I drink it all.… For me, it’s important what makes that sound and what makes this song. What nerves it hits when people hear it.”
And on “New Retro”, Stevens gives his rendition of “Unforgettable”, a pop song made famous by crooner Nat King Cole in the early 1950s.
“I love this song,” Stevens said. “It has a great chorus, a great melody. Great words. It’s just a classic song. Nat King Cole was pretty good, I have to admit.… It was fun. have fun. It was a song that needed to be part of it. ”