For many years in the late 1980s and 1990s, you’d be hard-pressed to tune into a country radio station and not hear a Shenandoah song coming over the airwaves. And even today, 35 years after the release of their debut album, those same songs dominate both the airwaves and whichever venue the band is bringing them to on a given night.
Over those 35 years, Shenandoah has released 31 singles to country radio; half of which entered the top 10, and five of those climbed their way to the top of the country music charts. Sprinkle in an ACM, a CMA and a Grammy, and it’s undeniable that the band has had quite the illustrious career.
Instead of coasting into the sunset with only those feathers in their cap, Shenandoah plans to add a few more before all is said and done. 2020 brought about a duets album with some of the biggest names in country music, and 2022 sees the sextet embarking on their 35th anniversary tour; celebrating songs of old and new.
However, before they were singing about churches on Cumberland road and Sundays in the south, Shenandoah was simply a club band recording demos for songwriters in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with dreams of taking their act beyond the club circuit.
“I joined the band in 1985. At the time, we were just a club band, playing four nights a week in Muscle Shoals,” lead vocalist Marty Raybon says. “We were playing music, doing session work and working in studios so we had money to feed our families. We started doing demos around town, and people would ask who it was that was singing on those tapes. And then people would ask who was playing guitar. And those tapes started sparking interest.”
That interest came in the form of CBS Records, who were invited to see the band at one of their club gigs at the invitation of drummer Mike McGuire.
“We played a couple of sets, and afterwards, they asked us if we wanted to go in the studio and cut some sides,” Raybon says. “We went in the studio in the fall of that year, and Rick Hall became one of the producers on that first project.”
That first project, co-produced by heavy-hitters Hall and Robert Byrne, was the band’s 1987 debut self-titled album. Though there may have been pressure while releasing their first album on a major label, Raybon says the band were blissfully ignorant of it.
“We were so ignorant, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Raybon. “We just knew that we felt there was a void out there for us. We kind of left it up to the producers to figure out the direction they were going to take it.”
Unfortunately, the first sense of that direction was their debut single, “They Don’t Make Love Like We Used To,” a song that stalled prior to entering the top 50 and one that the band didn’t feel truly represented themselves.
“We hated it. We hated it when we cut it,” says Raybon. “Rick loved it because it had a Roy Orbison sound, and radio was loving that stuff. That stuff was fine, but it wasn’t us.”
After their sophomore single, “Stop the Rain,” entered the top 30, it was their third single, “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore,” that gave the band their first true taste of chart success. After climbing to number nine, the band’s label was chomping at the bit to capitalize on the momentum that the band had found.
“’She Doesn’t Cry Anymore’ ended up in the top 10, so the label came screaming that we needed another single and another record,” says Raybon. “We had made enough noise with that song that there were a few writers that believed in us. All of a sudden, we started getting pitched songs like ‘Sunday in the South,’ ‘Two Dozen Roses’ and ‘The Church on Cumberland Road.’”
Raybon says the chart results on the band’s first two singles was a great lesson as they took greater creative control of their musical direction.
“It was really important for us to see what those first couple singles did and the reception they got,” says Raybon. “Record labels have the discretion to make you record what they want you to record. We had already run into that with ‘They Don’t Make Love Like We Used To,’ and we didn’t want another one of those. That wasn’t who we were or what we wanted to do. We were visiting radio stations, and radio guys who were actually playing the music and seeing the reception from fans were telling us that songs like ‘Sunday in the South’ were songs we were supposed to be going after. That allowed us to figure out what would work for us and what wouldn’t. It was instrumental.”
As “She Doesn’t Cry Anymore” continued to climb the charts, CBS Records quickly sent the band back into the studio to record their sophomore album, The Road Not Taken. After the album’s lead single, “Mama Knows” saw the band enter the top five for the first time, the band struck gold with “The Church on Cumberland Road,” a song that validated the more hands-on direction that the band had taken.
“We knew that was going to be a hit. It was a really out of the box song,” says Raybon. “Radio guys would tell us that as soon as they got the song, they couldn’t get it on the player fast enough because they loved it that much. That makes you feel good and believe that the direction we decided to pursue was the right one.”
The success of the song, and its subsequent number one-charting follow ups, “Sunday in the South” and “Two Dozen Roses,” also opened doors for them on the road as well.
“After those three songs, things started to blow up. By the time 1990 rolled around, Randy Travis wanted us to open 70 dates for him,” says Raybon. “When you get out in from of 12,000 people and they start screaming out the songs that they’ve heard you sing, that’s an awfully good feeling.”
1990 also brought forth the band’s fourth number one single, “Next to You, Next to Me,” the lead single from their third album, Extra Mile. And by the time the singles from that album ran their course, nine of the band’s ten singles from 1989 through 1991 had entered the top 10, with four of those topping the charts. Raybon says that chart domination was fulfilling as they continued to perfect their identity as a band.
“That really validated the work we put in,” says Raybon. “We were so focused on putting together a great show and putting together great songs that would make great albums. That helped us build a great fan base.”
The success also helped them win Vocal Group of the Year at the 1991 ACM Awards, a win that took them by surprise when the news reached them.
“We actually didn’t go to the show. We had gotten shut out at the CMAs, so there was no way in the world we thought we were going to win,” says Raybon. “We had a six day run in Texas, and we decided to do that. That night, we were playing The Yellow Rose in Corpus Christi. We were watching the show, and they called our name out. We all looked at each other and said ‘well, I’ll be damn blind.’”
Though the band was riding high, adversity was creeping up on them. Lawsuits regarding the name “Shenandoah” were brought forth, and began taking a toll on the band, financially and emotionally.
“At one time, we had 11 attorneys on retainer. The record label never did a trademark search. They told us that it was our problem, but they were the ones who gave us the name. We had something else picked out,” says Raybon. “That caused us to work like mercenaries to pay the legal fees and settlements. We already had a busy schedule, but the lawsuits brought on even more dates. That meant more time away from our families. We believed we could rebound, but it took its toll.”
That rebound began to take shape with 1992’s Long Time Comin’, the band’s first release for RCA Nashville, which spawned a number two single with “Rock My Baby.” The band capitalized again with their next album, Under the Kudzu, which spawned another number one single, “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too),” which served as the first song Raybon and McGuire had written that topped the charts.
“’Bubba’ was a ditty. We knew we needed a song in our show that was up-tempo, and ‘Bubba’ was what we came up with. People were out on the dancefloors singing and dancing to it,” says Raybon. “That was really exciting. When we would start that tune, people would rush to the dancefloor and start doing the Electric Slide to it. It did a great job of furthering our live show.”
The band continued to further their trophy case as well, as the title track to their next album, Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart, won both themselves and duet partner Allison Krauss a CMA and Grammy Award, but this time, the band was able to accept the awards in person.
“We didn’t think we were going to with the Grammy either, but it was the Grammys. We went to that show,” Raybon says with a laugh. “There was just something about that song. That song wasn’t a number one hit, but it was a song that impacted people.”
However, with six albums under their belts by the mid-90s, the ongoing lawsuits began to take their toll on the band, as for the first time, the band underwent lineup changes, which included Raybon leaving the band.
“We were missing ballgames and school plays because we were working like fiends because of the lawsuits. We were missing pivotal moments in our childrens’ lives. I didn’t get to see my boy hit his first home run,” says Raybon. “After a while, that stuff starts to take its toll. The keyboard player, Stan Thorn, left in 1995. Then the bass player, Ralph Ezell, left in 1996. I left in 1997.”
That same year, Raybon teamed up with his brother, Tim, to form The Raybon Brothers, who released an album in 1997. The album featured a gold-selling cover of Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” and another top 70 single.
In 2000, Shenandoah reformed with vocalists Brent Lamb and Curtis Wright. By 2007, Jimmy Yeary was handling vocal duties, and in the first decade of the 2000s, the band released two studio albums.
By the time 2014 rolled around, both Shenandoah and Raybon felt that the time was right to put the wheels back on and reform, with the intentions of furthering the band’s legacy.
“Mike, Jim (Seales) and I had been talking for several years about reforming, but the timing just didn’t seem right at first. Mike called me one day and asked to meet at Jim’s house. We all asked each other if the timing was right at that time, and we all felt it was,” says Raybon. “I told Mike and Jim that I didn’t feel like people had heard our full potential yet. I didn’t think that the things we did in the 90s were where we needed to stop. We still had a chance to make a mark.”
The band booked two casino shows in Canada, and as soon as sound check began, Raybon says it felt as if the band hadn’t skipped a beat.
“It was like putting a glove on a rooster. It just fit,” says Raybon. “Our road manager at the time had to stop our sound check and asked if we planned on taking a bath before the show, because it was 6:00, and the doors opened at 6:30. We had been up there sound checking since noon. Thy told us that the crowd was wrapped around the building. We played the show and everybody felt good about what we had done.”
So good, in fact, that the band entered the studio and has continued to release new music. Four albums since their return have culminated in 2020’s Every Road, a duets album that features many of country music’s biggest names lending their voices to songs that prove Shenandoah isn’t coasting, they’re thriving.
“It was refreshing to do that album. We figured most of the artists wouldn’t be interested. When you get artists that have that standard and see where they are in the music business, you wonder if they’d want to lend their talents to an effort like this,” says Raybon. “I asked my manager to just get me their phone numbers, and I would cold call all of them. Instead of finding resistance, people would say, ‘Are you kidding me? You want us to do a record with you?’ Everybody loved the idea.”
As Raybon and the band embark on their 35th anniversary tour, Raybon has high hopes for the future of Shenandoah as he hopes to build on the impressive foundations that their 35 years have laid.
“I don’t believe we’re done. At the end of anybody’s career, they just have a body of work. If you’ve got the head, shoulders, arms and legs, why leave the feet off?” says Raybon. “Who knows, one of the biggest things that can happen to us is going to happen. It’s like being a gold miner; are you happy with the swings of the pick you’ve had, or do you want to swing it one more time? I want the pastor at my funeral to stand over my casket and say from the time he was born until the time he drew his last breath, he gave everything he had.”
*Shenandoah’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
**Feature image courtesy of Taste of Country**
***Final image courtesy of Cowboys & Indians Magazine***