During the 1990s Collin Raye chalked up one of country music’s most impressive resumes, selling in excess of 4,000,000 records and having essentially every single he released become a significant hit on country radio. And then it all came to an abrupt halt.

In this exclusive interview with The 9513, Raye, whose #1 singles include “Love, Me,” “In This Life,” “My Kind Of Girl” and “I Can Still Feel You,” explains what went wrong at Sony (his former label) and talks about his upcoming album, to be released on Time Life Records.

JIM MALEC: I understand you have a new record coming out called Never Going Back. Tell me about that project.

COLLIN RAYE: It comes out on the 28th of April, and it’s my first with Time Life. It’s the first collection of all brand-new songs that I’ve done in four years. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to get to make a record at that level again, with a label that’s as big as Time Life.

And the great thing about Time Life is that they really know how to market what they make, through television and various other means. They are great at using avenues other than just radio to do everything. So I feel really good about it. The music is the best I’ve ever done. I believe it’s the most personal album I’ve ever made. How should I say this…it’s definitely the most “me.” That’s where the title comes from—there’s a song on the album that I wrote called “Never Going Back,” and the double meaning there is that I’ve turned a chapter in my life as a human and as an artist. The old guy, he was pretty cool and that was all good stuff. He had great fun. But I’m never going back there again. And I think the music says that. I have tremendous hopes for this record. I really feel like its time has come.

JM: You talk about this record being different in a way, and you talk about having turned a page, so to speak. What are some of the specific differences or changes we might notice when comparing Never Going Back to your previous work? I’m especially interested in how this record compares to Twenty Years and Changeand Fearless, which were your two previous indie efforts.

CR: Those two albums—thank you mentioning them—because we did them on independent labels, they obviously weren’t as wide-spread and heard and listened to, not nearly as much as some of the stuff in my past that I did for Sony. But those records, they were perfect segues into this record. Because they were indie records, I had the freedom to just try some things and really be artistic. I felt like those both were very artistic records, as far as, you know, I wasn’t worried about radio and I wasn’t worried about chasing the last hit or following a trend. I just made music that I liked. And I think those records gave me the confidence to feel, even now that I have a chance to come out with something big, that I can build on that and perfect it. Better songs, but continuing to follow that direction.

Really, I have to say it’s more of a pop record than it is a country record. Although there’s some great country moments on it. There’s a song called “The Only Jesus” that I think is a strong country song, and of course “Mid-Life Chrysler,” which is the new single, is certainly a strong country format song, although it’s really a rockin’ type track. But really I think more of the album would be described as Adult Contemporary or Pop, which I think a lot of my fans over the years have gravitated towards because that’s where the music they like lives.

Country radio has changed a great deal since the 90s, and it seems like they’re just playing to one demographic now. And my folks, the fans who have followed me, I don’t think they feel like they necessarily fit into that demographic. And so I think it’s a good time for me to make a jump like that. And so far it’s been very well received and I hope it continues.

JM: And of course that makes sense in the context of your career. You’ve worked with Jim Brickman a number of times, for example, and some of your biggest hits were well received within the AC framework. But I’m curious about your description of Never Going Back as a pop record, because in a recent interview with the magazine Christian Voice you said that you were making a move to Christian Music—which I know has been dear to you.

CR: The original intent was to make a full-fledged Christian record, but you never know where God leads you. And you never know where fate turns the road. At the time of that interview, that was the intention. And there are a few songs on this record that would fit fine and be right at home on a Christian record. But as we were picking songs, Time Life decided that they had changed their mind and wanted to make a pop record. And I was like, “Well, ok, ‘cause I’m sure geared up to do it. I’ve basically been practicing for this for the last few years.”

Musically, contemporary Christian and AC are almost similar to me. The only difference is the lyrics. And as we saw with “I Can Only Imagine,” once in a while a Christian song steps over and becomes a huge pop hit—and vice versa, because sometimes AC songs are inspiration, though they’re not about Jesus per se. So that was their idea—they said “Let’s go for it. Let’s make an AC record.” And what we did, for the Christian market, is we’ve cut a deal with Integrity Records (a Christian label), to put out a version of “Never Going Back” on that label. It’s sort of a marriage with Time Life. The only difference is that we took two songs off the Time Life record that just didn’t fit on a Christian record and replaced them with two other things I had that are Christian songs.

Most of the songs on the Time Life record I really wouldn’t call “Christian.” I would say there there’s maybe two or three I could hear being played on Christian radio. But yet Time Life and Integrity both felt like the majority of the album was just fine to release on Integrity. So that made me feel really good. I know Time Life and Integrity want to see this spread a very wide loop and reach as many people as possible. As you can imagine, I’m very excited about that because most of my career, working with the big label, it was sorta that treadmill of, “let’s follow what you just did. Let’s keep it coming. Let’s cash in while you’re hot.” You always feel like a dog chasing your tail. So to have a nice break where we’re not chasing radio…

Don’t get me wrong, we’re going after radio—no question about it. But it’s not like I just had a #1 and we have to follow up really fast. It’s sorta like having the freedom to start over.

JM: You’re a guy that has had a lot of radio success. Between the onset of your career and the year 2000—between “All I Can Be” and “Couldn’t Last A Moment”—only five of the singles that you put out (including those with Jim Brickman) failed to reach the Top 10. “Couldn’t Last A Moment” went all the way to #3. And then, out of nowhere, it was like the gears just quit turning. Everything stopped. You just couldn’t find success anymore. It wasn’t a gradual downtrend where the audience’s interest in you waned over time. It just ended. What happened?

CR: I hate to bring up the dirt of the business, but the only real answer to that is that I left Sony in a not so friendly situation. A label, as much as they can break you, they can also break you down if they decide to. I don’t want to point fingers and I won’t mention names, because those people are gone from that label anyway. But I wanted out. The last album I did for Sony was an album called Can’t Back Down that I recorded with James Stroud, and both of us felt like it was a superb record. We were very proud of it.

But Sony had regressed to the point where I felt like I had 50 producers. It seemed like everybody from the mailroom up to the art department had a vote in what songs would be the singles. And I felt like it was ridiculous. I mean, we had had something like 24 Top 10s in a row by letting me, the producers, and the A&R department pick the singles. Why was everybody suddenly involved in the process?

They were going through a period of fear. They were in a tough spot. They felt like they had to take a more active role and so they were getting everybody involved in it. And I felt like the single they picked from that album was totally the wrong one. It was a song that I really didn’t even want to put on the album in the first place. And there were two or three others that James Stroud and I thought were smashes. They ignored those.

The one they picked failed, as we predicted, and instead of coming back and saying “OK, we were wrong and you were right,” they just sort of brushed their hands and said “That’s that. Now what do you wanna do?” All of the sudden they just pulled away in their intent. That’s about the time the Dixie Chicks were really starting to take off, and the focus was definitely on them.

To make a long story short, I felt like I wasn’t feelin’ the love any more. So, we hadn’t released the album yet, and I said, “Why don’t you let me go early. I’ll leave my contract early and I’ll take this album with me and offer it to another label down the street. They can buy the album from you.” Sony didn’t want to do it at first, but then they sort of begrudgingly went along with it.

At that point, the head of the label took things very personally, and decided to go ahead and release Can’t Back Down anyway, without any fanfare and without any promotion and without even another single coming off of it. Just to shelve the album. And labels will do that. They have the power to do that.

So then it comes out and everybody looks at the numbers and sees that it didn’t sell very much. Well, there was nothing behind it. They sort of did that just to shoot me in the foot. And I think there was definitely a bit of McCarthyism, if you will, going on, as far as how I would all of the sudden start hearing these stories about how Collin Raye was difficult to work with. My producer was confused. I was confused. I’d never had a cross word with anybody in that town. They definitely tried to shoot me in the foot to pay me back. I definitely learned a big lesson about how to deal with the corporate world.

That, to me, explains why it came to an abrupt halt. But you know what? I’ve always believed that I live with bad decisions. You have to live with bad decisions as well the good decisions. And I learned from it. It did give me an opportunity, although I continued to work and play concerts and everything, to get off that treadmill and really focus on my family. My family really needed during those times, with my granddaughter’s illness and all that entailed. So I think all’s well that ends well. It served its purpose. I stepped away from the game at the right time. But now I’m in a situation where I’m anxious to get back in and I feel like the opportunity is there. I feel like I’m getting an awful lot of open doors and open windows that I didn’t get a few years ago. That tells me that God and providence has a hand in all of this.

JM: I appreciate your candor about what must have been a very difficult situation. So–if we classified everything that happened prior to your departure from Sony as the first half of your career, what would you like to see the second half look like?

CR: It’s not so much about hits and numbers anymore. Yes, you want to sell records and make money and all that, but it’s about finally being the singer and the artist that I’ve always dreamed of being—without any pressure from the outside. Of course, I’m being pressured to do certain things like work and promote and that kind of stuff. But nobody is hanging over my ear telling me what I should sing and what I shouldn’t sing. I want to spend the rest of my career, however long it lasts, being exactly who I want to be. And I think I will have more success overall in the second half of my career than I did in the beginning, even though I’m sure we’re never going to come up with 24 Top 10s in a row or anything like that. I’m not sure how much that actually means. I mean, the numbers sound great. But I just feel like there’s something more important for me to do, that is planned for me to do. I think I’m going to reach more people than I did the first go-round, even though the numbers may not stack up like before. I think the best part of my career is still ahead of me, and I’m just going to follow where that leads.

Because I took a break like I did, and because now the kids are older, I kinda feel like a new artist again, like I’m starting over. And for a guy in his mid-40s, that’s a good feeling.


This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2017.