VOL. 41 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 31, 2017
‘I’m doing it to have fun’
By Tom Wood
Four, perhaps five, months of hard labor remain before the highly anticipated grand opening, but country music and comedy legend Ray Stevens is already pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizardry behind his Oz-like dream of a lifetime.
It is easy to say “Everything Is Beautiful” – that’s the title of Stevens’ signature 1970 Grammy-winning song – about the multi-million dollar, 27,000-square foot project, but such is not the case.
This is a construction zone, and much work remains to be done before lights come up at Stevens’ labor of love – a 700-seat, Las Vegas-style dinner club that will open in late summer.
Welcome to the Ray Stevens CabaRay Showroom, sitting high above a Bellevue strip mall that is anchored by a Walmart supercenter at 5724 River Road, just off Charlotte Pike.
When completed, it will become a real-life version of his CabaRay Nashville television show that airs on Public Broadcasting System stations across the country – and much, much more.
These are the latest ventures for the 78-year-old Music City mogul, who has enjoyed a phenomenal run of success since moving to Nashville in 1962.
Asked why he’d take on such a mammoth project at an age when other artists might retire or at least consider slowing down, Stevens has a very simple explanation.
“I’m not going to be having any fun when I’m pushing up daisies, so … But truthfully, the main reason I’m doing this is for fun,” Stevens says, flashing his trademark smile.
An official grand opening date has not yet been set, but an August opening seems likely. A billboard advertising campaign for the CabaRay Showroom begins in May and will be updated with an exact date, adds Buddy Kalb, songwriter and Stevens’ longtime collaborator and writer of the CabaRay Nashville TV show.
Ray Stevens and publicist Don Murry Grubbs survey the construction of Stevens’ CabaRay Showroom in Bellevue, which likely will open in August. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
“Ray is really a left-brain, right-brain renaissance man. He’s as good at being a businessman as he is at playing piano. And he’s the best piano player on earth,” explains Kalb, who has had many of his songs recorded by Stevens. “So, I mean it’s not that he’s a guy who mainly does this to do that. He really does do it all. And enjoys it all.
“This is sort of the crowning jewel in his career, you know? This is just something he’s wanted to do and he was like, ‘If not now, when?’”
Just for fun
Over the past six decades, Stevens’ accomplishments have rolled forth like a string of smooth notes from the white Yamaha piano that will be a centerpiece of his new Vegas-style dinner club.
He began his Music City career as a studio musician and soon was hailed as a superior session player. He quickly graduated to performer and landed his first Top 10 hit with the novelty song “Ahab the Arab” in 1962.
His grander talents as a songwriter and music arranger/composer earned him two Grammy Awards in the 1970s for “Everything Is Beautiful” and “Misty.” He also has flourished as an actor, author, TV host and star of music videos and DVDs.
Beyond all those triumphs, perhaps his greatest influence on Music Row has been as a businessman, with a portfolio of real estate holdings, his own publishing companies and other ventures.
Asked which job he’s best at – singer, songwriter or businessman – and it was sort of an “all three” answer.
“I’m a songwriter. I know how to write songs, and I love to sing and play the piano. And I like going on stage to entertain people,” he says.
Stevens through the decades
The Early Years
Born on Jan 24, 1939, in Clarkdale, Georgia. Ray began taking piano lessons at age 6 … Played piano in his first band, the Barons, at age 15. Moved to Atlanta in 1956 at age 17, where he worked as Ray Ragsdale. Met and began writing songs for Georgia Tech football broadcaster Bill Lowery, who ran a publishing company. First demo, “Silver Bracelet,” got introduction to Ken Nelson of Capitol Records, who signed him to Prep Records in 1957 and brought him to Nashville to record the song.
In 1961, had first pop chart appearance at No. 35 with “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Purple Pills.” Signed by Mercury Records and moved to Nashville in 1962. Soon joined Monument Records as a producer for Dolly Parton. In 1969, charted with “Gitarzan” and the Coasters’ hit “Along Came Jones.” First artist to record Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”
Joined Andy Williams’ Barnaby Records in 1970, earned his first Grammy with “Everything is Beautiful,” his first No. 1 hit. Wins Male Vocalist of the Year honors. Streaker at the 1974 Oscars inspired “The Streak,” his second No. 1 hit. Second Grammy came in 1975 in the Best Arrangement category for remake of “Misty.” Soon thereafter switched to Warner Brothers, then joined RCA Records from 1979-84.
In 1984, signed with MCA Records. Hits include “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and “It’s Me Again Margaret.”
Signed with Curb Records, opened theater in Bransford, Missouri in 1991, did two shows a day, six days a week until 1993. Reopened it in 2004 and again in 2006 before selling. Began selling “Comedy Video Classics” through his own label, Clyde Records Inc. Made the movie “Get Serious” (1995).
“We The People” was a political/patriotic CD/DVD package Stevens released in 2010, followed by “Spirit of ‘76” and the book of essays “Let’s Get Political.” In 2012 released ambitious “Encyclopedia of Recorded Comedy Music.” Followed in 2015 with a memoir “Ray Stevens’ Nashville,” which helped launch CabaRay Nashville TV show on RFD channel, can now be seen on PBS stations around the country. March 2016, broke ground on Ray Stevens CabaRay Showcase, expected to launch in late summer.
“Being a businessman is … I don’t know … I hope I don’t make too big a mistake down the road. And this … this could be a big mistake. I don’t know at this point. But not really, because I’m not doing it to make money. I’m doing it to have fun. I think it will be successful, but it’ll be expensive.”
Stevens is hesitant to reveal how much the CabaRay Showroom project will cost him, but it’s safe to say there will be millions in expenditures for land, construction, furniture and equipment and so on.
But there is no financing involved. Or necessary.
“Oh, no. I’m just paying for it,” he says.
Asked directly about the price tag, Stevens is silent for a second before answering.
“I don’t think that’s anybody’s business,” he says. “I’m not trying to … let’s just put it this way – it cost a lot! And it cost more than I thought it was going to.
“The jury’s still out on the final figure, because we’re adding … I’m buying things that weren’t included in the building contract, obviously. Things having to do with sound and lights, although we’ve got the majority of that stuff covered.
“But the kitchen alone was like a quarter of a million dollars, just the equipment. A full-service professional kitchen to serve 500 people is a lot of stuff.”
On this cold mid-March morning, the gray-bearded Stevens is beaming as he leads a pair of Ledger journalists on a guided tour of his visionary work-in-progress.
Hammers pound away, electric saws whine and forklifts beep-beep-beep that irritating warning sound as Stevens walks through the venue, proudly pointing out what will be where and how everything is coming together at what soon will be a plush, full-scale entertainment venue like Nashville has never quite seen.
“Upstairs, we’re going to have some television production boxes,” he says. A high-pitched sawblade whirs and slows. “… I’ll show you the plans when we get to the office … This is the lobby, of course, and …” A crew foreman arrives, shouts over construction noises and leaves after Ray nods. “… that’s the manager’s office back there, and the ticket window is here.”
A forklift pings its back-up noise, prompting Stevens to nod in another direction. “Let’s go in the showroom.”
We get our first glimpse of the heart of the mammoth complex – a 700-seat stage area with three floor levels plus a balcony. Close your eyes, and you can almost see Stevens on stage, playing a grand piano and delighting the capacity crowd with one of his classic hits such as “The Streak” or “Gitarazan” or “Ahab the Arab” or any of the hundreds of songs he’s written or recorded over the past seven decades.
Open your eyes and he is on the stage, posing for photographer Michelle Morrow.
“The showroom’s kind of big. It’s in levels … the floor level will be the closest to the stage, and then that’s the balcony. Swivels, points upward at gray wallboard. That light room is not only for the lighting but also for streaming and other technical things. There’s the sound booth. Whoa, something falls with a crash. Ray continues with a laugh. “Yeah, that’s why you need the hardhat on. You can have strings and horns and a whole orchestra back there, and then a five-piece rhythm section out here. …”
‘He knows what he wants’
The tour eventually ends and we meet back at his Music Row offices – which are for sale. Stevens goes into more details about the facility and even more about what drives him these days.
It’s not the first time he’s made such a dream come true. The Ray Stevens Theater in Branson, Missouri, opened in 1991 and closed three years later – because of the exhausting work pace, not a lack of fans, he says.
Ray Stevens with the blueprints and artist renderings of CabaRay, his new entertainment venue now under constructiuon on River Road in Bellevue. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
He played before 1.6 million fans in those three tourist seasons, but he was working nearly every day. He reopened it a couple of other summers before selling the theater in Branson.
Plans for the Nashville venture call for Stevens to take the stage three nights a week (Thursday-Saturday), and open it to other entertainers the other three nights with perhaps a gospel matinee on Sundays.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he says while crunching on pistachios. “I don’t know. I mean, I’m 78. I could drop dead tomorrow. I don’t think I will. I hope I don’t. But we’ll see. So, I’ll do three shows a week, maybe four.
“In Branson, I did two shows a day, six days a week. That was a matinee and a night show six days a week. Here, the only shows I’m going to do are the evening shows. That’s it.
“The only matinee I think we may have planned will be on Sunday, and it might be a gospel show. We’ll have a gospel group in to do a matinee. We’ll see what works and what doesn’t.”
Then he took a more philosophical approach as to why he’s pursuing this dream. It will stand as his legacy of love for the music and the city he calls home.
“I’m more hands-on with this than I was at the Branson theater, but I … but this is different. More personal, I guess. It’s smaller and more intimate and something I want to do for a long time,” he explains.
“I’ve just always loved what I do. I love this business, I love the music business, I love recording and I’ve been here since 1962. I came up (from Georgia) to be a musician on recording sessions and I’ve been on a lot of them. And I always enjoyed it. Nashville has always been a good place for me.”
Speaking of his hands-on approach, Stevens knows exactly what he’s paying for. Minutes before the interview began, he looked over some tile selections and seat colors. He also proudly rolled out the original architectural design for his CabaRay Showroom.
“I drew the (original) plan. I didn’t draw this plan, but I drew a sketch,” he says. “I’ve got a little drawing board in the house. That’s one of the first things that I drew and gave to the architect, and they fleshed it out. Bells and whistles. I’ve just been working on it for years, 10 or 15 years I’ve been thinking about doing it.”
WSM Radio personality Bill Cody, who serves as the announcer on Stevens’ CabaRay Nashville TV show, says the hands-on approach “is the key to his business success, the longevity of and the genius of Ray Stevens. He knows what he wants, then is ready to move on to the next thing.”
Once the CabaRay is up and running, Stevens intends to move his extensive business operations from Music Row to the Bellevue complex. He lives in Belle Meade and will be just 10 minutes from work. Another perk will be not having to fight traffic to get downtown.
“It’s a great area for Nashville expansion, and it’s a natural area for Nashville to expand to because it’s not that far from downtown,” Stevens says. “You can get on I-40 and be at my place in 10 minutes … and eight if the traffic’s good.”
He credited Sheri Smith, one of his A-Team background singers and a local real estate agent, for getting the River Road property.
“I wanted something on the west side,” he adds, ‘and I told her, ‘If you see anything that might be conducive to building the CabaRay on, let me know.’ And she did. She found it out there, and I went and looked at it and bought it.”
As for the Music Row properties, he shrugs.
“I’m not in any big hurry to sell this. If somebody comes along, fine. But I still need a place to operate from until we get that built. Music Row is fast becoming Condo Row, as you might have found out. There’s still some music folks down here but … I don’t know … it’s kind of dispersed in the last few years. “And of course, the music business has been hurt tremendously by the internet. But it’s still here, and what goes around comes around. Who knows what’s going to happen? I don’t.”
Now that the CabaRay has gone from the drawing pad to five months from reality, the Nashville community at large and those connected with the Music City tour industry are taking note. And having a new entertainment venue on the west side of Nashville is music to their ears.
Some 3,900 hotel and motel rooms are being currently under construction in the Metro area. Meanwhile, the Bellevue community is also undergoing a major revitalization with development of the One Bellevue Place retail center set to open this fall and some 2,500 residential homes being built in the area.
Ray Stevens stands outside the front of his new venue, which sits above the Wal-Mart/Lowes shopping center at Charlotte Pike and River Road. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
“The venue could not be more timely,” says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation. “You couple the new hotel supply with a venue, attraction and talent like Ray Stevens and CabaRay, and – perfect timing – it’s going to give the existing customer either an extra reason to stay longer or come back.
“It’s just a home run. As long as Ray is performing out there, that place is going to do great.”
Sheri Weiner, Metro Councilwoman for District 22, says she is “excited about anything that makes Bellevue a destination and brings people our way.”
Stevens and his team have done their part in courting tourism industry officials from Nashville to St. Louis to Cleveland to an upcoming convention in San Diego. He’s inviting them all to add a stop at CabaRay to their Nashville bus tours.
“It’s another place for tourists to go. Right now, they can go to the Grand Ole Opry or they can go to Lower Broad(way). This is another venue that I am trying to encourage the tour companies to put on their schedule,” Stevens points out.
“We just came from (the National Tour Association convention in) St. Louis. And we were at the bus convention in Cleveland, so we’re encouraging tourism all over the country that have plans to come to Nashville to include us on their schedule.”
Dawn Evans, who operates the Sweet Magnolia Tours with offices in Nashville, Memphis and Branson, says CabaRay “will only add to the greatness of Nashville. We’re very excited about being able to offer fans a new venue, particularly when the host is a legend like Ray Stevens.”
Gena Means, who says she lives “on the Illinois side” of St. Louis, was in Nashville recently visiting her niece on the same weekend as the SEC men’s basketball tournament at Bridgestone Arena. They saw Vince Gill at Ryman Auditorium on the recent visit and says she’d take in a CabaRay Showroom performance on a future Music City visit.
“Isn’t he like in his 80s? I would come and bring my mom, and she would have a good time.’’
Ray Stevens stands center stage at CabaRay, which is scheduled to open in early August. -- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger
It also has caught the eye of local residents like Shawn Braggs, who lives near West Meade, and Lee Wildman, who lives in Kingston Springs and is an evangelist at Hillview Church of Christ on Charlotte Pike.
“I think it’s great. I love the idea of a dinner theater. It sounds like something that I’m sure people would enjoy,” Braggs says. “People who are from here don’t want to do downtown, I don’t think, mostly because of the parking.”
“All I know is he’s building that facility there, that it’s a dinner theater and that’s really the extent of my research about it,” Wildman adds.
“Would I go see him just for the fun of it? Yeah, I might. I like country music, bluegrass particularly.”
Tom Wood, author of the fictional true-crime thriller Vendetta Stone and Western short stories, is a regular contributor to The Ledger. Reach him at tomwoodauthor.com