Interviews

Shenandoah on Deep South Predecessors Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd [Interview]

Mike McGuire, left, and Marty Raybon, of Shenandoah, arrive at the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Number one hits "The Church on Cumberland Road," "Sunday in the South," Two Dozen Roses" and the bluegrass-inspired "Next to You, Next to Me" cemented Shenandoah's place in country music history. Toss in the Grammy award-winning Alison Krauss collaboration "Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart," and it should come as no surprise that the reputable band's plotting a new album with some of country music's brightest young stars, in the same vein as Brooks & Dunn's Reboot.

Yet when catching up with lead singer Marty Raybon and drummer Mike McGuire, they'd just as well talk about a couple of musical forerunners with ties to the Muscle Shoals, Alabama residents' stomping grounds than their shared collection of hit records and Vocal Group of the Year nominations (six total from the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music between 1989 and 1992).

The group Alabama's role in normalizing self-contained country bands, as opposed to vocal groups like the Oak Ridge Boys and the Statler Brothers, opened the door for Shenandoah and Restless Heart to thrive in Nashville and for Exile and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to cross over to the country charts.

Alabama bassist Teddy Gentry in particular left a mark on McGuire's career, mainly as co-writer of Shenandoah's Top Ten 1991 hit "I Got You." Yet McGuire's best Alabama story predates Shenandoah inking its first deal with Columbia Records and involves his songwriter brother, Bud McGuire.

"My brother wrote one of the songs Teddy sung on the Closer You Get album," McGuire says. "Teddy sang a song called 'Red River,' and my brother wrote it with George Pearce. George was a carpenter, and I remember him telling this story. My brother went over to his house to write one Saturday morning. He woke George up, and he said he had his house coat on and the cap he slept in, like Ebenezer Scrooge. He said, 'You ready to write, George?' He said, 'Man, I just got up. Let me get some coffee.' They sat down to have some coffee and George said, 'You know what, I got a really good thing started on the job site yesterday. There was a big stack of sheet rock. I'd go from this job here and would be thinking about this song, so when I'd walk by the sheet rock, I'd take my pencil and write a line down. I'd work over here thinking about the song, then eventually I'd walk back by and have another line or two to write down. I have a great lyric, but we've got to go over there and get it.'

"They went by the job site, and somebody had already hung the sheet rock," McGuire continues. "The writing was inside, so they had to tear down several sheets to find it. George passed away maybe a year ago now. I made a point to text Teddy that story. He said, 'I appreciate you sending me that story. I hung a lot of sheet rock myself.'"

Songs co-written by Bud McGuire include cuts by Kenny Rogers ("The Factory"), Tammy Wynette ("Half the Heart") and Jerry Reed ("Hard Times"). Bud also helped write "If It Takes Every Rib I've Got," the B-side to Shenandoah hit and Mike McGuire co-write "If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too)."

McGuire, Raybon, their fellow original band members (bassist Ralph Ezell, guitarist Jim Seales and keyboardist Stan Thorn) and go-to producer Robert Byrne play roles in the history of Muscle Shoals, the home of FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studio and an impressive array of session players.

Shenandoah honored part of its hometown's legacy last year with "Freebird in the Wind," a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute featuring a guest appearance by Charlie Daniels.

"Marty's got a DJ friend in Louisiana who wrote this song," McGuire says. "He sent it to Marty and took Marty to the crash site over there. It's a culmination of a bunch of things. Marty grew up in the Jacksonville area where Skynyrd's from originally."

Skynyrd name checks Muscle Shoals in "Sweet Home Alabama" and recorded many of its signature tunes at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, located at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama.

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"It wasn't for anything other than honoring Lynyrd Skynyrd for who and what they were," Raybon says of the song. "The thing that was really neat about it was getting to do it at 3614. That studio laid dormant for years after Skynyrd and them had done their stuff. Then they started putting it all back together. In fact, Travis Mobley our keyboard player, when we did 'Freebird in the Wind,' played the intro that's on the back of our record that was on the front of "Freebird' on the same piano that Billy Powell had played."

Daniels' narration in the song comes from a eulogy he read at Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant's funeral. Per the request of Van Zant's widow Judy, the text is inscribed on a bench at his gravesite.

As for new music, the band's lips are sealed about who all's involved in the duets project, aside from one bold promise.

"They won't let us say who all's going to be on the album, but if you look at the Billboard top 10 right now, about eight of them are going to be on the album," McGuire adds.

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Shenandoah on Deep South Predecessors Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd [Interview]