Interviews

Bakersfield Legend Susan Raye Talks Reissues, Retirement and Buck Owens

Craft Recordings

Craft Recordings recently reissued two vinyl compilations featuring West Coast country legend Susan Raye: One highlighting Raye's duets with her manager, Buck Owens, and the other collecting "LA International Airport" and other solo hits.

Raye's journey from her hometown of Eugene, Ore. to the bright lights of Bakersfield began in 1969 when Owens saw her as a good fit for the "girl singer" spot in his show-- A featured performer role previously held by his ex-wife Bonnie and the lesser-known, equally amazing Kay Adams.

At first, Raye passed on Owens' offer.

"I was thinking of the shows where they say Buck Owens and so and so and many others," she says. "I didn't want to be a 'many other.' I'd rather stay where I grew up."

Raye eventually gave in, positioning her as more than just Owens' client and duet partner. She also got to know Jerry Wiggins, Owens' drummer in the Buckaroos and Raye's husband from 1972 until his 2018 passing.

"I met my husband the first show I did for Buck," Raye says. "We were friends for several years. He kind of looked after me because he knew I was a naïve, young girl from Oregon. I remember when I told my mom that we were getting married about three years later, my mom told my dad and he said, 'She can't marry him. They're just friends!'"

Owens and Raye's duets albums We're Gonna Get Together and The Great White Horse came out five months apart in 1970 and featured delightful versions of country classics ("Looking Back to See"), Owens' standards ("Together Again") and covers from outside of the West Coast country songbook ("Love is Strange"). Those songs and others appear on The Very Best of Buck Owens & Susan Raye.

"Buck, of course, picked the music," Raye says. "Most of it was written by him or somebody he knew or in his bluebook category. There were times when I thought, 'Gosh, why are we doing this song? He's already done it, so why are we doing it as a duet?' I didn't understand it, particularly when he asked me to sing 'LA International Airport.' For me, I thought, 'Why is he having me sing this song?' David Frizzell already recorded it, and as I understand, three other people before me had recorded it. So, I thought, why would my record go over when David Frizzell was a bigger name than I was at the time? I was new. It's not like I was a star, and everyone knew me and was waiting for my next release."

"LA International Airport," a global crossover hit, appears on Susan Raye's 16 Greatest Hits along with other memorable recordings from her Capitol Records stint.

"Most of the crossover songs were designed to be that, and they would pitch them to other genres at the same time they released them to country," Raye says. "That's not what happened with 'LA.' It had already been a big hit in the country field when all of a sudden, I was told a disc jockey in L.A. liked it and started playing it on the rock 'n' roll station. Then somebody else picked it up on easy listening stations. It pretty much ran its course in the country field when it started being in the Top 50 rock 'n' roll songs and easy listening."

Read More: The 10 Best Buck Owens Songs, Ranked

Beyond "LA International Airport's" widespread reach, Raye scored seven top-10 and 19 top-40 country hits. This success forced Owens and his manager Jack McFadden to reconsider Raye's recurring role on Hee Haw in case it made her seem like less of a country music star than the show's Nashville-based special guests.

"I started out being on every week as a regular," Raye adds. "I don't know if it was Buck or Jack or all of them together, but they decided as my career was taking off that they'd rather me be considered a guest and not come on every week. I'd do two songs like the other guests."

By the mid-'80s, Raye consciously swapped touring for praise band duties at church.

"When I was about 40, I decided that I needed to do something else," she says. "My logic said are they going to want to pay for a ticket to see Susan Raye at 40, or will they go see Faith Hill, who was much younger? I didn't want to end up singing in crummier places for less and less money and hang on for the last hurrah. I just looked for something else I loved doing and changed careers. So, I went to school and got my master's degree in Psychology and Sociology and became a counselor."

Raye never lost contact with Owens. Raye's former boss showed up at one point to her counseling clinic with a royalty check. He also cut a different check to sponsor Raye's daughter Brianna's participation in the Miss USA pageant.

On a separate occasion, Owens visited to ask Raye about something money could not buy: Her Christian faith.

"He wrote me a hand-written letter that said he wanted to turn his life over to God, and I still have it," Raye adds.

Over 50 years after Owens spotted a true talent and Raye softened her stance on a life-changing opportunity, vinyl collectors get to rediscover one of the great stylists to emerge from Bakersfield.

The Very Best of Buck Owens & Susan Raye Track List

Side A:

1  "We're Gonna Get Together"
2  "Togetherness"
3  "Together Again"
4  "Cryin' Time"
5  "Love Is Strange"
6  "The Great White Horse"
7 "Today I Started Loving You Again"

Side B:

1 "I Don't Care (Just As Long As Long As You Love Me)"
2 "Think Of Me When You're Lonely"
3 "Your Tender Loving Care"
4  "Looking Back to See"
5  "The Good Old Days (Are Here Again)"
6  "Sweethearts In Heaven"
7  "Love Makes The World Go Around"

Susan Raye's 16 Greatest Hits Track List

Side One:

1  "Put A Little Love In Your Heart"
2  "One Night Stand"
3  "Willy Jones"
4  "LA International Airport"
5  "Pitty, Pitty, Patter"
6  "(I've Got A) Happy Heart"
7  "A Song To Sing"
8  "My Heart Has A Mind Of Its Own"

Side Two:

1 Wheel Of Fortune (2:28)
2  Love Sure Feels Good In My Heart (2:55)
3  Cheating Game (2:47)
4  Plastic Trains, Paper Planes (2:30)
5  When You Get Back From Nashville (2:37)
6  Stop The World (And Let Me Off) (2:21)
7  You Can Sure See It From Here (2:40)
8  Whatcha Gonna Do With A Dog Like That (2:18)

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Bakersfield Legend Susan Raye Talks Reissues, Retirement and Buck Owens