34:55 min • MCA • 1987
I know it’s often considered in poor taste to refer to compilations as classics, but in the case of Ray Stevens, I’m ready to make an exception. A former mainstay of the Dr. Demento radio show and a master of country-influenced funny songs, Ray has been making albums since the early 1960s and this compilation from MCA records offers the best introduction to his unique sound and sense of humor.
Opening with one of his biggest hits, ‘The Streak’ (reaching #1 on the US chart in 1974), the song mixes spoken dialogue between a news reporter and a local yokel who sees the actions of the unnamed streaker, answering the question “Pardon me, sir, did you see what happened?” with a deep-drawled “Yeah, I did.” In between the reporter and the yokel, there’s a high-energy country groove celebrating the streaker and his dedication to indecency.
‘Shriner’s Convention’ pokes fun at an American institution, the fraternal order of the Shriners. Taking a cue from the format of ‘The Streak’, this track once again mixes spoken dialogue with an upbeat musical interlude. The spoken interlude is a one sided phone call with the Grand High Poobah named “Bubba” and the unheard Coy. Coy’s antics get crazier and crazier, as he first misses the parade, then begins hosting wild drunken parties with waitresses from the lounge and in the end, finds himself kicked out of the Shriners. The musical interlude, in an upbeat marching band style, gives a tongue-in-cheek view of the group, for example in describing the dinner scene,
“Well, it was all arranged by the Ladies Auxiliary in the downtown Convention Hall
Cold Roast Beef, String Beans, Mashed Potatoes and nine boring speeches in all
And all the tables looked fine with their Mogen David Wine and Chrysanthemums on each side
And the Hahira leaders in their rented Tuxedos made the local hearts swell with pride
It’s a typical American phenomenon where all the members have a fine old time
It’s the forty-third annual Convention of the Grand Mystic Royal Order
Of the Nobles of the Ali Baba Temple of the Shrine ”
The third cut, ‘It’s Me Again, Margaret’, is a humorous spin on harassing phone calls. Willard McBain spends his nights on the pay phone, making crank calls to an old lady named Margaret. Accompanied by a slow, bluesy country sound, McBain’s calls get more bizarre, moving from, “I know it’s you, Margret, are you naked?” to “Wanna hear me bark like Rin-Tin-Tin?” Eventually McBain is arrested and uses his one phone call to dial Margaret and describe a fantasy involving Cool Whip, a weedeater, and a live chicken.
Ray gets serious with the fourth track, ‘Turn Your Radio On’, an upbeat country gospel number extoling the virtues of religious broadcasting. Praising the outreach of such radio programs and their ability to save the souls of all who listen, Stevens reveals a deeply spiritual side not usually heard during his funnier numbers.
‘Misty’ is one of the most surprising numbers, a jazz standard written in 1954 by Errol Garner, this track is redone by Stevens with a bluegrass sound and feel. A way out of left field cover, nonetheless, it’s an intriguing song and keeps its romantic vibe through Ray’s country spin on it.
He finds his funnybone again with ‘The Mississippi Squirrel Revival’, a satirical stab at the hypocrisy of small-town churches. Ray, as a kid, sneaks a live squirrel into his grandmother’s church one Sunday and it gets loose. The squirrel causes the parishioners to go crazy as it crawls up one leg after another; they confess sins, dance in the aisles, and eventually the whole church thinks it’s a sign from God and the donations begin pouring in. Stevens ends it with, “The one I’ll remember ‘til my dying day is how He put that church back on the narrow way with a half-crazed Mississippi squirrel.”
‘Gitarzan’ features a swinging rock ‘n’ roll beat and the story of Tarzan, Jane, and their pet monkey as they try to make it as the biggest rock ‘n’ roll sensation of the jungle with Jane’s parody blues crooning, the monkey’s drunken grunts and Tarzan’s echoing voice accompanied by his guitar riffs.
The tenth and final track of the album finds Ray in a serious mood again with ‘Everything is Beautiful’, a piano ballad calling for world peace and to see people as people, all beautiful in their own way. It verges a bit on the sappy end a bit, but it’s a nice closer to this introductory collection.
This compilation showcases the best of Ray’s early and mid-career numbers, both funny and a few serious moments sprinkled in. Ray is still making records today, but he’s moved away from his soft-humored satire and into hardcore right wing politics. I guess whatever it takes to keep a career going, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment to see the former King of Comedy Country Music jumping on the Teabagger Bandwagon.
If you have an interest in novelty records or downhome American humor, this compilation is essential listening. Sure, it’s not edgy like George Carlin and there are no straight up parodies like Weird Al Yankovic, but it’s still a very funny record and showcases the talents of one of America’s best humorists.