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Scottsdale musician Ray Herndon couldn't be happier with the success his band, McBride and the Ride, has achieved. Well, actually, he probably could be happier, but Herndon is reluctant to knock a good thing.
"Oh, I'm very content," the tall, longhaired lead guitarist for the harmonic-happy, neo-country trio asserts, leaning back in his chair at his family's club in Scottsdale, the Handlebar-J. "I've always wanted to be a part of something like this, and after three years of stickin' to it, it seems to be happening."
Herndon's enthusiasm stems from McBride and the Ride's first big hit, the title track and initial single from their second MCA album, Sacred Ground. The smooth, sensuous ballad has ridden a bullet to single digits on the charts, and the accompanying video is experiencing hot-rotation status on the country-music television networks. The band members are holding their collective breath as they hope to garner a No. 1 ranking on this go-round.
"Finally," Herndon laughs, "we've got [the press] coming to us instead of having to call up and beg for a little attention." Based on the balance of the album's tracks, getting noticed in the newspapers might not be a concern for quite a while. Sacred Ground is a balanced and nicely executed mixture of ballads and quasi-rockers. As on the group's first work, Burnin' Up the Road, most of the songs on Sacred Ground were written or co-written by band namesake Terry McBride--and the improvement here is considerable. McBride's "Just One Night" shows the band's exemplary harmonizing skills, accompanied by but one lonely guitar, and "Your One and Only" allows Herndon to showcase his top-of-the-line pickin' skills. The next single from Sacred Ground will be another ballad, the McBride/Kostas-written "Going Out of My Mind." Chances are bright that this tenderly rendered song could even eclipse "Sacred Ground." It's clear that the Ride is well on the road to major-group status. Yet, Sacred Ground came close to being buried even before it was conceived.
After the first two singles released off Burnin' Up the Road ("Every Step of the Way" and "Felicia") failed to rouse much interest, rumors were rampant down Tennessee way that McBride and the Ride's contract with MCA would not be renewed. But a funny thing happened to the Ride boys on their way to the unemployment lines: The final single issued from that debut disc, after spinning along virtually unnoticed for a couple of months, suddenly took off--and remained on music charts for more than half a year. In fact, "Can I Count on You" turned out to be the biggest hit in the history of CMT (Country Music Television). Furthermore, last year the song became the primary request by couples for their official wedding song.
"Isn't that something?" says Ray, his voice a mixture of astonishment, pride and laughter.
Burnin Up the Road continues to sell ("We're topping 170,000 now," says Herndon), and doubtless will benefit from Sacred Ground's fine early showing. But the band is betting on Sacred Ground to help it scale more heavenly heights.
"Oh, we can tell the difference already, and that's after just three weeks of [Sacred Ground's] being out," Herndon says. "The crowds are bigger and louder. We had over 15,000 in Tuscaloosa last night." McBride and the Ride already have found themselves as increasingly regular guests on such Pine Curtain programs as Crook and Chase and Nashville Now. Both McBride and Herndon also have strong Texas ties, which have helped them get on more sophisticated shows like Texas Connection and Austin City Limits.
The versatile Herndon (he plays a mean fiddle, too) has an impressive pre-Ride portfolio, which includes former membership in Lyle Lovett's esteemed Large Band. Along with providing first-chair guitar work for the tall-haired Texan on tour and in the studio, Herndon regularly chipped in with back-up vocals. But for the 32-year-old, satin-voiced Herndon, the occasional low-part add to a bridge or chorus wasn't enough. After all, this is the same guy who began singing onstage at age 3 and, along with older brothers Rick and Ron, was a regular performer on the old Lew King Rangers show on Phoenix TV. Other Lew King veterans include Tanya Tucker and Wayne Newton.
The brothers' act was comprised of tap dancing, accordion playing and lots of guitar and singing. When the boys' parents bought the old Handlebar-J restaurant and bar some 16 years ago, Ray, Ron and Rick joined father Brick onstage. Brick Herndon, who died in 1985, was a championship bass-fiddle slapper and Ray's hero.
"I can't tell you just how good he was," Ray recalls quietly. "When I left the Handlebar-J, he was sick, but he knew it was what I had to do." Ray moved his talents across the Valley, to Mr. Lucky's, where he joined the owner's band, J. David Sloan and the Rogues. Herndon had felt the need to leave the nest, to broaden his horizons.
It was on a European tour with J. David and the Rogues the following year that Herndon met Lyle Lovett, who was performing solo at a folk festival. By the end of the monthlong gig, Lovett was regularly sitting in with the Rogues. Back stateside, Lovett soon scored a record deal. He remembered Herndon's abilities with both guitar and vocal chords and enlisted the Arizonan to work with him in the studio and, later, in his touring band. Each of Lyle Lovett's albums features the stellar guitar slinging of Ray Herndon.
After Brick Herndon died, the Handlebar-J stage was set with a country band that played quiet classics in a most amiable fashion. Ray decided it was time to pack it up at Mr. Lucky's and he returned to the family business on the corner of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road. Ray, his brothers and a couple of pals formed the Herndon Brothers Band. It was quite a departure from the gentle group which had been the Handlebar-J's house band previously. The Herndon Brothers' sound was more than just rockabilly-edged: It was loud. That's what most frightened the boys' mother, Gwen, who had been running the club almost single-handedly since Brick's passing.
"When she first heard us," Ray chuckles at the recollection, "her eyes got real big. She was very worried that we'd chase away her regulars and the people who were eating dinner." Instead, the band proved to be a big hit, luring large numbers of younger patrons who liked the group's contemporary, guitar-happy take on country-western sounds and Ray's polished lead-singer vocals.
As Ray's involvement with Lovett increased, however, his appearances with the Handlebar-J's homegrown house band dwindled. Between his road and studio work with Lovett, Ray found himself out of town more than in. Now with the ever-touring McBride and the Ride, Ray has had to reduce his involvement with the Herndon Brothers Band to the occasional one- or two-set performance.
"I miss it a lot, and that's a fact," Herndon admits. "I love playing at the Handlebar and with the boys. But success has been good for all of us, I think, and especially for the bar."
The catalyst for this last, major change in Ray Herndon's professional life came about just three years ago in Nashville, during the colorful summertime schmooze-and-sell fest called "MCA Fan Fair." This very popular, corn-pone affair finds that label's country-western stars ensconced in self-decorated booths, chatting with fans and colleagues and taking part in all-day concerts. It was during 1989's edition that superproducer Tony Brown (Lovett, Marty Brown, Kelly Willis) first summoned the trio together and said, "Let's hear some three-part harmonies." A band was born, with Tony Brown (along with Steve Gibson on Sacred Ground) turning the knobs. Ray Herndon is ecstatic with Brown's involvement.
"Tony Brown's the new ears of country music," enthuses Herndon. "Call it 'new traditionalism' or whatever, we're lucky to have him on our side. First, he introduces us during Fan Fair three years ago, and now we have our own booth. It'll have the McBride logo and a Harley-Davidson theme. Hopefully, we'll have a big ol' Harley inside."
Still, while Ray Herndon professes contentment at his current state of musical affairs, just how much longer will he be happy just going along for the Ride?
"Hey, I'm not worried about that now," he says with a wave of a hand. "I'll sing someday. You know, Terry wrote most of those songs; I guess he should sing them." Although a solo career may be in his future, other concerns have captured his attention for the time being. Topping his list of immediate priorities is the nurturing of his recent marriage to longtime companion Karri. The honeymoon was rather brief, however.
"We got married at the Little Chapel of the West in Las Vegas, and then went back to Nashville. It was a two-day turnaround," he laughs, shaking his head. "Man, it's been some kinda year."
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