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As a songwriter with nearly a dozen country chart hits to his credit -- including four Top 10s with his former band, McBride & The Ride, and a few other chart-toppers for the likes of Kenny Chesney, Aaron Tippin and Lee Greenwood -- Arizona-born singer/guitarist Ray Herndon is used to having his best work put on hold while the head Nashville cats build their next superstars.
"What they do around here," says Herndon, who moved to the country music capital 10 years ago, "is, if you write a song that a producer happens to like, a record label can hold it for a certain artist to record. Sometimes they end up cutting it, sometimes they don't."
Right now, Herndon says, he's got a new song on hold for Alan Jackson, and still another waiting for Gretchen Wilson.
Normally, "the Rayman" -- who returns to the Valley this weekend to play a free show at his family's restaurant, the Handlebar J, in celebration of the north Scottsdale landmark's 30th anniversary, and another at Rawhide to help mark the theme park's 35th (and its move to a new location by the Gila River Casino) -- is okay with the leisurely pace of Nashville's Music Row.
What's been testing Herndon's patience lately, however, is having his own solo career sitting on hold. Exactly a year ago, after wrapping up a summer playing behind longtime pal Lyle Lovett, Herndon was hanging out at the Handlebar J, promoting his just-released indie effort, Living the Dream, and taping the video for its first single, a clever ditty called "My Dog Thinks I'm Elvis," up along the streets, shops and biker bars of Cave Creek.
Now he's gearing up for an extended return to the Valley, again promoting his "brand-new" solo album.
"They keep saying, 'It takes time,'" Herndon says, laughing. "The bottom line is, not that many people -- outside of Phoenix -- have heard it yet."
This time around, though, the veteran sideman's stab at leading-man status might actually take hold. A second single, a mug-waving bar waltz titled "A Grain of Salt (And a Shot of Tequila)," with special guest Clint Black, was recently released to an enthusiastic reaction from country radio.
Already, like his album's title, Herndon feels he's living the dream of at least his late father, "Brick" Herndon, who led the Handlebar J's original house band and eventually brought his three sons into the family business after buying the bar with his wife Gwen, who still runs the joint today.
"My dad would be proud that I've been able to come here and make a living playing music in Nashville, Tennessee," Herndon says. "But at the same time, playing around Nashville, I've been so pigeonholed as a sideman that it takes people a while to see you as anything more."
At least around the Valley, where Herndon's frequent unannounced homecomings at the Handlebar J pack the honky-tonk with loyal fans, everybody loves Ray.
"Especially since Mr. Lucky's closed, the Handlebar has really become like the hang spot for the country scene," Herndon says. "Whenever the stars play Phoenix, they all come back here to party. I know my dad's looking down and smiling."