Albany's Stephenson writes title song for Chesney

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Albany and Southwest Georgia's musical history is dotted with names whose fame has spread far beyond their local roots.

Ray Charles ... Ray Stephens ... Otis Redding ... Dave Prater ... Luke Bryan ... Field Mob ... The Lost Trailers ... Cindy Thompson ... Dallas Davidson.

There's a name missing from that list that, while it may not be so well-known locally right now, come September it might hit the mainstream spotlight like some of the aforementioned artists. Not that musicians all over Music City aren't already glad they've come in contact with Ray Stephenson.

Albany native Stephenson, 35, who left for Nashville more than a decade ago after graduating with a graphic arts degree from Valdosta State University, has written songs that have been recorded by such country music luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, John Anderson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Steve Holy and Guy Clark.

But perhaps his greatest musical accomplishment -- at least from monetary and profile perspectives -- will come in September when country's current No. 1 superstar Kenny Chesney will make Stephenson's "Hemingway's Whiskey" the title cut for his forthcoming album.

"Financially, (Chesney's recording) will probably be the biggest thing to happen in my career so far," Stephenson, who will play at the LeVee in Albany Friday, said in a telephone interview. "He's the No. 1 touring act in the business, so I'm really excited about that.

"But the biggest thing for me has been having singers like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, John Anderson and Merle Haggard record my songs. Those guys are my heroes."

And there was also that time Stephenson landed a gig as guitarist for his favorite singer, Vern Gosdin.

"I was playing a 10 a.m. show at Legends Corner (a Nashville bar) in the freezing cold in February, and the only person in the place was a homeless woman named Betty," Stephenson said. "This shady looking guy walked in and asked if I could play a Vern Gosdin song. I did, and then he asked if I could play this song and that song and another song.

"I told him as long as he was putting money in the tip jar, I'd play anything he wanted. I ended up playing maybe 10 Vern Gosdin songs, and this guy walks up and says, 'You're the guy I've been looking for.'"

The "shady looking guy" turned out to be Gosdin's manager.

"He told me Vern and his guitar player had gotten into a fight, and Vern was looking for someone else who could play his songs," Stephenson said. "He'd heard that 'there was a kid in town who could play all of Vern's songs,' so he hired me. I flew to Branson (Mo.) and started playing with Vern without ever having a rehearsal. It was a manifestation of my dreams."

Stephenson's dream took flight at VSU when he and the band Trotline started playing four or five nights a week. Just before he graduated, Stephenson landed a job as a graphic designer, but the reality that he was making more money as a musician quickly hit home.

"I decided to go to Nashville," he said. "I figured I could do the same thing up there."

After sending out 30 resumes seeking work as a designer and not getting a single return call, however, Stephenson decided he'd best concentrate on his "other" job. He opened up his guitar case and started busking for tips along Music City's legendary Broadway. One of the city's club owners heard him play one day and invited him to perform during an open early-morning time slot.

"That was definitely the bottom slot," Stephenson said. "I had to start working my way up."

He did just that and soon was a regular on the Nashville club circuit. Singer Steve Holy, who'd scored a big hit with "Good Morning Beautiful," caught Stephenson's show at Wolfy's one night, and the two struck up a friendship that led to a writing partnership.

"Steve had heard one of my songs and wanted to record it," Stephenson said. "He asked if I had a demo, and when I told him I didn't, he went into a studio with me and some friends and recorded the song. We hit it off so well, he asked me to go out on the road with him."

Stephenson's work with Holy, which included appearances at the Grand Ole Opry, and other Nashville artists landed him a publishing deal with EMI, where he caught the attention of legendary songwriter Guy Clark. That relationship would dramatically impact his career.

"I became his apprentice," Stephenson said. "Guy taught me how to build a guitar -- we built two together in two years -- and I learned a lot about the craft of writing songs. We were working on the song 'Homeless' (which Clark eventually recorded), and I came upon this homeless guy who had a sign that said 'Friend for Life, 25 Cents.' I told Guy about it, and he said 'That's our song.'

"I really got a schooling, a songwriting education, with Guy."

Shortly after his time with Clark, Stephenson signed a deal with Universal South and started work on his first album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. That work, which included sessions with Mac McAnally, Gary Baker and Walt Aldridge, was nearing completion when Universal was part of a merger that led to a purge of almost its entire artist roster.

Stephenson hooked up with Sony/ATV in 2006 and completed work on the album that would become "Gravity." The album includes "Farmboy," an autobiographical frat boy favorite about life in South Georgia that has become something of an underground sensation for the singer.

In 2007, Stephenson co-wrote "Workbench Song," which received a Grammy nomination for Clark. He also started work and completed a second album, "Gunned Down in Mexico," which he's released independently.

Most significantly, though, in 2009 he and Clark wrote "Hemingway's Whiskey" together, and Clark included it on his album "Sometimes the Song Writes You." To celebrate Clark's 70th birthday, a number of Nashville's greatest artists were invited to record their favorite Clark song for a tribute album, and Kristofferson chose "Hemingway's Whiskey."

"Kris asked me to come in and coach him, and I played the song for him," Stephenson said. "He was super nice, humble ... trust me, not all of them in Nahville are nice or humble."

A publicist got a copy of the album and took it to Chesney, who announced last week that he had chosen it as his new album's title song.

"I was sitting in my truck and a friend had given me Guy's album, which had just come out," Chesney said Tuesday on the country website theboot.com. "It's a song that talks about living life to its fullest, being a man about your responsibilities and not compromising. As soon as I heard it, I knew I had to cut it and call the album that."

Stephenson will celebrate the good news with his family in Albany over the July 4th weekend. In addition to the Friday show at the LeVee, he will perform at the Crowbar Saturday and will play at a private family party at the River Pointe Golf Club on the 4th.

"There are two ways a songwriter makes money: through record sales and radio airplay," Stephenson said. "People don't buy records like they used to, but if Kenny Chesney releases the song as a single and it gets the airplay it is expected to, it could be big for me as a songwriter.

"Of course, it doesn't hurt that Kenny is the biggest star in country music right now."

Musicians looking to make a name for themselves in a fickle and ever-changing business rarely get the big break that catapults them to stardom. Ray Stephenson, who also uses his artistic talent to paint album covers and other original works that are available on his website (raystephenson.com or raybomusic@bellsouth.net), may have just gotten that break.

And his name has earned a place on Southwest Georgia's roster of artists who've made a lasting impact. Not a bad place to start.