NASHVILLE -- Imagine you're one of hundreds of struggling singer/songwriters looking for a big break in Music City, you're onstage -- ironically enough, at a bar called Losers -- singing one of the songs you wrote and a familiar face walks toward the stage.
You keep singing as that face, which belongs to country star Miranda Lambert, appears at one of the onstage microphones and starts belting out the background vocals to your song.
That's what happened to Albany's Ray Stephenson a little more than two years ago.
Flash forward to July of this year, though, and the tale takes an even more bizarre -- and triumphant -- twist for Stephenson. Lambert's husband, country superstar Blake Shelton, has just released his latest album, and he's calling it "Red River Blue." That title comes from a song with the same name ... which just happens to be the song that Lambert chimed in on at Stephenson's Losers appearance.
"I was stunned when Miranda came up on the stage," Stephenson said in a phone interview earlier this week. "I asked her how she knew my song, and she said, 'Blake's been riding around listening to it in his pickup for the longest time.'
"I wrote the song with my friend Buddy Owens, and Buddy is friends with Blake's guitar player. Buddy gave his friend a copy of my album 'Gunned Down in Mexico,' which includes 'Red River Blue,' and his friend gave it to Blake to listen to."
Shelton hesitated before pulling the trigger on the Stephenson/Owens composition.
"From the time Miranda came onstage with us until he recorded his latest album, Blake released three other albums," Stephenson said. "In the back of my mind, I just knew he would record that song because Buddy and I wrote it with (Shelton) and Miranda in mind. But each time he released an album and it wasn't on it, I was a little less confident.
"So we were excited and relieved when they called and said Blake was going to make 'Red River Blue' the title song for his latest album."
That bit of good news is by no means Stephenson's lone claim to fame. Songs he's written or co-written have been recorded by such country luminaries as Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, and just over a year ago country music's hottest contemporary star, Kenny Chesney, made Stephenson's "Hemingway's Whiskey" the title cut of his album, which is still among country's Top 20 albums a year after its release.
"Kenny's album debuted at No. 1 on the country charts, and so did Blake's," Stephenson said. "Neither of the songs I helped write for their albums has been released as a single yet, but I feel good about 'Red River Blue's' chances. Blake recorded it with Miranda, so I figure it has an excellent shot at ending up on the radio."
Stephenson, who earned a graphic arts degree from Valdosta State University, got his musical start with the band Trotline, which was one of south Georgia's most in-demand acts. But when Stephenson graduated from VSU, he decided to take the plunge and chase his musical dreams to Nashville. His graphic design work -- creating artwork for album covers and other projects -- helps pay for studio time, and he's now into his second decade of chasing that one big career-altering hit.
"Red River Blue" could be just that.
"Buddy had gone to Blake's farm in Oklahoma on a hunting trip, and when he got back he told me we ought to try and write a song for Blake and Miranda," Stephenson said. "Blake's farm is on the Red River, and I told Buddy I had a song idea I'd called 'Red River Blue' that I hadn't been able to figure out what it means yet.
"We came up with this idea of a guy who lives in Oklahoma along the Red River, and a girl who lives just across the state line in Texas along the river. We wrote it with Blake and Miranda in mind, but of course it's not really about them. They were the inspiration, though."
Until enough of that Nashville magic rubs off on Stephenson and he's able to concentrate solely on his musical career, he says he'll keep plugging away, writing and recording his songs and getting them out to as many artists as possible.
"I've decided that writing songs is like cooking," he said. "If you try to make somebody else's recipe, sometimes it turns out good and sometimes it doesn't. When you make your own chili or your own spaghetti sauce, it always turns out right. I've learned that it's best for me to write my songs rather than trying to write what I think someone else might want.
"Staying with the cooking analogy, there's nothing in a restaurant that has 117 things on the menu that's as good as anything in a restaurant that specializes in only three things. My songs always seem to be three years or so ahead of the curve, so I'm just going to keep writing my songs."
With album title cuts recorded by Chesney and Shelton now on his resume, it looks like Stephenson's recipe is just the thing to please country superstars' musical palates.