Musician/artist Ray Stephenson, who graduated Albany High School, was recently named Songwriter of the Year along with Buddy Owens and Gord Bamford at the Canadian Country Music Association awards. (Special photo)
ALBANY — With its array of stars, superstars and budding stars glowing in the sports and entertainment spotlights, Southwest Georgia, and metro Albany in particular, has become something of a hotbed for talent.
While they’ve been toiling in their chosen specialty fields for varying amounts of time now, three more names can be added to the list of area pop culture heroes to go along with the likes of Buster Posey, Luke Bryan, Phillip Phillips, Ray Charles, Dallas Davidson, Ray Stevens, Lionel James, Field Mob, Roy Hamilton, Ray Knight, Carly Mathis and others.
Hollywood writer/producer Robert Peacock, who grew up in Albany, is the creative mind behind the red-hot Nickelodeon series “The Haunted Hathaways;” Travis Richter, a Lee County rock musician-turned-actor, is the familiar face in a popular Mini Cooper TV ad; and Nashville-by-way-of-Albany singer/songwriter Ray Stephenson recently won the Canadian Country Music Association Songwriter of the Year award for the song “Leaning on a Lonesome Song,” written by Stephenson and his friends Buddy Owens and Gord Bamford and recorded by Bamford.
As Davidson, who has penned 15 No. 1 country music songs since taking Nashville by storm, once told The Herald: “It must be something in that Flint River water.”
Peacock started his entertainment career by doing standup comedy while studying Theater at the University of Georgia. He eventually made his way to New York, where he appeared in a number of films and soap operas before turning his attention to writing.
Peacock got his first big break when comedian Jeff Foxworthy attended a performance of his award-winning one-man show “Athlete of the Year” and recruited Peacock as a writer for his “Jeff Foxworthy Show.” With such a high-profile listing on his resume, Peacock landed a number of writing/production gigs, on such TV hits as “Mad About You,” “Suddenly Susan,” “Reba,” “Blue Collar TV” and “The Soul Man.”
Peacock is one-half of a high-profile entertainment family, his wife Esther, whom he met at an acting class in New York, having appeared in more than 100 national commercials. But landing “Hathaways” on kid-favorite Nickelodeon has opened a new avenue of creativity for the “lifelong Atlanta Braves fan.”
Being the featured face in a popular TV ad was about the last thing Richter expected when he left Albany for Los Angeles after joining the rock band From First to Last. When that group’s members went their separate ways, Richter stayed in L.A. and eventually formed the “neoclassical thinking-man’s metal band” The Human Abstract.
Abstract’s members forced a hiatus of sorts when some took on other projects: one managing another band, one teaching college.
“I put a lot of hard work into that band, and when we kind of stepped away I was left with no income other than royalties from stuff I’d done with From First to Last,” Richter said in a phone interview.
But it turns out Richter, who lives in “a dirty, dingy part of downtown L.A.” that leaves him “missing Georgia a lot,” had more than his musical chops going for himself. He took his budding-actress girlfriend to an open casting call and was approached by a talent scout who happened to see him.
“The guy said, ‘Hey, come on up, we want to meet you,’” Richter said. “They started talking with me about acting in commercials, so I said why not. Now I’m kind of grinding out a new career, focusing my energy on acting. I’m not some model, trying to get jobs posing in clothes. Doing commercials is a good way to get used to this industry. It could lead to something else.”
Richter’s first big acting break came in a Bud Lite commercial in which he was the featured character. That didn’t work out so well, though.
“By the time they edited the ad, pretty much everything I’d done had been cut out,” he laughed. “You could see my back in the commercial for like about one second. I got a call from my girlfriend’s mom and she said, ‘Hey, I just saw your back on TV.’ That’s why the Mini Cooper ad was so big for me.”
Stephenson, who played at the recent grand re-opening of the Albany Museum of Art, has had songs he’s written recorded by such country luminaries as Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. He knew he, Owens and Bamford had something special with “Lonesome Song,” which was a huge hit north of the border and across Europe.
By the time the Canadian CMAs were over, Stephenson, Owens and Bamford’s hit had been named Song of the Year, had won them songwriter honors, and had garnered video, album and production awards for Bamford.
“That’s already opened a lot of doors for me,” Stephenson said of the Canadian award during a phone conversation from his Nashville home. “Buddy’s putting out a single up there next month, and we’re going to use it as a guinea pig, to test the waters. If it goes well, we’re going to release some of our music up there. It could be another lucrative market for us.”
Stephenson, who recently released his first album (“Medicine Man”) with his new band The Revival, is gaining almost as much attention for his artwork these days as he is his music. He’s the painter in residence for the annual Monsters of Rock Cruise and showcases his paintings, most depicting music legends, at his music gigs.
The Albany High School graduate said he’ll showcase some of his material for Nashville hit makers at a songwriters festival in Deadwood, S.D., soon before looking deeper into his Canadian connection.
“The music business is something you have to have faith in,” Stephenson said. “I’m planting seeds right now; you never know where they’ll come up. Getting an award like this is nice on a personal level, but more than that it lets you know you’re on the right path.”