“Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river ...”
Those are the first lines of “Shenandoah,” a sentimental 19th-century folk song about a heartsick riverman who pines for an Indian maiden he had to leave.
A Native American word that means “daughter of the stars,” Shenandoah is also the name of a valley, a river and a national park.
All of that evocative history surely played into a popular country music group’s decision to make Shenandoah their band name. Not so, says Marty Raybon, Shenandoah’s lead singer.
“It was suggested by the record company,” he says with a chuckle.
This was back in 1988. Raybon and his bandmates — guitarist Jim Seales, keyboardist Stan Thorn, bassist Ralph Ezell and drummer Mike McGuire — had been working together as the MGM Band since 1984. They primarily kept busy recording songwriting demos for various publishers at studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
With seven studios and a number of publishing companies in town at that time, Muscle Shoals was like a mini Nashville, and there was plenty of work for the MGM Band. But songwriter-producer Robert Byrne thought the group had potential as artists in their own right, and he secured a deal for them with Columbia Records.
With their first record on the brink of release, the group was given two names to choose from: The Rhythm Rangers and Shenandoah. They chose correctly, and the group was off and running on a solid decade of country hits.
With its rootsy mix of bluegrass, country and gospel, and led by Raybon’s distinctive classic-country voice, Shenandoah exploded on the music scene. Over a three-year period, they charted 10 Top 10 country hits. During their breakout year of 1989, Shenandoah had a trio of consecutive No. 1 songs: “The Church on Cumberland Road,” “Sunday in the South” and “Two Dozen Roses.”
The titles convey Shenandoah’s connection to the culture of the South.
“We all grew up in the South and learned what was important and what was right,” says Raybon, who is calling during a break in Shenandoah’s busy tour schedule. He quotes the Bible a few times during our interview and comes across as solid and grounded as an old oak tree.
Shenandoah will perform twice at the Liberty Showcase Theatre on Oct. 19 as part of its 30th Anniversary Tour.
The group’s hit streak lasted all the way through 1996. Along the way they recorded material both jocular — “If Bubba Can Dance (I Can Too),” their fourth No. 1 hit — and the earnest, “Somewhere in the Vicinity of the Heart,” a 1994 duet between Raybon and Alison Krauss.
Raybon reflects on Shenandoah’s success, including 26 country hits. “We were real fortunate to get our hands on some great songs, including a couple that had been turned down by the Judds and Restless Heart.”
He credits Mike McGuire for having the ears and patience to sift through mountains of demos to find the proverbial needles in the haystack — potential hit songs that would work well for Shenandoah.
After a near decade of unabated success, Raybon left Shenandoah in 1997 and the group disbanded, although various members would eventually regroup and tour as Shenandoah again. Meanwhile, Raybon recorded bluegrass with his brother and sporadically nurtured a solo career.
He calls the hiatus “the best thing that ever happened to us, because it refreshed our family lives and gave us a chance to regain some perspective.”
Seventeen years later, Raybon hooked up with Shenandoah in 2014 to perform a benefit concert for a friend who was dying of pancreatic cancer. What was supposed to be a one-off event turned into a full-fledged reunion.
“We realized it wouldn’t be hard to put the wheels back on and jump back into it,” says Raybon.
Shenandoah began booking dates in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. The reunion caught fire — as did their tour bus, in a scary and widely reported incident in 2018. With dates booked as fast as they can keep up with them, they’ve resumed the life of hard-working country band.
Last year, Shenandoah released a new album, “Re-Loaded,” consisting of re-recordings of old hits plus several new tunes. They are working with Jay DeMarcus (of Rascal Flatts) on some new recordings. Raybon and McGuire are also collaborating with songwriter Mac McAnally and a few others on a tribute to the songs and legacy of Muscle Shoals.
At this point, Raybon quotes legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant to explain Shenandoah’s success, then and now: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
“It’s really a fine time now in the life of Shenandoah,” says Raybon. “We’ve got a bright future ahead of us.”