WHEN COLLIN RAYE RELEASED HIS first country album, All I Can Be, last year, he might have imagined one of its love songs being played...oh, at the occasional wedding, perhaps. Instead, "Love, Me," its hit single, has been setting the tone for ceremonies of a different sort. "They've played it at funerals," says Raye, 31. (One person even requested a copy of the lyrics for her dearly departed's casket.) "I don't know how to respond to that."

The song, a heart-tugging tale of a boy who reads a note that his grandmother once wrote to his grandfather—and signed "Love, Me"—quickly grew beyond mere romantic balladry into "a message that makes people feel good," Raye figures now. Propelled by Raye's husky-to-honey-sweet voice, the song flew into the Top 10 on the country charts, flooded his mailbox with 300 letters a week and clogged country radio with request calls. "It's just a beautiful love song," says veteran country diva Tammy Wynette. "If the song is there and connects with a great singer—and he's incredible—it's a match made in heaven."

For Raye, it was also a match that fired a recording career long stuck at a fizzle. Born in De Queen, Ark., and raised in Texarkana, he had certainly started early enough. His mother, Lois, was a country singer who shared bills with visiting stars like Jerry Lee Lewis and even the young Elvis. His father, Floyd, was an auto mechanic who moonlighted on bass with local bands. Raye began performing with older brother Scott in nearby talent shows at the tender age of 7 and spent his early teens playing Texarkana's honky-tonks. After high school, he and Scott began a professional migration that stretched from Bend, Oreg. ("still one of my favorite places"), to Corvallis to Portland and finally to the casinos of Reno. Steady work performing everything from pop to redneck rock stretched his repertoire, and even today, Raye claims, he can sing and play more than 4,000 songs start to finish. "I even remember songs I didn't like," says Collin.

His personal life was humming along too. Collin had met his future wife, Connie Parker, who was three years his senior and, at the time, dating the manager of a nightclub back when he was performing in Texarkana. "He didn't do no drugs or smoke, nothing," Connie recalls. "That's what drew me to him. He had a foster child he donated money to in El Salvador. He told me don't waste water. He was concerned about those things even back then."

The couple married in 1980, and three years later Connie gave birth to their first child, Britanny, now 9. In 1985, however, Connie suffered complications during her pregnancy with their second child and lapsed into a two-month coma. Jacob, now 6, was born with cerebral palsy; Connie had to relearn such basic skills as walking and talking; and Collin found himself working seven nights a week, four shows a night, in the casinos, to support the family. Forced to perform at low volume in the gambling pits, Raye credits the experience with helping his stage presence, but he admits it took a toll on his voice. "You think you're indestructible," he says. "Then you start to sound hoarse all the time."

The hard times took their toll on the couple's marriage as well, and in 1987 they divorced. Connie moved back to her hometown of Greenville, Tex., with Jacob and Britanny, while Raye stayed in Reno. Having parted with his brother by then, he was fronting his own band—and struggling. Then one night, after an out-of-town date, the group's truck broke down in the desert. "The band was all fighting and hating each other's guts," he says. "It was 130° and we had to walk. It was miserable. I spent a few weeks doing some real soul-searching."

What he found, after deciding to slick it out, was an L.A. record producer sitting in his Reno audience one night. Within a year and a half, Raye was putting the finishing touches on his debut album, released last August. Two months later its second single, "Love, Me," hit the airwaves, and the long walk ended.

Despite his now busier than ever schedule, Raye still spends his off-stage time with the kids back in Greenville. To make life easier for them, he bunks in a bedroom at Connie's rented tract house, an arrangement he likens to a "brother and sister rooming together."

For now, there are no plans to look any farther than those familiar faces. "So many things have to be right in a relationship these days," he says. "Everyone wants a custom fit in an off-the-rack world." As for his professional life, last week his latest single, "Every Second," was climbing the country charts, and stardom seemed to fit just fine, thanks. "The floor had fallen out from under me so many times, I feel justified," says Raye. "I'm comfortable with the fact that I'm where I want to be."

CYNTHIA SANZ
JOSEPH HARMES in Greenville

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.