JOHN DENVER is gone, the tragic victim of an experimental-plane crash last weekend.
But his mellow brand of easy-listening music will live on, as long as there are people who like to have music in the background while they read a book, make romance or just kick back and relax.
Denver, whose ballads like "Annie's Song" and "Country Roads" made him the King of Mellow, would've loved the Raybon Brothers. Their debut compact disc is as laid-back an affair as any country music outing we've heard in years. He would have loved "Falling," a 1970s hit ballad that the brothers recorded with Denver's sweet old duet partner, Olivia Newton-John.
And he would have loved their version of perhaps the ultimate in nostalgia songs for the '90s -- Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses." It's actually prettier than Carlisle's version.
Those of us who most enjoy music as an aid to relaxation have good reason to celebrate the new pairing of Marty and Tim Raybon. Marty's name may ring a bell with country fans. For 11 years he was lead singer for Shenandoah, a very underrated band that recorded "Two Dozen Roses," "The Church on Cumberland Road" and several other hits.
As young men the two brothers were part of a family band that won five Florida state bluegrass championships. But then Tim left music and worked for a while to raise a family. Marty went on to play with a number of bands before settling in with Shenandoah in 1985. He left the band last year to reteam with his brother.
The brothers' debut album, produced by Don Cook and Tony Brown, heralds very good things to come. Aside from being mellow fellows, these guys can sing and play. Too bad Denver, their musical soul mate, won't be around to hear it. Rating: .
What do Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker have in common with John Lennon, B.B. King, Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt and John Prine?
They've all been among the admirers, cohorts and musical collaborators of one Delbert McClinton.
Look next to "roadhouse musician" in a dictionary of musical terms and there's McClinton's picture. He has been banging around the music scene since the late 1950s. His songs are a tasty stew of country, blues, rock and honky-tonk.
The Texas singer is one of those guys who has jammed and inspired just about everyone of note in the business. He started out in a blues band, playing with masters like Big Joe Turner and Sonny Boy Williamson. On a British tour in the early '60s, he helped Lennon learn how to play the harmonica. In the '70s, he helped Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi get their Blues Brothers act off the ground. In 1992 he won his first Grammy Award, for a soulful duet with Raitt. A year later, the Clintons picked him to play at the inaugural ball.
But so far, McClinton has won more respect from his peers than the general public. Many casual music fans haven't even heard of him. We'd love to see all that change with "One of the Few," his first album of new music in four years.
It's a rollicking set of songs featuring McClinton at his best,joined by some of the hottest country singers -- Gill, Lovett, Loveless and Pam Tillis among them. If that's not enough, Staples, King and Prine are aboard, and so are studio band stalwarts Jim Keltner on drums, Lee Roy Parnell on slide guitar and Bekka Bramlett on backup vocals.
The tone is set right up front with "Old Weakness (Coming on Strong)," a feisty rocker with a guitar riff like the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman." Prine and Lovett help kick out the jams on "Too Much Stuff," and King's unique guitar, Lucille, lends her sound to "Leap of Faith." The heartbreaking ballad "You Were Never Mine" shows another side to McClinton.
I haven't given his music much attention over the years, but I'm with President Clinton on this one. McClinton is a treasure, a song stylist who ought to be a lot better-known than he is now. Rating: .
Love him or hate him, Ray Stevens has a place in American radio history as the premier performer of "novelty hits." Yes, this is the man we have to blame for such ghastly songs as "Ahab the Arab," "Gitarzan," "Along Came Jones," "The Streak" and others like them. He even recorded a song called "I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow."
But you know what? Stevens has done some good stuff over the years, too. "Unwind" and "Mr. Businessman," recorded in 1968, were interesting observations on the selfish and cold world of business. "Everything Is Beautiful" was a wonderful "love and peace" ballad. Another good piece of work was Stevens' version of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down."
Nowadays, Stevens is most often heard at his theater in the country music mecca of Branson, Mo. He still has a strong following among country fans.
"The Best of Ray Stevens" has all the Ray Stevens you'd ever want to hear, and then some. The 20-song collection captures moments of ridiculousness and temporary sanity from 1961 to 1980. Rating: 1/2 .
Speaking of ridiculous, can you picture Steven Seagal, the action movie "actor," as a country musician?
That's the stretch we're asked to make on "Music From the Motion Picture 'The Fire Down Below.' " Seagal shows up here as a guitarist, songwriter and producer on a 12-song soundtrack that includes performances from Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Alabama and other country artists.
Half the songs feature Seagal's participation, and the collection isn't bad. Tritt steals the show with the stinging "Back Up Against the Wall," and little-known Marty Grebb sounds an awful lot like the Band on another strong number, "Fire in the Hole." Rating: .
THE RAYBON BROTHERS (MCA MCAD-70014)
DELBERT McCLINTON One of the Few (Rising Tide rtd-53042)
RAY STEVENS The Best of Ray Stevens (Rhino R2-72867)
FIRE DOWN BELOW Original Soundtrack (Warner Brothers 9-46534-2)