Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Ray Stevens' contributions to the genre span over 60 years and include his work as a songwriter, session musician, producer and businessman. These varied roles remain no laughing matter for the namesake of Nashville venue the CabaRay Showroom.
That said, any collection of Stevens' most memorable tunes should be dominated by the colorful characters and cartoonish voices that made him a peer to Minnie Pearl, Roger Miller and other comedic ambassadors for country music. As such, this list of Stevens' 10 best songs strays from the serious and reminds longtime fans of such classic characters as Ahab the Arab's trusty camel and fez-wearing party animal Coy.
“Santa Claus Is Watchin' You”From 'The Best of Ray Stevens' (1967)
If Alvin and the Chipmunks taught us anything, it’s that humor can sneak a popular song into the time-tested rotation of family-friendly holiday favorites. Think of Stevens’ best Christmas song in the same vein as “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)”: It’s silly, but it’s unquestionably fun to sing with the kids.
“Would Jesus Wear a Rolex”From 'Crackin' Up' (1987)
Although it sounds inspired by the influx of televangelist scandals from the late ‘80s, this one still applies to the skewed priorities of some celebrity preachers and politicians. It also stands out because it brings a more serious tone than most of Stevens’ comedy songs. He didn’t need funny voices or wacky characters to get across a valid point.
“Shriner’s Convention”From 'Shriner's Convention' (1980)
With comedic cutaways, multiple fleshed-out characters and an absurd plot, this old standby about a Shriner’s get-together gone haywire resembles a sitcom more so than a country song. It's one of Stevens’ funniest and best-aged standards, and features quite the lovable knucklehead in Coy.
“It’s Me Again, Margaret”From 'He Thinks He's Ray Stevens' (1984)
This over-the-top tale of a prank caller might be ranked higher if it’d come from the pen of Stevens. Turns out, it’s by Paul Craft, the accomplished Nashville songwriter known for Mark Chesnutt’s “Brother Jukebox.” Craft’s original single from 1974 predates Stevens’ better-known version by a decade.
“Misty”From 'Misty' (1975)
Stevens’ sustained popularity and overall contribution to country music got boosts at times from serious material. Such was the case with this timeless love song, featuring one of the genre’s all-time great opening lines: “Look at me / I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree.” His Grammy-winning version from 1975 had a previous life in the jazz and pop repertoires of Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis and others.
“Everything Is Beautiful”From 'Everything Is Beautiful' (1970)
Everything isn’t a joke to Stevens, as evidenced by “Everything Is Beautiful.” It’s a gorgeous, gospel-influenced endorsement for the Biblical Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). It connects with the family-friendly, all-ages audience that’s supported his music for decades.
“Ahab the Arab”From '1,837 Seconds of Humor' (1962)
Although it barely cracks our Top 5, this 1962 hit put Stevens on the map and proved that a lowly session musician could find an audience with comedy songs. Ahab’s camel, Clyde, introduces one of the most beloved — or obnoxious, depending on who you ask — voices in the singer’s massive catalog of novelty sides.
“Gitarzan”From 'Gitarzan' (1969)
Stevens’ best send-up of popular culture crosses the familiar story of Tarzan and Jane with rock ‘n’ roll camp. Although the new Hall of Famer’s camel noise is better-known, he’s got to have the best Tarzan yell aside from a fellow ageless giant of comedy, Carol Burnett.
“The Mississippi Squirrel Revival”From 'He Thinks He's Ray Stevens' (1984)
Much of Stevens’ spiritual and political material draws attention to his Christian faith. Yet with this standard, he teaches a master class in poking fun at your own kind. Like the best country novelty songs, it’s outrageous yet oddly relatable to its target audience. After all, who in any kind of group that values a set of morals hasn’t met a Sister (or Brother) Better-Than-You?
“The Streak”From 'Boogity Boogity' (1974)
Stevens' famous 1974 single pretty much defines country comedy for folks old enough to remember a certain college campus fad. While many songs inspired by unusual headlines age poorly, “The Streak” still works as musical potty humor. Plus, the helpless yet curious Ethel might be the most famous character in a ‘70s country song aside from Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”