CATCHING UP WITH: RICKY VAN SHELTON

The music-biz grind wore down Ricky Van Shelton and nearly cost him his marriage -- so he walked away. Now he's ready to return.

It has been four years since fans heard new music from Ricky Van Shelton. Why the wait?

"No particular reason," he says, glancing out the window of his tour bus. "I guess like anything, you just get tired of it."

What Ricky was tired of was the busy grind he endured during the 1980s and early '90s, when he was one of country's most in-demand stars. But when he parted ways with his record label a few years ago, he found a new freedom.

"When you're with a major record company, you're required to do albums every so many months," he explains. "But when you're not, you can just do what you want to."

That wasn't the only thing that preyed on Ricky's mind while he was in the spotlight. He never liked attending awards shows, and is still happy to avoid them. He was never permitted to record many of his original songs. And he always disliked traveling - he's pared his live performances back to about 60 a year. "I gripe a lot about it," he concedes. "I like to play, but I hate being on the road."

From 1987 to 1992, Ricky had one of the heaviest tour schedules in the business. He also had 10 No. 1s, including "I'll Leave This World Loving You," "Keep It Between the Lines," the Dolly Parton duet "Rockin' Years" and the self-defining "I Am a Simple Man."

But his success came with a price. He lapsed into a drinking problem, cheated on wife Bettye and even considered suicide. Ricky cleaned up his act in the early '90s through his faith in God, and even gave his blessing when Bettye wrote a tell-all book, She Stays, about their difficulties in holding the now-25-year relationship together.

Their bond today is stronger than ever. "We're very compatible," he observes. "We don't fuss, we don't argue. I know what she likes, she knows what I like, and when we got together, there were just no problems - no bickering like a lot of couples do."

Still, they never had any children. "I never wanted any," Ricky says. "I was just so preoccupied with music, I had tunnel vision. Then when we got to Nashville and got married, I still didn't have any desire to have any. Bettye would like to have 'em, but there was never a discussion or anything like that."

Ricky will soon be preoccupied again - he's planning to release his first full-fledged new album in four years. According to Ricky, the new album will span many of his influences, from pop to bluegrass, and include more of his self-penned songs than his older albums ever did.

And he has even grander musical plans for the future. Ricky hopes to release albums of big-band music, bluegrass, gospel, cover versions and perhaps another Christmas CD.

But after all that is done, he'd like to say goodbye to the music business for good - and stay home with Bettye. "That's the way I'd like to end my career," he says. "I would like to just do all these different albums, then say to the folks, 'I'm gone.' "

-- Tom Roland

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