FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Collin Raye says goodbye to his record label and hello to love -- and a son-in-law

Story by Chris Neal

Collin Raye takes a sip of his first steaming cup of coffee on this hot, bright Nashville morning. He's up a little early today -- but that's something he's been getting used to. While his daughter, Britanny, was away on her honeymoon, Collin took care of her 2-year-old daughter, Haley.

"Talk about getting up early!" he exclaims with a chuckle. "I definitely had to change my routine a little bit. It's been a while since my kids were babies -- you sort of get out of practice. It's much easier being the grandpa than being the one in charge. But it was fun!"

Collin is glad to do whatever he can to help Britanny, who married Haley's dad, Charlie Bell, on May 18 in a church ceremony in Collin's home state of Texas.

"I planned the wedding with her, and it really kept me busy the last few months," he says. "I had no idea how big a deal that could turn out to be! But I wanted her to have a really nice wedding -- I only have one daughter, and making sure your daughter has a good wedding is just one of the things that you dream of as a dad. And it could not have gone better."

While the young couple plans their life together, the whole family -- including 17-year-old son Jacob -- has been staying at Collin's house in Nashville. "I love it!" he declares of his full house. "Any time I have everybody with me like that, I soak it up. I know what it's like having them gone, and it makes me appreciate it all the more when they're here."

And it wouldn't be such a big, happy family if Collin weren't so fond of Britanny's husband. "He's been like another son to me for quite a while, so the wedding didn't really change much," he says. "It just made it official. I'm really close to him."

Collin saw his future son-in-law's fiber soon after he learned that Britanny and then-boyfriend Charlie were expecting. "They say crisis builds character, but I think crisis exposes it," he says. "And I was extremely proud of Britanny and Charlie for the way they rallied when that happened.

"I've always felt really good about their relationship. They sort of put the cart before the horse, so to speak, but I always knew it was going to work out this way. We knew the most important thing was to get Haley taken care of, and there would be time for a wedding later.

"Anyway, Charlie is a really good young man, who I think is going to do a tremendous job

taking care of Britanny and Haley -- and, hopefully, many more kids to come. That's a wonderful blessing, and I thank God for that all the time."

But with wedding bells still ringing in his ears, what about Collin's own love life? It's a little early to talk marriage now, but for several months he's been dating Jennifer Pouge, who runs his publishing company.

"She's a very sweet young woman," he says with a smile. "We were very good friends first, and became partners sort of accidentally -- you get used to seeing somebody around, and then you realize one day you feel something for them." Collin is understandably cautious about romance, after his first marriage ended in divorce in 1987 and an engagement was broken off in 1999. "I think I'm good at being a father, I treat people well, and I'm pretty good at my job -- but the one area where I have never seemed to quite bring it home is in my personal life," he ponders. "I think sometimes people wonder, 'What's wrong with that guy?' Well, I like being married -- I don't want to die alone, you know. But it's just a matter of priority. To make a marriage work, it's got to be your priority, and there just hasn't been room in my life yet. I look forward to the day when there is room."

But just as Collin's love life started looking up late last year, his career ran into a rough spot. Several years of frustration with what he saw as a lack of enthusiasm from his record label, Sony, came to a head, and he asked to be allowed to leave the company in January. Collin felt that after 11 years on the label, as a still-vibrant artist, he was being undervalued.

"I've got a track record, but I'm not anywhere near done," he declares. "I'll be the first one to know when I'm slipping." Unfortunately, Collin's record-label problems also meant that his eighth and final Sony album, Can't Back Down, was released in March with so little fanfare that he believes many listeners don't know it exists.

"I pour my heart and soul into every record I make," he says. "I really bled for this album, and I believe it was the best one I've ever done. So now I'm a free agent, and I'm very happy about that -- but I have a lame-duck record out there, stocked and ready in the record stores, and nobody knows it's there except for the die-hard fans."

Nonetheless, Collin is already moving on. While preparing to look for a new record label to call home, he's been recording on his own dime and his own time, charting the course for his musical future without outside pressure or deadlines.

"I'm doing things that I've always wanted to do, but never had a chance to," he reports about his new music, which is earthy and basic, filled with acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo and accordion. "There comes a time in your career when you've got to get back to that old 'garage' feeling, like when you were a teenager in a garage band. I've got it back all of a sudden, and I don't feel like I'm 41 -- I feel like I'm 17!"

And so, just as in his personal life, troubles have surrendered to triumph in Collin's musical life as well.

"Here's a chance for me to make music that I know people will like if they get the chance to hear it," he says. "It may work, and it may not -- but if it doesn't, then I'm still satisfied, because it's music true to my heart. And because of that, I think it will work."

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