A Voice Undefeated. By Collin Raye. Ignatius Press, 2014.
Collin Raye is a country singer who converted to Catholicism in his early twenties. His memoir is about many topics, such as religion, music, and society, but the heart and soul of this book is his deep love for his family. This autobiography opens with the funeral of Raye’s beloved granddaughter, a young girl who spent nearly all of her too-short life wrestling with debilitating and often unidentified health problems. As the book begins, Raye recounts how his family said goodbye to their beloved little girl:
“The stirring and poetic words that end every Catholic funeral are always so consoling, and I truly needed the prayer of the Church on the day we laid to rest my nine-year-old granddaughter. The grief I had felt at Haley’s death was indescribable, and now we had arrived at the final good-bye…
Britanny and I hovered around the open casket, dismayed by the thought that soon we would be unable to see Haley’s precious body again. We knew by faith– without the slightest doubt at all– that her soul was with God, but we were still attached to the little boy that represented the baby girl we loved so very much.” (xiii).
This is an emotional and heartfelt opening, but readers should be assured that this is not a depressing book. After this flash-forward, A Voice Undefeated opens with Raye’s childhood and progresses in a linear fashion to the present day. (Collin Raye is actually a stage name, but he will be referred to by the name he is best known by here.) The book opens with Raye’s childhood, a turbulent time marked by a difficult family situation and frequent moving. Reflecting back upon this time, Raye writes:
“During the breakdown of my parents’ marriage, I developed, by temperament or necessity, an emotional defense mechanism of detaching myself from the conflict around me. I began viewing my family members as if I were an outside observer taking notes rather than a participant who was directly affected by them. There may have been a better coping mechanism, but it was how I dealt with the situation in my childhood. All that mattered for me was that Mama was there.”(12).
Raye seems to shift back and forth between this childhood defensive posture and a more mature way of addressing problems. At times, Raye recounts terrible events with quiet detachment, and on other occasions, Raye confronts pain and heartbreak head-on, and writes with open emotion and unhidden broken-heartedness. Aside from the illness of his daughter and some other minor tragedies, the hardest episodes in Raye’s life revolve around the breakups of marriages. Three divorces appear to have played a major role in Raye’s life. The first is his parents’ divorce, the second is his own, and the third is that of his daughter.
In all of these cases, Raye creates the impression that families are all-important, and the dissolution of a family is a traumatic event that leaves everyone involved injured, especially the children. Sometimes, despite the best efforts of one party, the other half of a marriage is determined to break up the union. A Voice Undefeated is full of instances where a horrible situation occurs, and people suffer through no fault of their own. In all of these instances, Raye argues that it is imperative to always follow one’s own conscience, even if it is immeasurably simpler to do what is easy rather than what is right. Raye discusses this as he mentions one of his formative influences:
“To me, the most inspirational character in modern American literature is Atticus Finch, the upright small-town Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird– my favorite novel of all time. Author Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize for her effort, and I still find it hard to believe that it was the only novel she ever wrote. Her story of one man’s struggle against society in the face of the severe moral challenges of his times has helped to form my character and my view of the world from the age of twelve, when I first discovered the book, until today. It is a quintessentially American story about the power of enduring values over human weakness and wickedness.
At the core of Atticus’ appeal is the way he models the struggle for manly integrity. He lived and practiced law in a society marred by poverty, prejudice, and hatred, largely like the one in which I was raised, and brought to it the nobility of a man willing to act according to his ideals in the face of public opposition. Atticus was protector, teacher, and moral compass for his two children; he was their steadfast Rock of Gibraltar when it came to the deep questions of life. His moral discipline and unusual habits seemed a regular source of embarrassment to his children until they discovered, in his defense of a black man falsely accused of a crime, that there was much more to their daddy than met the eye.
In the example of Atticus, I have come to see that integrity is not an abstract conceptl it’s a way of life. The wholeness that results when we say and do what we know is true and right requires the constant struggle to be honest about ourselves and the world. It requires overcoming the common human tendencies to view our circumstances as things that happen to us, rather than– far more accurately– as the sum of our own decisions, and to gloss over our personal responsibility for the pain we have caused ourselves or others.” (1-2).
Throughout the book, Raye emphasizes the importance of the role between a parent and a child. This is a book about what it means to love and be loved in a difficult world where virtue is not always rewarded and life can throw curveballs at any moment. His relationship with his mother was one of the great steadying influences of his life, and it’s clear that he would never have become the man he was today if he didn’t have a mother who loved him deeply.
“I can’t think of anyone who has had a greater impact on my life than my Mama. I credit her for my parenting skills because she was the best of moms and the best of teachers in all areas of parenting. She had the innate skills for the role of motherhood, but she never took her kids or her maternal role for granted. When she married Daddy, she was not even twenty, and I remember that she always tried to be the perfect wife and the perfect mother.” (6)
Raye is the first to admit that he hasn’t always been a perfect parent, and his memoir is full of instances where he confesses his own imperfections and reflects on how he could have done better, and how he resolves to do better in the future. There are numerous instances to how Raye’s life hasn’t turned out the way he wanted, particularly a revealing passage where he reveals how his music career was derailed by his inability to play the political games of Nashville. There is some frustration, but if Raye feels lasting anger over his career being sidetracked, he seems to have worked his way through it. Other issues, such as the failed relationships he and loved ones endured, are recounted with frankness but no discernable bitterness.
This book is not just meant for fans of Raye. I personally had never heard of Raye before this memoir, but I enjoyed this introduction to this thoughtful man who cares so much for his loved ones and who is trying to make the world a better place through his music and looking out for the ill and disabled. Raye seems to be trying to mirror his literary hero Atticus Finch, by being a good man in a naughty world. Sometimes it’s not necessary to change the world so much as to stand up to it. Raye and his family have been through a great loss and a terrible trial, but his faith appears to have been strengthened rather than diminished or strained. This book should be read by anybody who wants to see an example of how life can be hard, but faith and family can be the tools necessary to keep going and come out stronger.