Country Music's Raye of Hope

By Terence P. Jeffrey | November 9, 2011 | 5:13am EST

Country singer Collin Raye with his granddaughter, Haley Marie Bell.

About a decade before he began a Nashville recording career that has included five platinum albums, Collin Raye was singing at a nightclub in Beaverton, Ore., when he experienced something he would later recognize as an act of Providence.

There was a couple that came every weekend to see him perform.

"As I was working the crowd, I would sit down with them," Raye told me in an interview for "I realized they would have a glass of wine and a beer. But they never really partied. They just came because they liked my singing and they liked our band."

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"I noticed that Lil always had a crucifix around her neck, which I knew meant she was probably a Catholic," he said. "So, I started asking them about it."

Soon he inquired, "Can I come to Mass with you sometime?"

That Sunday he joined them at Our Lady of Sorrows in Portland. "It's still there, a little bitty parish," said Raye. "I just was moved, and I felt like I was home."

He signed up for the Rite of Catholic Initiation of Adults, the process by which the Catholic Church introduces the faith to potential converts. "It didn't take me long and I was in, and I knew that it was the true church," said Raye.

At age 23, he was confirmed. Musing on the unlikely fact that his conversion began in a nightclub, Raye said: "God will lead you where He wants you to be, and rarely is it the path that we think it's going to be. Isn't it funny?"

"God is way smarter than any of us," he said.

Raye is thankful he found the church before he found stardom. "I guess - well, I don't guess, I know - that God made sure that that happened to me first before I got into that other world," he said.

His first solo album, recorded in 1991, included "Love, Me" - a ballad about a grandfather who shows his grandson a love letter the boy's dying grandmother had written decades before when the couple had tried and failed to elope. The song hit number one - swiftly assuming the status of an iconic love song.

In 2000, Raye's own first grandchild was born. Her name was Haley Marie Bell. "I would just worship the ground that she walked on," said Raye. "Then eventually she didn't walk," he said. "Then she couldn't crawl. Then she couldn't hold her hands up. She would fall over. She couldn't control her head. She lost the ability to speak."

Haley had a neurological disorder that doctors at the nation's most prestigious medical centers could not diagnose. "This all started going wrong about four, and it was a very fast downward spiral," said Raye. "Over the next six years it was just brutal. It just got worse and worse and worse."

Two years ago, he wrote a song for his granddaughter - "She's With Me." "I wrote that song on an airplane while she was alive, about a year before she passed away, as a tribute to her, just trying to describe the overwhelming joy-slash-sorrow that comes with having a child like that that you love so much that you cannot do anything for," said Raye. "It was a celebration of her life."

The song describes bringing Haley to the mall and to a restaurant - in her wheelchair.

"I tried to keep her with me all that I could," he said. "If we went into a restaurant, you'd wheel in with a chair. Invariably people would turn around and they'd look, and sometimes they'd smile and lot of times they'd just look down, because they're thinking 'Bless their heart, doesn't that just - I'm glad that's not me.'"

"The whole time my chest is just beating with pride," said Raye. "I'm so proud of that kid."

In the last verse of "She's With Me," Raye imagines himself standing before God waiting to be judged.

"I am a flawed human being, I have a lot to answer for in my life," said Raye. "And I had the thought occur to me, what if I had her standing there with me and she said: 'Don't worry. Let him come in, because he's with me.'"

Haley Bell died last year. "I knew we had a saint living with us," said Raye. "She's a perfect human being. She has no ability to sin. She never knew what sin was, and couldn't have sinned if she'd wanted to."

Raye recently became a national spokesman for the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network. The network, founded by the family of the late Terri Schiavo, a neurologically disabled woman who was starved to death on the order of a judge, assists families who have a loved one threatened by euthanasia.

"No one has the right to take someone's life from them. Period," said Raye.

A portion of the proceeds from his newly released album - "Through It All, His Love Remains" - will go to the Life and Hope Network. The album is a powerfully inspirational collection of religious songs and hymns - including "Ave Maria."

"It's a record that I've been wanting to make for 20 years," said Raye.

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