Eastern Kentucky singer Lee Collins’ only desire is to share the message of Christ in all he does
By John Herndon, KentuckySings.com
PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — You can get just about anything you want to tickle your taste buds at Billy Ray’s Restaurant but you can be sure that regardless of your appetite, Lee Collins wants to give you the bread of life.
The restaurant has been Lee Collins’ livelihood for more than 30 years and on an early summer weekday, he greeted a lunchtime crowd with a huge smile, often calling them by name or asking about family and friends. It’s the kind of down home atmosphere that has made Billy Ray’s a local landmark.
But as much as Lee Collins would like for someone to try one of his dinners — the pork chops we ordered were fantastic! — he knows his mission is much more than the hospitality industry.
“I just love singing about the Lord,” he said as a steady stream of patrons filed by. “That is what I have sung all my life.”
Lee is a veteran gospel singer. Now 57, he got his start as a boy singing in his church and eventually formed a family trio. That group, The Lee Collins Project, stayed busy throughout eastern Kentucky and surrounding states, but currently, Lee is mostly going solo as he delivers the message that shapes his life and business.
“We should give God the glory in all things,” he says.
Giving glory in many forms
And Lee Collins does just that, eschewing suggestions that he focus on one music style to enhance his musical future. He says his ministry is about a God who can be glorified in many forms of music.
“Honestly, I don’t know where I fit,” Collins says when asked to describe his musical style. “I love Southern Gospel, but I also love country gospel. But I also love praise and worship songs. For every song that touches me, those are the type of songs I sing. I sing several different genres. If you get into the professional part of it, they will tell you that you need to find out where you belong and stick with that. But I guess I go against the grain. I feel if a song touches you, it will touch someone else.”
That’s just Lee Collins. He’s undoubtedly been blessed with a crisp tenor voice and uses it singing the old classics to recent gospel hits.
“My No. 1 song, and I know this will sound cliched because a lot of people would answer with this, but that No. 1 song is ‘Amazing Grace.’ And when you really get down to think about it, God’s grace is amazing.”
At many of his concerts, Collins brings the old message to today’s audience, singing Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace” update, “My Chains Are Gone.”
It takes just a few moments to see that Lee Collins lives and breathes the message of Christ’s victory in everything he does. There’s no pretension and unlimited authenticity. It’s true in business and it’s true in his ministry.
“I’ve been singing in church since I was a little boy and I’ve been around gospel music all of my life,” Lee remembers. “My dad, he always made his own instruments — guitars and a steel guitar — and then on the other side of my family, the Powers family, they are all singers. If we have a reunion and we are not singing, we are not having a family reunion.”
He grew up watching the Gospel Singing Jubilee and counts those days of watching The Florida Boys and The Happy Goodman Family as being impactful on his life. But he adds that The Powers Family, with whom he sometimes sang in local appearances, was another major influence.
An opportunity opens
But more than 30 years ago, Collins began a business partnership with Billy Ray Collins, who was not related despite having the same surnames and living in a small town. “Billy Ray was closer than a brother,” Lee says of the founder of the restaurant he now runs. “He was about 20 years older than me and was like a grandfather to my children.
Billy Ray Collins died of cancer nearly 20 years ago.
“My wife, Sheila, became one of Billy Ray’s employees many years ago,” Lee explains. “My wife is a very hard worker. One thing led to another and the next thing you know, we are his business partners and she is running the restaurant.”
Today, Billy Ray’s advertises itself as “The Home of the Original Pool Room Burger” as a nod to its past.
“The restaurant (building) was at one time a bank and the first thing people would see when they came into Prestonsburg. Sometime in the 1920s, it was opened as a pool room and at the time the menu was just hamburgers,” Collins says with a hint of a chuckle. “The hamburgers only had mustard and mayonnaise.
“For many years, women wouldn’t come in. The men would come in here to shoot pool and gamble and they had some bad language. It got pretty rowdy. And if a woman was seen in here, she was called names, so they wouldn’t come in here. But they would stand outside to get people to bring them hamburgers or they would get their husbands to go inside and get hamburgers for them and take them back out with them. It was like that when I was in high school.”
Today, the restaurant is a full-service family restaurant, but the old hamburger is still part of the menu. Collins laughs, “We’ll serve them with anything you want on them. We make them fresh every day and pat them out by hand. We have a secret recipe.”
There’s little doubt that Billy Ray’s is a major player in the life of downtown Prestonsburg. It was hopping with activity for a Tuesday lunch, serving to remind Collins of the many ways the God of whom he sings has richly blessed him.
Like many business owners, Billy Ray’s suffered a severe blow at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the restaurant is not 100 percent recovered, it’s well on the way to putting the past year in the rear view mirror.
“We were closed three or four months,” Collins says. “Last year, they really came down on restaurants hard., but all the big box stores — the Walmarts and stores like that — kept operating and they made a fortune. In the restaurants, we kept the protocols. You had to wear a mask when you came in here. We kept people six feet apart with the tables. It was safer, and when I say that, I mean here, but I assume others, it was safer to come in here than go to Walmart.
“They punished the restaurants. Why? I don’t know. We are still feeling the effects of it because of the COVID stimulus. We can’t find workers. The workers we have, we are working them to death. We can hardly give them a day off because we need them so bad. People are actually making more by staying at home than going to work. There’s no enticement for people to leave their homes. It’s not just restaurants. It’s everybody.”
Collins says his restaurant normally has about 25-30 employees but he’s been blessed to come through a pandemic that shut many restaurant doors permanently.
A burden borne
It’s just another blessing from the God of whom Lee Collins sings. While he’s always been active in church or singing, things became much more personal 11 years ago. Collins had been working 65-70 hour weeks at the restaurant, but had a health issue checked out.
“I had a 3-centimeter tumor on my left lung,” he says. “To make a long story short, I went to the emergency room and they did the CAT scans and all. They came in and said I had lung cancer and it had already spread to my lymph nodes. It looked like it was already embedded in my chest wall. They sent me, by ambulance, to a bigger hospital. I had the PET scans and I lit up like a Christmas tree.
“That was 11 years ago and I am still here. I never had any surgery nor have I had any treatments of any kind. The story behind the Lord healing me is I was out to my mother’s one day. I caught her praying.”
He says his mother was praying that God would allow her to take his cancer and he asked her not to pray that.
“She said, ‘Lee, I have lived my life.’ I had just had my first grandbaby. She wanted me to be around my grandbaby. Then three months after my ordeal, my mother was diagnosed with the same cancer I had. Same place, same everything. Eight months later, she died.
“I don’t know if God works that way. I really don’t. But in my mind, he did this time.”
The experience prompted Collins to write one of his favorite songs, “The Greatest Gift.”
“There had to be a reason for it,” Collins continues. “To this day, I thank the Lord for healing me and that my mother carried my burden. It’s hard to admit sometimes that your mother carried your burden.”
Lee Collins believes the Bible shares God’s word and that Heaven awaits those who put their faith in Christ and that Hell is the destination for those who don’t. And Lee wants to share the message of the Savior he loves in every aspect of life.
He says Billy Ray’s will remain a family style with no alcohol in an age when many in the hospitality industry believe booze is an economic necessity. It’s part of his belief that one’s relationship to Christ should be reflected in everything he does.
And Lee Collins is ready to sing.
Back on the Road
“The Lord has blessed me since my illness,” he says. “I was here (at the restaurant) day and night. I had to step back because of stress. I don’t work as much as I used to. That allows me to go more places and sing. So the Lord opened that door for me and that’s who I give credit to.”
Dealing with cancer and then an economically-devastating pandemic has given Collins a first-hand look at God’s goodness. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” he says. “God provides, especially with the COVID and all the other things we have gone through. He brought us through it.
“There’s a song, ‘Through the Fire,’ and he’s brought us through the fire. There are things we don’t understand and never will. But I give all the credit to God, and that includes being successful all these years.”
With things opening up out of the pandemic, Collins has begun filling more dates in his performance schedule. There are some concerts and revivals, which he truly enjoys.
“I love revivals because it encourages me,” Collins says. “I am not just up there trying to encourage others. It encourages me. I have always said I am just the clay. He is the potter. When I see people blessed, whether it is revival or a church service, I am blessed.”
One of the most requested songs in his repertoire is Zach Williams’ “Chain Breaker,” which was also covered by Triumphant Quartet and The Gaither Vocal Band, among others. He says the words speak loudly in Appalachia.
“The addiction in our area is drugs. There are many addictions,” he says. “I know that the only one who can break those chains is God, so that is why that song is special to me.”
And finding servants like Lee Collins is special. He simply wants people to know Jesus as their savior. It shows at Billy Ray’s and it shines when he sings.
“I have never professed to be a great singer,” he says. “I have always professed to be a person God uses. If I touch one person or if I make a difference or affect one person to consider giving their life to Christ, then it is the Lord working through me.
His musical menu is simple, but like his restaurant, it’s full-service. “It’s about God. Any glory I receive belongs to God.”