Dave Ray passed away early in the morning on Thanksgiving day,
2002. He and I were scheduled to play a double-bill in St. Paul
on December 10, a date Dave had booked a couple months after
hed been diagnosed with lung cancer in May. As I understand
it, the prognosis then was that he had six to twelve months
to live. He made it to six months, but he needed at least seven
to do this concert, and he didnt get it. There is some
solace in knowing that he didn't spend the last weeks of his
life lying in bed, that he was doing what he loved right to
the end. Dave started his career playing with John Koerner and
Tony Glover in 1961, when he was only 18, and he got to join
John and Tony out east for what would be his last gig, just
six days before he died. He was inspiring to the end.
Dave Ray and John Koerner and Tony Glover have been part of
my worldview since I was a teenager in Iowa in the early 70s.
I came across their records as I was getting into the country
blues, and I was learning their stuff at the same time that
I was learning tunes by Mississippi John Hurt, Rev. Gary Davis,
Blind Willie McTell, Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly. Middle
class white folks like myself frequently refer to those early
country blues guys as the "real deal," but Koerner,
Ray and Glover were no less the real deal to me. From Daves
repertoire then Id learned "Freeze To Me Mama,"
and "Keep Your Hands Off Her." From Johns repertoire
Id figured out "Good Time Charlie," "Creepy
John," and "Bugger Burns." Im sure there
were a couple more. I even flirted with harmonica in those days.
I read Tony Glovers book on how to play blues harp, which
at that young age was surely the coolest piece of literature
Id encountered to date. And I did learn how to blow single
notes and how to bend notes from that book. I have a distinct
memory of sitting upstairs in my room at age 17, playing Koerner,
Ray and Glover songs on my guitar, when one of my parents
friends came to the door downstairs. I heard my mother answer
the door and I heard them chatting down there, and I just kept
on playing. After this friend left my mother told me, "You
know Suki heard you playing up there and thought it was a record."
Which made me beam. I think it was one of the first compliments
Id received from someone other than my parents, and one
of the first times that a little light went on in my head, the
idea that someday I might be good enough to record. So that
little light went on as a result of a compliment Id received
while playing Koerner, Ray and Glover material. Of course the
material had everything to do with why Id received the
Then 19 years ago I moved to the Twin Cities, at which point
Koerner, Ray and Glover had already been famous for twenty years.
Yet they were still around town, playing local gigs. One of
the first things I did was find out where I could hear them.
They were doing a few gigs as a trio then, as in recent years,
but more often Id hear John by himself at places like
the 400 Bar, and Dave and Tony playing together somewhere, either
as a duo or in one of Daves bands. As a guitar player,
just knowing they were here, hanging out, playing music, did
something for my sense of purpose, and even my sense of identity
really. If Dave or John or Tony heard me say this theyd
probably say, "boy you got a problem." But its
true Koerner, Ray and Glover represent a chunk of our
musical and cultural identity here in the Twin Cities.
As for Dave, to single him out for a moment, I love his voice.
I love his older voice even more than the young voice on those
early groundbreaking KR&G records. One writer described
it recently as sly and insinuating, to which Id add beautifully
world-weary, with a burnished authority. And I love the way
he played the guitar like it was an extension of his body. His
playing wasn't about flash. It was about rhythm and tone, about
finding the groove for your body and soul. Which is what its
We sure will miss him. What a cool repertoire and great sound
he had, dripping with character, a sound all his own. The fact
that he was as much a singer as he was a guitar player set him
apart from most of the rest of us solo guitar performers. There
isn't a voice I like better in our business. And on top of that
he was a real gamer, as they say in sports, a guy who had to
play, a gigger and a neighborhood guy, who showed up for his
regular hole-in-the-wall, watering-hole gigs around town for
four decades. Enriched the culture around here, that's for sure.
He made "blues interpretation" into a high art; it
wasnt just about guitar licks, or about showcasing a voice.
It was about the total imprint left by each specific song, about
holding up the emotion at the songs source. Just listen
to Fine Soft Land, Daves solo album from 1967,
and you will see that he had already mastered that concept before
he was even 25 years old.
As a solo album, Fine Soft Land is a cohesive personal
statement and gives us an even better picture of Daves
depth, range and seriousness than the KR&G records do. We
hear the subtly smoking 12-string playing that is a trademark,
on tunes such as "Crying Shame" and "Kid Man
Blues." We hear an a cappella piece, "If I Get Lucky,"
done in the coiled and collected voice we also know from his
"Go Down Ol Hannah" and other hollers, but with
an almost sweet smoothness that I have heard him use nowhere
else and which is completely right for the song. What he does
emotionally with a deceptively simple harmonica piece
the tight, wheezy harp lines suspended with languid reflection
between the sung lines is something Id expect to
hear only on some field recording from the South. On one song
he accompanies himself on piano, which Ive never heard
him play anywhere else, but which only reaffirms my feelings
of affinity for Dave and his groove. And there is a long and
gorgeous guitar instrumental, a rumination on "Baby Please
Dont Go" blues at the core, with hints of
raga-jazz, hints of Spanish and classical guitar, all done in
that rich, low, throaty guitar sound. Just right on. Dave rules
on this album. How is it that this guy in our midst, from Minnesota,
does this blues material without even a hint of the brassy,
co-optive, faux-bluesyness that is so prevalent among contemporary
purveyors? Well he just had it in him, the refinement and depth
as well as the music.
Fine Soft Land is an excellent album to put alongside
Daves 1997 recording, Snake Eyes. Both are Dave
completely solo, one early and one late in his career, thirty
years apart and fine as can be. Bookends, almost, to his recorded
work. Snake Eyes is a brilliant piece of work, and shows
how one man grew with the blues, never subsiding into rote or
cliched riffs, in a genre that is rife with them. His 12-string
guitar glistens; he uses to full advantage its spatial, tonal
and textural possibilities. His attack is masterful and aggressive.
His arrangements are more complex and sophisticated, almost
abstract in some instances, yet they never sacrifice the groove,
a groove which positively snaps and bristles. There is a lot
of guitar-playing going on behind his burnished vocals
adding a low punch here, a smooth slide there, a crunchy chord
here, an expectant sustained space there but you might
not even notice it at first because his voice provides such
an easy focus. Dave just nails one song after another; it is
all rock solid and brilliant.
Daves last show in town was at the Cedar Cultural Center
with Geoff Muldaur on November 17, eleven days before he died.
Those who saw that performance will remember it a long long
time. He was weakened, and had difficulty walking, but he sat
side by side with Muldaur as they traded songs for two sets,
and he was Dave through and through, pulling off his
guitar moves, singing the sardonic songs, making cutting and
funny remarks in that almost-under-his-breath way.
I also heard Dave down the street at the Viking Bar in August,
when he was three months into his cancer treatment. If there
was anything amiss with his neuropathways, as hed mentioned
in a recent radio interview, it was not detectable. His singing
and playing were strong and dead-on; he was in as solid a groove
as I had ever heard him. He played his 12-string the first set,
then brought out a Gibson Johnny Smith hollow-body electric
for the second set. Both sounded great, husky and full, and
he drove them relentlessly with an efficient and focused energy.
After his final set I asked him how his energy level was, and
he said, "Well I'm done for tonight; there'll be no frolicking
tonight." But there was no lack of energy in his playing.
The tip jar went around one more time for the guitarist with
the coolest repertoire in town.
The day after he died the newspaper had some quotes from Willie
Murphy, who said that since returning to music full-time in
recent years, Dave was really at the peak of his powers artistically.
Certainly his playing the night I saw him at the Viking lends
truth to that statement. Other people too, have commented on
how great he was playing and singing this past year. It adds
to the sadness, to lose him at such a peak. At the same time,
he goes out leaving us with more inspiration. He's long inspired
me in that way the model of someone who is dedicated
to the music and his art, who plugs away and delivers great
stuff to small audiences, not with an eye to the "big time,"
but because he has to play. The real deal.