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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 Dave’s repertoire then I’d learned "Freeze To Me Mama," and "Keep Your Hands Off Her." From John’s repertoire I’d figured out "Good Time Charlie," "Creepy John," and "Bugger Burns." I’m sure there were a couple more. I even flirted with harmonica in those days. I read Tony Glover’s book on how to play blues harp, which at that young age was surely the coolest piece of literature I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d received while playing Koerner, Ray and Glover material. Of course the material had everything to do with why I’d received the compliment.

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 I’d 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 Dave’s 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 they’d probably say, "boy you got a problem." But it’s 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 I’d 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 it’s all about.

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 wasn’t 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 song’s source. Just listen to Fine Soft Land, Dave’s 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 Dave’s 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 I’d expect to hear only on some field recording from the South. On one song he accompanies himself on piano, which I’ve 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 Don’t 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 Dave’s 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.

Dave’s 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 he’d 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.

Copyright © 2002 Phil Heywood