Looking Back--Ray Park
by Doug Dillard, Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, Rose Maddox, and New Riders of the Purple Sage. Fortunately, Ray Park wrote a partial autobiography on his home computer during his long battle with Parkinson’s and Leukemia. Through his recollections, we are afforded a detailed account of the life and culture Ray lived as a boy and young man. Born in Treat, Arkansas in 1933, Ray was the fourth of 8 children. His father was poor by today’s standards, though probably typical of backwoods Ozarks subsistence and sharecrop farmers of that time. This fact is relevant. Ray grew up in and represents the culture of the old time Ozarks. When asked in an interview with Burney Garelick about true bluegrass music, Ray described what he called the “soul” of bluegrass singing: “That sound comes from the heart, and you’ve got to live in a cabin before you can sing about it. Bluegrass will always be around, but when the originals are gone, that’s it”. Ray was born in a log cabin on Moccasin Creek in Treat, Arkansas. The cabin had no electricity, so the only music Ray listened to was the country music played daily by his mom and dad, his Uncle Joe Tommy, Denton Bowes, and other neighbors who would gather for hoedowns on Moccasin Creek. Music historians have pointed out that the country music of the 1930s was directly descended from the folk songs, ballads, and popular songs of the English, Scottish and Irish immigrants to the Southeastern seaboard of the United States. In the Ozarks of the 1930s in particular, the customs, skills and culture remained largely unchanged since the immigrants had arrived 100 years earlier. (New Columbia Encyclopedia, 1975) Both Ray’s parents played banjo and fiddle, and Ray says of his father, “I can still remember how tired dad would be after plowing with a team of horses down on Big Piney river, yet he was never too tired to pick up the banjo and make a little music.” Ray recalls his dad singing songs like “Home Sweet Home, Green Corn” and gospel songs like “Farther Along Speckled Bird”. “Whatever he played, I really didn’t care. I loved every minute of it,” Ray wrote. Ray never tasted beef or turkey till the family moved to California in 1941. “My favorite for breakfast was fried squirrel with gravy and biscuits and some molasses. We lived off the land and what we grew and canned from the garden.” Ray describes hunting for food with his mom while his dad was away working in the wheat fields of Kansas: “When the dogs treed a squirrel, I’d go around the tree and shake a bush. This would make the squirrel move around to mom’s side. Then she would blast him with an old twelve gage shot gun.” Times were tough for the Park family. They moved around looking for work, picking cotton in Missouri, and moving to Midland where Ray’s dad “worked in a coal mine that went belly up”. Just before World War II broke out, Ray’s dad held a barn sale and accumulated a total of $28, so that he could move the family to California to pick fruit. During the war, both parents got jobs in the shipyards, and the Stockton paper wrote a feature article about Ray’s mom, Lettie Park, being “Rosie the Riveter”. Soon after arriving in Stockton, before his parents found work in the shipyard, 8-year-old Ray was dying for a fiddle. His parents took $4 from the money they had made picking oranges and bought him a fiddle from a Goodwill store. From that time on, Ray was taught by his parents to play the music of the Ozarks. After the war, the Park family moved back to Treat and bought the Jasper Howard farm at the forks of Indian and Moccasin creeks. The farm had been vacant for some time, and it was infested with water moccasins. Ray, now about 13, had a 22 bolt action rifle, and he recalls killing about 200 snakes the first summer back in Arkansas: “The snakes would stick their heads up, and I would blow them off.” That same year, Ray and his older brother walked 20 miles to play their first Gig at Griffen’s Corner in Bullfrog Valley. After their first song, a fight broke out and the dance was closed down. During the four years he lived in Arkansas before returning to California in 1950, Ray, his brother, and his Page cousins played many hoedowns and square dances, and the appreciative crowd would pass the hat. Returning to Stockton in 1950, the Park family rented a “four room dump right on the railroad tracks”. Ray immediately started playing fiddle for various bands in the San Joaquin valley, and for 7 years played live every morning on KGDM radio with Logan Laam and the Happy Hayseeds. Ray later married Logan’s niece, Marlene Laam, and raised three children together. Ray also served a stint in the US Marine Corps during the Korean War. Around 1955, Ray got a call from Chester Smith, a DJ from Modesto, who wanted to introduce him to Ken Nelson at Capitol Records. Ray recorded four songs for Capitol. His version of the Tommy Collins song, “You’re Gon’a Have to Bawl That’s All,” was released in 1956 and made it to number 40 on the Country charts. At about the same time, Elvis exploded on the music scene, and country music took a back seat to rock for a time. Around 1960, Ray’s cousin Jeff Page from Treat told him about two brothers from Arkansas who were in Stockton. Ray took his tape recorder and went for a listen. The boys “sang great harmonies”, but the younger brother was extremely shy. Ray offered to give the young man a break, and when Ray sang with Vern Williams that day, a new bluegrass duet was born. Vern and Ray recruited Luther Riley, a banjo Picker from Hazards Kentucky “dripping with soul”. They also picked up Clyde Williamson and became Vern, Ray, and the Carrol County Country Boys. They recorded Williamson’s song, “Cabin on a Mountain”, as their first single. It has become a bluegrass classic. In the ensuing years, Vern and Ray recorded the album, ”Sounds from the Ozarks by Vern and Ray”, and Ray’s song, “Happy I’ll Be” was recorded by The Dillards on “Decade Waltz”. Ray also played fiddle on the New Riders of the Purple Sage album, “Oh what a Mighty Time” and on Herb Pedersen’s first solo album, “Southwest”. One of Ray’s greatest accomplishments was his own album “Fiddletown”, which featured many of his original fiddle tunes. Ray Park won the California State Old-Time Fiddlers Championship contest in 1973, and in 1975, the California Bluegrass Association presented Vern and Ray with a special award for helping to promote and encourage bluegrass music throughout California. Ray also taught both his sons, Larry and Cary Park, how to play the fiddle and guitar, and they won an award from the Academy of Country Music in 1990 as mainstays of the band, Boy Howdy. Ray Park was a loving family man, a warm friend, a teacher, and an electrifying performer. He had a quick wit, endless common sense, and a great love for people and music. In his autobiography, Ray apologized if he ever did anything hurtful to anybody in his past. He also said, “All I can say is if you think you don’t like me for some unknown reason, then you probably don’t really know me.”
Posted By:  Rick Cornish

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