Author: Martin, George

It don’t get any better than Vern & Ray

Never before have I offered a Web welcome column that already has been published in the Bluegrass Breakdown, but I have been such a Vern & Ray fan for nearly 50 years that I decided this piece I did for the April CBA paper would be the exception. Another reason is that Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick will be taking their Tribute to Vern & Ray out for a pre-festival spin Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. at St. Cyprian’s Church on Turk Street in San Francisco. This is part of the CBA Spring Jubilee that Chuck and Jeanie Poling have put together in The City. Should be a great show. I’m going to be there, for sure.

??I first saw Vern & Ray at the Cabale Creamery, a little coffee house in Berkeley that predated the Freight and Salvage by a few years, probably in 1966. I saw them on a Friday night and went to work early the next morning and wrote a very positive review of them for the Richmond Independent newspaper, where I worked at the time. My new wife and I went back to see them on Saturday night and I brought them a few copies of the paper. I remember they seemed so surprised that someone would publish a story about them. For my money the Examiner, Chronicle and Tribune should have been there as I’m sure Vern & Ray were the best live music around the Bay that night.
In later years they played the old Freight on San Pablo Avenue every month or two, and I’m sure I saw the majority of those shows. When I ran the Bluegrass Under the Stars concerts at Woodminster Amphitheater in (I think) 1973 I tried to book them, but those shows were run on a co-op basis with the bands and Vern & Ray didn’t want to play on speculation. ??I notice the CBA has about 2,500 members now and gets 7,000 or so hits each day. So this is for the people who don’t see the Breakdown:

A highlight of this year's Fathers Day Festival certainly will be A Tribute to Vern & Ray with Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick on the main stage at 3:55 on Saturday.

The festival runs June 12-15 at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, and features Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, the Lonesome River Band, the Deadly Gentlemen, the Roland White Band, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, the Kathy Kallick Band, the Foghorn String Band, and more.

Laurie and Kathy, two of California’s most accomplished and beloved singers of the present day, will do a set of the music of Vern Williams and Ray Park, the most accomplished and beloved singers of their day, as well as being the pioneer musicians who jump-started bluegrass music in the Golden State.

“For many of us bluegrass pups on the West Coast in the early and mid ‘60s, Vern & Ray were our connection to ‘the real thing,’” remembered High Country leader Butch Waller. “We were pretty isolated out here. Vern and Ray were not only the genuine article and a source of inspiration but were very supportive of the efforts of local pickers to learn to play the music.”

The two were both born in Arkansas, not far from each other, although they did not meet until each had moved to the Stockton area. Ray had played country music on radio and TV with a band called the Happy Hayseeds and had made one country record on Capitol which reached number 40 on the country music chart. Ray used to say, modestly: “My record sales started out slow and went down from there!”

The two began jamming together as early as 1956, played dances in a country context in 1958 and soon decided to form a dedicated bluegrass band. The band played at the Dream Bowl north of Vallejo and on the Oakland TV show of disc jockey Black Jack Wayne, who ran the big dance hall. The first lineup was Clyde Williamson, guitar, Luther Riley, banjo, Ray on fiddle, Vern on mandolin, and various fill-in bass players.

Later Ray played mostly guitar, and the banjo player most associated with the group, Herb Pedersen, joined the band.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Vern & Ray to California bluegrass. The local bluegrass community was emerging from the folk music revival, listening carefully (one might say obsessively) to Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers on records, and getting to hear Vern & Ray play the authentic music by people who had grown up with it, at such places as the Cabale Creamery in Berkeley and later the original Freight and Salvage Coffee House.

“When I ‘discovered’ the San Francisco bluegrass scene in the early 1970's, Vern Williams and Ray Park were the acknowledged masters of the genre.” recalls Laurie Lewis. “They had precious few recorded songs but would occasionally come into the Bay Area from their homes in the Sierra foothills to sing together at the Freight and Salvage or a local folk festival.

“I came along at the tail end of their performances together, and only saw them a handful of times before they went their separate ways, but the raw power of their voices, combined with Ray's ferocious rhythm guitar and occasional fiddle and Vern's straightforward mandolin-playing made me an instant fan. It was a strong flavor, to be sure, and not everyone's cup of tea, but it was the local bluegrass scene's closest tie to the ‘real deal.’

“We were incredibly lucky, I think.” Laurie said. “I used to hear Ray at fiddle contests throughout the Central Valley, where he was without a doubt the most powerful fiddler. But he would often disqualify himself in the judges' eyes by insisting on playing "The Road to Columbus" as his tune of choice, arguing that it was neither a hoedown or a waltz. He was technically right, of course, but the judges would only accept a two-step, rag or the occasional jig in that category. Ray had a beautiful bow arm, and played with a combination of grit and finesse that I personally loved.”

Kathy Kallick also has strong memories of the duo. “I was lucky enough to come of age when Vern & Ray were available to us on a regular basis,” she said. “While they had stopped performing together by the early ’70s when I came around, they did a reunion set at the first Grass Valley Festival in 1976. It was awesome! Together and individually they shaped the consciousness of anybody playing bluegrass in CA. at that time.”

The band made a four-song extended play 45-rpm record in 1960 for Starday. Their next recording effort, “Sounds from the Ozarks,” was released on the Old Homestead label in 1974. The stress of making and releasing this record (which they reportedly never were paid for) resulted in Vern and Ray parting ways and ending the band.

Vern soon put together The Vern Williams Band with Keith Little on banjo, Vern’s son Delbert on guitar and Ed Neff on fiddle. “For awhile, I held down the coveted job of playing bass with them,” Laurie said, “and those occasions remain some of the highlights of my career. It was the best seat in the house for hearing those blistering vocals, and just grooving with the band.”

One of the things that distinguished Vern & Ray, and later the Vern Williams Band, from other bluegrass groups was their repertoire. “They included many songs from Stephen Foster, Ray's originals, and old Carter Family songs,” Laurie recalled. “They didn't ever just play the top-forty bluegrass hits, though they could. Kathy and I have long plumbed that well for material, and we started planning this tribute to California's bluegrass masters years ago.”

“I played and sang with both of these fine men, and inspiring musicians,” said Kathy. “I loved to sing with Ray Park. His resonant, mellow voice, and supportive manner was lovely. And he always made me feel like I sounded so good! He had a distinctive fiddle style, smooth and fluid, with an edge.

“While I did a bit of jamming with Vern, at parties and such, his influence was broader than just that. I sat and watched him play with his band countless times, at festivals and small venues. The show was always the same: comfortable and casual, not much showmanship, or ‘entertaining,’ just the jaw-dropping, thrilling, razor-sharp, laser beam tenor voice. Perfect. His singing was always full of feeling, never overly emotive. Straight from the heart with no artifice. Never overly ornamented, or fancy, just pure.”

“When Laurie and I first started singing together, we went to Vern & Ray for cool song choices right away,” Kathy said. “We were so fortunate to be able to see those guys live, hear their jokes, tall tales, and amazing music. On the day Vern passed, we got together and cried, and sang through much of the Vern and Ray songbook. That was the beginning of our ‘Tribute,’ which will last for the rest of our lives.

The writer is indebted to Matt Dudman (he of Matt and George and their Pleasant Valley Boys) for many of the facts in this story. They were taken from a history of Vern & Ray that Dudman wrote and which can be found on the CBA’s web site, or by doing a browser search for “Vern & Ray.”

Posted:  4/10/2014

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