Ray Park in California
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This is the sixth part in a series about music in the foothills.
Bluegrass pioneer Ray Park’s hardscrabble youth in the Arkansas hill country during the Great Depression and the family’s journey west to California in 1941 were the subject of last week’s episode of Hangtown’s Musical Roots.
The family picked fruit when they arrived in California, glad for the work. When the war broke out, both parents got better jobs in the Stockton shipyards.
They returned to Treat, Ark. after the war, purchasing an abandoned farm with their savings. The hardships hadn’t changed much.
The farm was snake infested. Young Ray became a sharp shooter in the eradication process.
Park wrote a partial autobiography before his death and recalls his first public performance, a 20 mile hike to play fiddle in nearby Bullfrog Valley. A fight broke out after the first song, ending the dance shortly after it began.
He and his brothers, often accompanied by cousins, continued to play local dances. Future partner Vern Williams spotted him outside one such performance, carrying his fiddle in a gunny sack. Despite walking similar paths, the two men wouldn’t meet for another 10-plus years.
The family returned to Stockton for good in the late 1940s. Park joined the Marine Reserves and was nearly sent to Korea. He played in local bands and soon began a fateful stint with Logan Laam and the Happy Hayseeds, who enjoyed a standing Saturday night gig at the Oak Grove Dance Pavilion in Linden.
Laam welcomed the talented multi-instrumentalist and harmonist to the bandstand and also on his 6 a.m. live radio show.
He soon welcomed Park into the family as well, when Park romanced and abruptly married the bandleader’s niece Marlene, who lived with her family in Placerville.
Park’s reputation grew, in large part due to his weekday morning presence on KGDM, whose 5,000 uncontested “clear channel” watts covered the entire west coast.
At the time, Capitol Records’ music honcho Ken Nelson was signing a stable of country artists who played the sparse, beat-driven “honky-tonk” style pioneered by Earnest Tubb in the 1940s. West coast practitioners in the 1950s included Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both from Bakersfield.
Nelson heard about Park and thought he might be a good fit for the “Bakersfield sound,” a highly danceable alternative to the lush, orchestrated “Nashville sound,” which dominated mainstream country music in the early 1950s.
Nelson visited Park’s home in 1953. In his autobiography, Park recalls his nervousness being exacerbated by his dog biting the record executive on the leg, perhaps an omen that Park’s country music career was ill-timed.
“I still had to sing for him,” said Park, who inked a one-year deal with a four-year pickup option later that day. “I felt man, I’m on my way.”
Not so fast, Ray. It would be two years before his recording session and another year after that before Capitol would release the first, and last, single by rising country star Ray Park.
In the intervening years, Logan Laam turned the Hayseeds’ Oak Grove gig over to Park, but turnouts were dropping off as popular music began to shift directions. Park decided to promote the show on the new medium of television. He called KOVR, which broadcast from Stockton and reached Sacramento, and asked for a time slot.
Following a perfunctory audition — no one got bit on the leg — The Ray Park Show, a one-hour live music variety show sponsored by Alsco Aluminum Siding, hit the airwaves. It played every Saturday at 5 p.m. and turned Ray Park into a local celebrity.
It also injected new life into the Oak Grove Pavilion, which nonetheless changed hands. Park couldn’t come to terms with the new owners and ultimately told them to “hang it in their ear,” he said. “They went belly up and I was still playing dances all around the valley.”
In 1955, Capitol finally invited Park to Hollywood. He recorded four tracks.
Those three busy years, 1954 through 1956, between his “discovery” and the eventual release of his record, also saw the birth of rock and roll, fueling an unprecedented record buying binge that surpassed the Nashville and Bakersfield sounds combined.
Perhaps sensing the looming storm, Park encouraged his 16-year-old brother-in-law Babe Laam, a regular on the TV show, to rock and roll.
He also called Nelson and offered to do the same. Nelson politely declined. Park reflected in the autobiography: “He was right — I was pure country, just trying to survive in this Rock and Roll Era.”
Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Didly, three gifted black musical innovators, had spent the prior couple years honing the sound that would become rock and roll.
Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven,” was released in 1955. Little Richard countered with “Long Tall Sally,” adding lighting effects to his already manic stage show, which whipped mixed race audiences into a frenzy.
During a particularly fervent performance in Baltimore, girls showered Little Richard with their undergarments.
Babe Laam also played some rock and roll in Placerville in that era, but does not recall any intimate apparel directed his way.
Bluesman Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” was also recorded that year, demonstrating the power of simple lyrics, an electric guitar and a pounding “cut shuffle” beat.
But it would take an anxious white kid with impossibly good looks and a provocative wide-stance shimmy — a boy so nervous that his leg shook — performing a backbeat-driven fusion of country, pop, gospel and rhythm and blues to bring the new music to the masses.
The year 1956 was transformational in 20th century music history. In late 1955 RCA-Victor acquired the rights to a Memphis phenom named Elvis Presley from Sam Phillips for a record $40,000, and released “Heartbreak Hotel,” in January, followed by the explosive “Hound Dog,” and “Don’t Be Cruel” in July.
The resulting tsunami cleared the beaches and triggered a sea change in popular music.
In November, with country music about to suffer an extended existential crisis, Capital released Park’s “You’re Gonna’ Have to Bawl That’s All,” a honky-tonk twanger with rockabilly overtones.
The song got up to number 40 on the country music charts and remains fresh-sounding today, a timeless example of the Bakersfield sound.
But it never stood a chance in late 1956. Park watched as Capitol Records purged all but their top-selling country stars to make room for the rock acts to follow.
If he was hurt by the experience, no one remembers it. He later joked “My record sales started out slow and went down from there.”
Rock and roll destroyed his country music dreams but set the stage for the arrival of Vern Williams in his life.
The duo went on to light a bluegrass bonfire in northern California and inspire a generation of west coast country rockers, including Ray’s sons Larry and Cary Park.
Thanks to Vern, Ray and the dozens of talented young musicians they influenced, bluegrass was well established in Northern California by the time the two elder statesmen went their separate ways in 1974.
Ray worked with numerous bluegrass and country bands in the ensuing years, recording “Fiddletown” in 1982 and two albums with the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
In the 1980s Ray and Marlene rented out their Placerville house and relocated to Southern California for a time. Ray played music with his sons, and also on albums by Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, Rose Maddox and Nikki Horsby. His songs were recorded by EmmyLou Harris, Kathy Kallick and HotRize.
“It was awesome to see that,” said Larry. “By then everyone knew and respected him.”
Ray Park contracted Parkinson’s Disease in the 1990s and later Leukemia. In 2002 he died at home in Placerville.
The next episode of Hangtown Musical Roots tells the Vern and Ray story.