Ray Park: big talent, big heart, bad timing
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This is the fifth part in a series about music in the foothills.
Bluegrass pioneer Ray Park’s gritty authenticity and unrelenting work ethic was born, like the man himself, on a hardscrabble farm in the hills of Arkansas. He eventually settled in Placerville, where he and his wife Marlene raised a family in the 1970s.
Known nationally for his pioneering west coast bluegrass work with Vern Williams, Park also molded a cadre of local musicians and influenced a west-coast country-rock scene that blossomed into a major musical force.
His career bridges the old-time string bands of the early 20th century with everything that came later.
Fans recall a gifted picker and harmonist, unfailingly warm, generous and genuine, on and off stage.
Fellow musicians knew Park as a man with his eye on the horizon; a hard-working, versatile talent who could also be a hard-nosed perfectionist.
“It always seemed like Ray was destined for better things,” said Babe Laam, who was Park’s brother-in-law and occasional side man.
Friends and family recall Park as a good provider and an affectionate father who saw the best in people.
Park flirted with a career as a country singer, but was best known for his pioneering bluegrass work with fellow Arkansas ex-pat Vern Williams as “Vern and Ray.”
Both men were steeped in the country, bluegrass and gospel music they grew up with. Unlike Williams, Park was not a strict traditionalist.
“Dad didn’t believe in … closed mindedness when it came to music,” said Cary Park, who said his father once played “Let it Be” to an incredulous bluegrass audience and was also known to plug in a phase shifter when the occasion called for psychedelic fiddling.
Ray Park loved his fiddle. He also loved fiddle contests, and might have gone down to Georgia and given the devil a run for his money, given the opportunity. He had to settle for winning the California State Old-Time Fiddlers Championship in 1973.
Vern and Ray formed in 1959 and disbanded in 1974, reuniting sporadically through the end of the century. He spent most of that time in Placerville, where his wife Marlene grew up.
Her younger brothers Babe and Steve Laam both performed locally, as did her sons Larry and Cary. The two families were a constant presence on a local music scene that arguably hit its apex during their tenure in 1960s and 1970s.
They all fell under Ray Park’s spell. He played numerous instruments and was adept at the recording process. He could sing lead or harmony in a wide range of country music styles, including Cajun and country swing, according to Georgetown’s Keith Little, another of his protégés.
Little recalled his mentor as “one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with,” in a 2012 interview. “He was like a second father to me.”
Babe Laam echoed the sentiment.
“Ray was a total musician, the best I ever played with,” he said.
At his core, Ray Park was a survivor, a refugee of depression-era Arkansas who learned how to ride out the bad times, take advantage of whatever opportunities arose and manufacture them when they didn’t.
He nonetheless found himself at the wrong end of the tectonic shift in popular music which occurred in the mid 20th century, his best chances at commercial success thwarted by bad timing.
Ray Park’s efforts were eventually recognized by folk revivalists, who discovered Vern and Ray in the late 1960s and by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1997.
A growing west-coast folk-rock and country-rock movement also appreciated the efforts of the pioneering bluegrass duo.
Vern and Ray are the subject of an upcoming episode of Hangtown’s musical roots.
Ray Park was born in 1933 in rural Treat, Ark., the fourth of eight children. He spent his early years in a log cabin beside Moccasin Creek.
Asked how he and Williams achieved their soulful sound, Park once replied, “You’ve got to live in a cabin before you can sing about it.”
He documented his early life in a folksy partial autobiography written shortly before his death. His son-in-law John Cobourn based a 2002 memorial essay for the California Bluegrass Association essay titled “Looking back — Ray Park.”
Park recalls a geographically and culturally isolated life on a subsistence farm.
His favorite breakfast? “Fried squirrel with gravy, biscuits and molasses,” he said.
In a family of eight, “it was sometimes tough come biscuit time,” he added.
Low crop prices, blights and a series of devastating floods all conspired to make life miserable for Arkansas’ small farmers in the 1930s, half of which were either tenants or sharecroppers.
Neither model was viable, according to the “Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.”
More than 2 million acres in Arkansas were inundated by flooding in 1927, yet state officials opposed New Deal dams and rural electrification early on as “progressivism,” according to the encyclopedia, which notes that only a small fraction of Arkansas farms had electricity before the late 1940s.
One beneficiary of the state’s resistance to modernism was its traditional music, which percolated on front porches and living rooms, emerging years later along racial lines as highly distilled bluegrass or blues.
Much of the Park family’s social life revolved around music. Both parents played banjo and fiddle. Everyone sang. Pickin’ parties with the extended family and neighbors were common.
Times were particularly hard in 1933, the year Park was born, when an estimated 40 percent of the Arkansas workforce was unemployed.
In the autobiography, Park recalls his father shoveling sand for $1 a day, glad for the work. One summer the Park family picked cotton in Missouri. A coal mining job took them to Texas until the work ran out.
His father made ends meet by making whiskey. Despite constant attention by the local authorities, “Dad was always one step ahead of those revenuer men,” said Park in his autobiography. “Dad didn’t drink, he just made it. I believe this was a plus.”
The family lived in constant fear of the local authorities, who routinely searched the house and questioned the kids.
“Your dad is making whiskey isn’t he?”
“Nope” was the reply. Then they’d ask “where does he hide it?”
“Don’t know” was the answer.
Park also mentions that the local sheriff was a customer, which might have helped keep the business afloat.
In 1941 the family joined the estimated 2.5 million dust-bowl refugees that headed west for California, where agriculture was booming and massive public works projects provided thousands of jobs.
The Park family, all seven of them, with number eight on the way, piled into a 1936 Ford and pointed it west on Route 66 with two mattresses tied to the roof, $28 in their pocket and a tub of fried chicken.
“You could follow our chicken bones three quarters of the way to California,” said Park in the autobiography.
They made it as far as Barstow before the money ran out. Park’s father approached a kindly motel/grocery clerk and offered to work for a room and a meal. The man supplied both and pointed to an orange grove down the road with pickers in the field.
“We all went to work,” said Park. “I think we made $5 or $10 that day … We had hit pay dirt.”
They stayed for a week and arrived in Stockton with cash in hand. His parents continued to pick fruit and one day purchased a thrift store fiddle for 8-year old Ray, triggering a lifelong affection for the instrument.
The next episode of Hangtown Music History picks up the Ray Park story in California, where he starred in his own television show and went head-to head with Elvis Presley ‒ spoiler alert, Elvis won — before connecting with Vern Williams as Northern California’s first bluegrass band.