A Coffee with ……………. Ray Cardwell

This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love.

“One of the most interesting things about Ray is his range,” Pat Flynn says. “He has a very diverse musical background”.

Ray Cardwell brings a different set of talents to the bluegrass music fold, blending “blues and gospel to a cappella and straight-ahead bluegrass” and even some reggae, delivered with very distinctive vocals.

He grew up in Springfield, Missouri, with bluegrass music present throughout his childhood. His father had a band, Marvin Cardwell and the Country Boys. Besides his immediate family, he grew up listening to local musicians Roy and Betty Craft, Donnie Koontz, and John Wynn.

The national acts that came around were Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Country Gazette and, occasionally, Bill Monroe.

Marvin Cardwell and the Country Boys played a combination of traditional country music and bluegrass, performing at county fairs, town festivals, coon hunts, church events, and they even had their own live radio show every Saturday afternoon based in Aurora, Missouri.

Cardwell started singing at church and on his father’s show at age three, and while in the sixth grade he started playing the guitar and the saxophone for the school band.

Around 1975-1976, Ray and his two sisters, Susan and Nancy, were ready to participate in a family band with their parents. The Cardwell Family bluegrass band performed in the late 1970s through to early 1980s on a variety of stages, including the Mountain Folks Music Festival at Silver Dollar City; Fort of the Osage, in Osage Beach, Missouri; Dogpatch, USA, between the cities of Harrison and Jasper in the state of Arkansas; and various concerts hosted by Ozarks musicologist, Max Hunter.

In the roles of band leader, music director or sideman, Cardwell has performed and toured extensively with bluegrass, Americana, country, jazz, reggae, blues, musical theater, new wave, Motown, choral and rockabilly groups.

In the 1980s he spent time playing rock and reggae.

In 1992 he met some bluegrass enthusiasts from Columbia, MO and started his return to bluegrass with the regional band, Slick Nickel.

Cardwell moved to Nashville in January 1994 and became a member of the bluegrass band, New Tradition. In the two years to May 1996 he helped the band to record two CDs, Old Time Gospel Jamboree (for Brentwood Records) and Following the Son, which was recorded independently.

He returned to his home state of Missouri a few years later to raise a family while teaching vocal and instrumental ensembles, and re-enrolled in college to finish a degree in Music Education.

After many years away from bluegrass, Cardwell was recently drawn back to the genre, “I had so much luck that I played with so many different bands,” he told the News Tribune. “I feel like my music is a direct product of bluegrass and old time bands, just because I’ve always grown up with it, and I like to call it bluegrass soul.”

Cardwell’s first Pinecastle Records’ recording, Tennessee Moon, is released today, and will be celebrated with a special release performance at Nashville’s City Winery on January 20. He wrote nine out of twelve songs on the album.

He has played/sang in a wide variety of places, including Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cologne Cathedral (Germany), as well as the Grand Ole Opry, Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center.

Cardwell has worked on Holland America Cruise Lines as a show band member doing cruises in the Caribbean and Alaska also. He has performed in 18 different countries and in 46 states.

Ray Cardwell

What would you like to drink?
“Coffee, preferably mocha”

Do you want anything to eat as well?
“I love breakfast food, eggs, sausage, bacon. It works with my low carb diet.”

What’s your favorite food?
“Grilling steaks.”

And what would you have to drink with that?
“Sweet tea.”

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?
“Patsy’s in NYC – Italian!”

Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?
“Since I was born into a family bluegrass band, I would say it would have to be since infancy.”

Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?
“Tough question, I have written a lot of songs and they speak to me in different ways as they relate to moods, events or periods from my life.

So it’s hard to single out one song.”

What about a song written by someone else?
“I love Mitch Jayne songs. (The Dillards)

I tend to like story songs. I also like deceptive progressions and catchy hooks.”

Which particular album do you like best and why?
“I really have to say that I have many favorite bluegrass albums.

Jim and Jesse McReynolds – Bluegrass and More, The Dillard’s – Live!! Almost!!!, New Grass Revival – On the Boulevard.

You play a guitar ….
“I play bass guitar. I have a few; it just depends on which band I’m playing with.”

What model is it?
“1) 5 string Electric Bass- by Rybski. I am endorsed by Rybski basses.

I got this bass when I was playing for the New Tradition in 1995. Swavick, the luthier, followed us around to a few concerts and measured my hand and watched the way I played. So he literally made it for me. It is a custom one-of-a-kind. The neck is solid ebony with a dove tail glue joint and the body is two pieces of zebra wood. He also made the pickups and hand wrapped the coils. It has a Bartolini pre-amp. My initials are engraved in mother of pearl on the head stock. It’s tone and sustain are unbeatable, and it has a very effortless neck to play.

2) 5-string fretless acoustic bass guitar – by Rushing Guitars.

I am endorsed by Rushing guitars.

I was given this bass while I was playing with New Tradition in 1996.

Johnny Rushing makes some great flat-top guitars. He and his brother Jimmy were big supporters of New Tradition. Jimmy played the bass and asked me if he could make a bass for me. It is the warmest sounding fretless acoustic bass I have ever heard or played. It has an extended neck with a single cutaway body.

The sides, back and neck are mahogany and the top is spruce. The fingerboard is ebony. It has a Martin plus pickup under the bridge. I wanted to keep it cosmetically clean, so I use a Fishman model B preamp with it externally for volume and tone control.

3) 1951 KAY Upright Bass
This was my Mom’s in our family bluegrass band. I play it when I need to be more traditional. Kays are known for their warm sound and solid construction, and this one does not disappoint. It makes me proud to play it, especially when I play on the Grand Ole Opry with Jesse McReynolds.

4) 2005 Fender Jazz 5 string.”

Of all the instruments that you have owned what’s your favorite Instrument?
“That’s too hard. I love all my basses.”

What’s your favorite bluegrass memory?
“When I was singing with the New Tradition we were playing at a festival in St Louis, Missouri. We were playing early in the afternoon and we finished up with Little Maggie. As we ended the set, I saw Ralph Stanley standing off to the side of the stage. He was smiling and shook my hand as I walked off the stage and he said, ‘Mighty fine job.’ I’ll never forget that.”

How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road?
“I have a membership to Planet Fitness.”

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?
“Yes. I love football! Love my Kansas City CHIEFS!!!!”

What hobbies do you have?
“I like to take my fishing kayak out, and I like to ride mountain bikes.”

What is the last movie film that you watched?
“The last film I watched was London is Falling.

What is your favorite film and why?
“Favorite movie… I was a band and choir teacher for 14 years. So I like musicals. I also like classic black and white movies. So….. favorite musical/movie would be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I also like Star Trek, Star Wars and Hobbit movies. I really like Glen Ford. Blackboard Jungle is another of my favorite movies.

Do you get much time to watch TV? What’s your favorite show?
“Some, I like NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans (Naval Criminal Investigative Service).”

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?
“Playing music and teaching band and choir.”

Ray Cardwell lives in Nashville, TN.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.