The Ray Cardwell profile is a contribution by Dale McCurry with Bambi Grinder, founders of NoteWorthy Music in Springfield, MO.
“I’m doing a little happy dance around the house right now,” says Ray Cardwell. He has texted me at 7:30 in the a.m. — a little early for dancing at mi casa — to let me know that his latest single, Born to Do, has debuted at #1 on Bluegrass Today’s Grassicana chart. This is particularly good news because the drop of his all-important third album, Just a Little Rain, is scheduled to take place very soon — September 25. Rain was produced by bluegrass mainstay and Grascals mandolinist Danny Roberts, and boasts a number of well-established Nashville players and writers.
Ray has done these dances before. The drop is not a Hail-Mary, “Let’s fulfill the contract” release; it’s a much anticipated album following his highly successful debut and sophomore releases.
His debut CD, Tennessee Moon, was produced by guitarist Pat Flynn (a former member of New Grass Revival, 2020 inductee into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame). The album was received with high praise while charting 10 songs on bluegrass, Americana, and folk charts.
“Tennessee Moon will remain one of 2017’s best of bluegrass,” wrote Mike Smith, reviewing the album for the Wires and the Wood magazine. Mike is host and founder of KSMU’s Seldom Heard Music — at 38 years, the longest-running bluegrass radio show in Missouri.
Time To Drive was the first single from Ray’s sophomore album, Stand On My Own, released in May 2019. The song debuted at #1 on Bluegrass Today’s Grassicana chart and remained in the top-15 for 37 consecutive weeks. Also from Stand, Alright debuted at #1 and Hurricane Rain at #2 before making its way to #1.
“There’s no arguing about the strength of his voice, a powerful force of nature that can tackle anything he wants to try.” ~ HK, Bluegrass Unlimited reviewing Stand On My Own.
“Just a Little Rain was produced by my longtime friend and writing pal Danny Roberts,” Ray says. “I am proud of this project, not only musically but creatively, and in its clear response to circumstances never before experienced. The human spirit endures as we love each other and grow to adapt in new ways to be artists and 21st-century troubadours.
“I’m so excited to get this project out to everyone! I had a great time recording it and co-writing with my friends.”
A Family Tradition
Ray didn’t exactly choose bluegrass; it was more like bluegrass chose him. He grew up in a family bluegrass band. His father, Marvin Cardwell, was a talented multi-instrumentalist who fronted one of the first live music shows in Branson, Missouri, in the ’60s.
In the ’70s, The Cardwell Family bluegrass band — Ray and Marvin, with mother, Wanda and sisters Nancy and Susan — played on the Branson Strip. They became a regular attraction at Silver Dollar City in 1976. Sister Nancy has spent the past several years as Administrator at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Foundation.
“Many of the bluegrass players I know grew up in a family band,” says Ray. “As a teacher and musician, I see it in other genres as well. You know, you see families, and they all played jazz or they all played classical. But it is certainly prevalent in bluegrass. You know, kids are traditionally going to be somewhat like their parents. Additionally, with mountain-and-hill-music folks we didn’t have a lot of distractions. We didn’t have multi-channels and the internet. We had to keep ourselves entertained, and we played music. We found out we could sing and that we could sing harmonies.
“As a singer and songwriter it influenced me,” he continues, discussing the family music dynamic. “Dad would say, ‘If you aren’t going to sing it like you mean it, don’t sing it.’ Maybe the best advice I ever got about this business. The family gig broadened my range of instruments. I played banjo because it was the instrument we needed; it wasn’t really by choice. I wish I could have been better. When I listen to those records, I’m not sure I would have kept me in the band,” he says, laughing.
“But it was just a cool way to grow up.”
Mama Played Bass
“If you think about it, yeah, my family has produced some good bass players,” Ray says. His mother played bass in the family band, Nancy is a well-established Nashville bass player, and Ray made it to the second round in this year’s nomination process for IBMA Bass Player of the Year.
“Mom was a good timekeeper, and that’s what bass is all about, you know. You’ve got to be the metronome,” Ray says, love-of-subject resonating in his voice. “I always say that in bluegrass, the band is a drum machine. The bass is the kick drum, the mandolin the snare, and the banjo is a lot like the hi-hat. So the bassline is the no frills foundation that the song is built on … And it’s all about the song.”
“I’ve always been a bottom dweller,” says Ray with a laugh, when asked about his favorite instrument. “I started out on guitar and banjo and I played saxophone in school, but I’ve gravitated to the bass. When I write a song, it’s almost always written on the bassline. So yes, definitely bass is my favorite.”
Ray then proceeds to talk himself out of his answer. “But my voice [all four-and-a-half octaves of it] has always been the one constant through all the bands and styles. Whether it was me at keyboards or sax, guitar or bass, it has always been, ‘and sings.’ So I guess, I have to retract my answer and say my voice is my favorite instrument.”
Rebel with a Cause
It was not a straight line from the family band to hit bluegrass records. “When I left the family band in the ’80s — which was not easy to do — I was a huge rebel,” says Ray. “I was into new wave and punk, rock and reggae.” He was working out of Springfield, Missouri, and throughout the Midwest as a musician and front man, keyboardist and sax player. He relocated for a time to Hollywood, California, with the Springfield-based Resonance. “I turned 20 living a block off of Hollywood Boulevard,” he adds.
While in LA, Ray also played saxophone for celebrated songwriter Jack Lee (The Nerves, and writer for Blondie, Pat Benatar, and Paul Young). “I met Jack playing saxophone outside Frederick’s of Hollywood — busking. He liked what I was doing and hired me. He tried to get me to stay, but the band wanted to go home [to the Ozarks], so I did, as well.”
In 1992, Ray joined some bluegrass players from Columbia, Missouri, and started his return to bluegrass with the regional band, Slick Nickel. He moved to Nashville in 1994 as a member of the critically acclaimed, nationally touring bluegrass gospel band, New Tradition. Ray recorded two albums and played 230 shows a year with them for three years.
In mid-’96 Ray left Nashville and moved back to Missouri to raise a family and return to college to finish a degree in music education. While attending Lincoln University, he performed with National Honor Choirs in New York City at both Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
During his teaching days, Ray also played with an indie band called Squigglefish — a popular rock/blues/reggae power trio in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks region.
Passing it On
Ray gets animated talking about teaching, about passing on a love. “What I enjoyed was getting kids excited about music,” he says. “I love music history. I love to talk about where it all came from, how it evolved, its importance to society.”
“When I toured with New Tradition, it was nice to see my buddies from the stage and to play with them — sometimes in spontaneous situations. But what made it fun for me, was the old timers who would come out of the woodwork, out of the hills — singers and fiddle players, guys who would never play on a stage, but they would follow the band and they would play, and they would keep up and they wanted to pass it on. They always impressed me.
“When I got a chance to teach, that’s what I wanted to do. I mean I love being on stage; I love to shine. I’m very animated, and I love to sing with passion. And to write music. I do. But passing that on is something very important to me. That’s how I tried to approach teaching, and it remains important to me, today.”
As a high school band and choral director, Ray led students to several national competitions, receiving high markings. He took them on trips abroad and to bowl games where they would sweep competitions. “I don’t know a band director who doesn’t love his trophies,” Ray says with a smile in his voice, “but getting the kids excited … passing it on: That’s the aspect of it that I like.”
Ray’s return to bluegrass came when Pat Flynn (New Grass Revival), heard a demo of his originals and gave Ray a call. After meeting with Pat, Ray decided that it was time to return to his roots.
“I loved the kids and I won’t deny crying when I told them I was going to leave teaching, but Pat Flynn was going to get me a shot at my dreams. I was gone.”
“Here’s my analogy — New Grass Revival: They’re my Beatles. I mean they sang so well and wrote such great songs. And suddenly it’s like I get to sing with my Beatles — John Cowan, Curtis Burch and Pat, all of New Grass. To hang out and be friends with musicians who influenced me so deeply. Pat is responsible for me coming out of retirement musically. He helped me get my record deal. Who gets that kind of opportunity at 52?
“The Dillards, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and New Grass Revival. Those are my influences. My top influences. Without a doubt.”
“I love teaching, but I promptly left,” he laughs.
Rustling the Grass
“Bill Monroe’s style of music was revolutionary,” Ray says when asked about appropriate boundaries of bluegrass. “None of the stringband music of the time had that drive, that forward clip, that forward motion. Bill brought that change. And people resist change and that’s human nature. That’s fine.”
“I am a living melting pot of influences,” he continues, “and I think to deny influences is a crime. Especially now with the instant availability of music and all of its sounds and styles. So you’re going to have Nickel Creek, and out of that Chris Thile who has been immersed in all of these available sounds — jazz and blues and classical — and who has a mandolin in his formidable hands.”
“I really like Motown. I like the blues. I like funk and reggae. It’s going to come out in my music. A fan told me one of my songs sounded like Bob Marley with The Police singing it—naming two of my influences—and I’m thinking: ‘Well, I guess he heard it.'”
“I love the music traditions. I mean, playing with Jesse McReynolds on the Opry at the Ryman was just beyond belief, you know …” a pregnant pause offering space and homage. “But I have my own voice to sing. I’m passionate about what I am doing, and I like to have fun with it.”
“When it comes down to it, I’m just a dreamer from the Ozarks.”
Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he wears all of those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.
Co-founder/owner of NoteWorthy Music, Bambi Grinder has spent many years as a shaper of words — writing novels and short fiction (which she prefers in first-person present tense). Bambi is delighted to make this foray into the digital landscape with NoteWorthy Music as publisher, editor, writer, and web designer and developer.