Ray Davis celebrates 60 years on radio

Ray Davis celebrates 60 years in radioRay Davis, currently host of The Ray Davis Show on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, celebrates 60 years in broadcasting today (May 2).

Davis joined WAMU in 1985 to host Saturday Bluegrass, and shared hosting duties for the weekday afternoon program, Bluegrass Country, until 2001. He currently hosts three live hours of traditional bluegrass music on The Ray Davis Show at 3 p.m., weekdays, and 10 a.m., Sundays, on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, heard in Washington, D.C., in HD Radio at 88.5, Channel 2, and online at bluegrasscountry.org.

Davis provides area bluegrass fans and online listeners worldwide with a daily dose of the traditional American art form, from prison songs and “plum pitiful” tunes to the great train rides – and train wrecks – of bluegrass music, all delivered with Davis’ encyclopedic knowledge of the artists and the music. More than a DJ, Ray Davis is both a musicologist and an archivist who takes listeners on a stroll down bluegrass music’s memory lane. His specialties, the plum pitiful tunes, are tearjerkers that explore universal themes of death, betrayal, and jealousy.

“Ray Davis is a legend in music broadcasting. He has helped define bluegrass music on-air since its earliest days as a discrete genre, and has placed a lasting imprint on it with his dedication to playing, promoting, and recording its musicians”, said Caryn G. Mathes, WAMU 88.5’s General Manager. “His booming, resonant voice is synonymous with the sound of bluegrass at WAMU, and his willingness to explore broadcasting on multiple new media platforms as radio evolves has been an inspiration to me.”

Davis began his radio career at the age of 15, when he left his boyhood home in Wango, Maryland., for a job at WDOV-AM in Dover, Delaware. He had jobs at other small town stations around the country, as well as a stint south of the border at XERF, where he learned to be a radio pitchman. Davis returned to the east coast and spent 38 years hosting a popular bluegrass program from Johnny’s Used Cars for WBMD in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1962, he began recording some of the nation’s finest bluegrass musicians and selling these recordings under his own label, Wango.

Davis hosts bluegrass festivals and concerts around the country, including the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, and the Arcadia Music Festival. He also produces 15 hours of bluegrass music each week for WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, When he’s not acting as program host or concert emcee, chances are Davis is holed up in his basement studio producing CDs from hundreds of bluegrass tapes he’s recorded over the years. Since the 1960s, Davis has been enlisting friends like Carter and Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Bill Harrell, the Warrior River Boys, the Gillis Brothers, Owen Saunders, and a host of others to make his so-called “basement tapes.” The basement tapes include previously unreleased jam sessions with many of these legendary bluegrass artists.

Carl Goldstein has had a long working relationship with Davis …..

“Back in the early 1960s I learned of Ray’s great work as a DJ and his historic work, recording the Stanleys, Charlie Moore. Don Reno and many others. Those Wango recordings are still my favorite cuts by those artists – especially Ralph and Carter. I frequented Sunset Park and I’m sure that’s where I heard that great voice for the first time.

A decade later when we started the Delaware Bluegrass Festival (now the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival) I asked Ray if he would MC. He has been with us ever since and it’s hard to imagine a festival without him.

I have more anecdotes about Ray at our festival than a book would permit but here is one of my favorites: In our early years we got to the point where we thought sprucing up the stage appearance was a good idea. One of our Board members went out of her way (and perhaps a tiny bit overboard) in festively placing plants about the stage. When Ray walked on stage to MC for the first act that year, he took a look at the decorations and remarked, “What is this a bluegrass festival or a Jimmy Swaggart service?”

Ray’s encyclopedic knowledge of bluegrass and his sharp ready wit make listening to him (onstage or on the air) comparable to hearing a world expert in the guise of a great stand-up comedian. I love him, our audience loves him and anyone who cares at all about the history or survival of this great music owes Ray a great deal.”

Fellow WAMU DJ Bob Webster [Stained Glass Bluegrass] has this to say about Ray ……

“Ray Davis has demonstrated a career in radio seldom duplicated by others in the field. He has produced recordings by many of the first generation artists in bluegrass music and hosted concerts and festivals featuring a wide spectrum of the music. He shares his knowledge and insights of the early days of broadcasting bluegrass with listeners in a way that revives memories in the minds of the long-time fans as well as inviting the younger fans to learn more about the routes of the music. Through “thick and thin”, Ray has continued to play the music that serves as the standard by which many fans measure the future of our beloved art.”

Lee Michael Demsey, who has been hosting bluegrass shows at WAMU since 1983, knows Davis very well ……..

“Ray Davis has been a big part of the sound of bluegrass on WAMU over the years. Before that he was an institution in Baltimore radio for his radio shows sponsored by Johnny’s Used Cars. He’s rooted in traditional bluegrass and the “high lonesome sound” that the founders of the music put forth. Ray is also a master pitch man, convincing listeners of how important it is to contribute to the radio station. Now in his 70s, he still has the fire and the passion for the music, and that’s pretty amazing to me.”

“We all have a deep respect for Ray,” says Danny Paisley on behalf of the Southern Grass members. Recently I interviewed Danny and he had this to say about Davis ‚Ķ‚Ķ‚Ķ.

“The first show we played after dad passed away Ray was promoting it. It was on the Sunday after dad’s service which was only about three days later. Being made to go and play; if it hadn’t been for Ray Davis, why no one might have gone, but he had done so much for us over the years and he made the day a good day after such a hard time. We just love him to death; think the world of him.”

American University’s radio station since 1961, WAMU 88.5 is the leading public radio station for NPR news and information in the greater Washington, D.C., area with more than 650,000 listeners in the region. WAMU 88.5 is “your NPR news station in the nation’s capital.”

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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.