Born Raymond David Hesson on December 14, 1941, Ray was a fixture in the DC-area bluegrass scene since the 1960s when he taught banjo and guitar in local music stores. He first met and befriended Ben Eldridge and Mike Auldridge when they taught together the same facility, long before there were even hints of Seldom Scene.
Ray worked with a number of popular bands during his youth, including Free State String Band, Pointer Ridge, and Foggy Bottom, with whom he performed for 25 years. Foggy Bottom also included Brad Sams and Karen Belanger, along with Ray Schmidt and Danny Curtis (now deceased). They recorded a number of albums in their career.
He was a regular at banjo competitions all over the country, where he was in his element. His son, Mike, who is also a fine banjo picker, recalls that his dad loved the contest scene, even more than playing with a band. Ray won his share along the way, but was most proud of his third place finish at Winfield in 1995.
Mike recalls going to the contests with his dad where they would compete against each other, but also provide accompaniment for the other.
“Dad would always announce to the audience after I played that, ‘I taught him everything he knows, but I didn’t teach him everything I know!'”
Mike recalls his dad as the best teacher he ever had, and was always proudest on the few occasions when he came out on top.
Later in life you would see Hesson working as a representative for the Deering Banjo Company, manning a booth and picking away on his banjo at major festivals in the eastern and central parts of the US.
Outside of his music, Ray worked for the federal government for 25 years as a contract specialist for NASA during the heady days of the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. He also worked for the US Navy at the David Taylor Research Center and finally for the Office of Personnel Management until he retired in 2006.
Here’s video of Ray and his son, Ray, doing his arrangement of Stars and Stripes Forever:
His health first became a concern about 20 years ago. Mike says that he and Ray were walking to the registration booth at MerleFest when Ray passed out and fell. Mike had just completed his combat medical training in the Army, and was able to keep his dad alive using CPR until the paramedics arrived. He had Ray would joke later about his memorable first code.
In recent years, Ray’s body began to fail him, developing ongoing heart and liver problems, and his music activities slowed down. Then last November, he fell and broke his arm which seemed to precipitate a failing health spiral that finally took him this week. But Mike says that his dad was conscious at the end, though medicated, and had with his family with him as he passed.
Visitation and viewing will be held tomorrow (May 28) at Beall Funeral Home in Bowie, MD from 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m., followed by a memorial service. Funeral services and internment are scheduled for Tuesday (May 31) at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery in Clinton, MD.
In addition to his fine banjo playing, Ray will be remembered in the bluegrass community for his outsized personality and his huge smile. He was one of the good ones, and he will be sorely missed.
R.I.P., Ray Hesson.