Raymond McLain retires from Morehead State University

This article on the retirement of celebrated bluegrass educator Raymond McLain was written by Olyvia Neal, editor of The Trail Blazer, Morehead State University’s student newspaper, where it first appeared. She also took the photos that accompany this piece.

When Raymond McLain walked off stage with his students for nearly the last time for their end of semester show Tuesday, he left a lifetime legacy at Morehead State.

McLain will retire as MSU’s director of the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at the end of the semester after 12 years of leading the program, and a lifetime of dedication to traditional mountain music. 

Although his career as an educator has ended, his life as a musician will continue.

“It felt like time,” said McLain. “This music is so vibrant, and it is continuing like a stream of tradition. Things fall in the water and float along. Things are dropped along the way. It’s living. It’s moving. That’s why I like it because you can stay in a position too long, and I hope I don’t seem egocentric when I say I still have things to offer.”

Yet, his legacy in this music began long before he assumed his position at MSU.

McLain learned to play music from his father, Raymond K. McLain. At the age of 14 he, his father and his younger sisters, Ruth and Alice, formed the McLain Family Band in 1968. Since then, the band has performed in all 50 states, 62 countries, and on iconic stages around the world. 

“The McLain Family Band had a lot of nice things happen to us during that time,” said McLain. “But the times that mattered were times that inspired us. Maybe it wasn’t even a concert. Maybe it was just in your living room. Maybe it was going to sleep at night when you’re a child and listening to music in the other room.”

McLain’s father also instilled in him a love for teaching music, as his father created the first college courses in bluegrass and Appalachian music in 1971 at Berea college.

“Daddy was a natural teacher and a natural student, so when he put these courses together, he involved me in it because he wanted me to see what he did and how he did it,” said McLain.

While McLain continued to progress as an artist for the next three decades, he also began his own teaching career first at Belmont University as adjunct faculty, and then as Jack Tottle’s assistant director at East Tennessee University’s bluegrass music program in 2000.

“When I started teaching with Jack, I went because I wanted to help young people learn to live their lives as artists. When I was teaching at Belmont as an adjunct faculty, I saw a lot of people who were wonderfully talented, brilliant musicians who were not necessarily happy,” said McLain. “I wanted to help students have the career they want but also, I wanted them to have the lives they want.”

McLain worked with ETSU’s bluegrass program for ten years, five as director, where he developed the country’s first university major in traditional music.

Then in 2010, MSU President Wayne Andrews asked McLain to become director of the KCTM.

“When I came back to Kentucky it felt like coming home,” said McLain. “I loved being back in eastern Kentucky, and to have the opportunity to teach here at the KCTM was deeply meaningful to me.”

Returning to his roots allowed him to not only strengthen MSU’s degree in traditional music, but it also helped him be closer to his family. This included being there for his mother during the last two years of her life as she had Alzheimer’s disease, and working with his sister and bandmate, Ruth, at the KCTM starting in 2012.

“It’s always an honor and a thrill to get to work with Raymond in any capacity, and it’s been a joy to be at the center while he was there,” said Ruth.

At the KCTM, McLain impacted his students not only professionally but on a personal level as well.

“He’s helped me to come into my adolescence in the music world, and realize that music is more about the relationships between people, and the joy that you can give people through the music you convey with your instrument and your voice,” said Hayley King, a junior traditional music major.

King said that when she heard this year would be McLain’s last it made her cherish every lesson, performance, and moment with him.

“I love Raymond. He has become a father to me, and I want to hang on to every last minute that I can, just walk by and see him in his office window playing his fiddle or teaching a lesson,” said King. “Raymond has taught all of us that ultimately when you play for people, you’re not playing for your own glory. You’re giving a piece of your soul to people.”

For King, McLain’s legacy is his love for his craft and his compassion for others.

“When you listen to him play and see him interact with people, you’re just left with this sense that this person is a lover of humanity. This person is a dreamer. This person deeply cares about not only the music itself, but the history of the music and the people that are a part of that history,” said King.

Though a new director has not yet been hired, the students, faculty and staff at the KCTM are optimistic for both McLain and the KCTM.

“Raymond helped create something that will continue, and we will continue with Raymond’s legacy, while being completely supportive of the new director. I’m excited to see the future of the center,” said Ruth.

In post-retirement, McLain is most excited to put his energy into writing, recording, and touring with the McLain Family Band again.

“For me it’s been 54 years, and a number of years before that as a family, and I’m beyond excited about the future to be honest,” said McLain. “We’ve had some very nice times in the past, but I think it’s not over. We have a lot of good times to come.”

The job posting for the new director of KCTM can be viewed online, for those interested in being considered for the position.