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Ray Bierl: Bio

Adapted from 'A Portrait of Ray Bierl' by Chuck Poling, Bluegrass Breakdown, February 2008

Ray Bierl is all over the map, and not because he lacks a sense of musical direction. Rather, Ray is squarely focused on the many journeys of life, a theme as ancient as the Odyssey. On his CD Any Place I Hang My Hat, he takes the listener on a road trip through time, space, and across the vast landscape of Americana music of the body, mind and heart. An accomplished singer, guitarist and fiddler, the Oakland resident has had a lifelong fascination with the road, perhaps inspired by his dad, a one-time hobo. Wherever he got his wanderlust from, it's reflected throughout his CD with tales of vagabonds, lonely towns, haunted truck stops and lost love. Ray draws upon a huge catalog of musical genres and styles, yet he delivers each song in a manner uniquely his own. Singing in a mellow baritone, his voice isn't striking or dramatic, but it has the effect of being instantly familiar and engaging. His songs are chats between old friends, and you are admitted to the circle by virtue of your presence. His repertoire includes cowboy ballads, Appalachian fiddle tunes, rock 'n' roll hits from the '50s, Tin Pan Alley numbers and country classics. Where does he get his material?

'My earliest musical memories are of the European classical music 78s it seemed were always playing,' said Bierl, 'and the songs my mom played on the piano as I was going to sleep at night. Plus of course the violin lessons I took.' Born in Vancouver, but raised primarily in San Diego, Ray was exposed to all kinds of music as a child and learned to appreciate a good song, whatever its origins. His folks played records by Mahalia Jackson, Bing Crosby and other popular artists. His teenage years were marked by the rise of Elvis and, like pretty much anyone else of his generation, rock and roll had a profound influence on his musical tastes.

But it was the folk revival that inspired Bierl to join the thousands of other young people who became a new generation of troubadours. 'I didn't start trying to play the guitar until the folk groups and Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Then it was the New Lost City Ramblers, Guy Carawan, Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie, Stu Jamieson, Mississippi John Hurt and Bob Dylan.'

Through the '60s and early '70s Ray became a 'folkie' and a regular in the coffeehouse and festival scene of Southern California, with a repertoire that ranged from old-time southern songs to civil rights and anti-war songs, cowboy songs, Woody Guthrie songs, and more.

During this time, he sporadically attended school and eventually earned a master's degree in sociology. Ray jokes that it's never earned him any money but it's provided a rich vocabulary to use when yelling back at the TV set. Well, picking and singing is all good and fine, but how did he pay the bills? Starting in the mid '70s, Ray took a 'temporary' job with the San Francisco Wastewater Department that was to last for almost 30 years.

'I lived hand-to-mouth on music for a number of years,' Ray recalls, 'not doing what I needed to do to advance any kind of a career with it. I decided to get a day job and the great and good John Barger whom I knew through the San Francisco Folk Music Club got me on 'as needed' at the wastewater plant.' The Southeast Wastewater plant had long been a haven for indigent musicians. The late Barger was a beloved figure on the folk scene and found work for many fine pickers over the years. The group had a lot of informal nicknames, most of which were inspired by the 'product' that flowed through the sewage system and are therefore, unprintable in this nice family publication.

After a while on the job, the bills were getting paid, but Ray was feeling kind of down on himself. 'It was a hard transition back then from 'starving artist' to working stiff and I was pretty depressed about it for a while,' he said. But then he decided to shake things up a little and follow up on a one-of-these-days pledge, so he picked up the fiddle for the first time since the childhood violin lessons and started sawing away. That did the trick. 'Beginnerhood.' he chuckled. 'Good for what ails ya.'

Though Ray is mostly self-taught, he's picked up a wealth of knowledge along the way from local fiddlers he admired. 'Bob Huenemann was in the first real bluegrass band I was in. And Laurie Lewis, Paul Shelasky, Tony Marcus, Jon Petersen, Mike Drayton, Ed Neff, Greg Canote, all left imprints in my brain. So when I started trying to play fiddle I already had an idea of what I wanted to sound like.'

It wasn't before too long that Ray was fiddling for contra dances in Berkeley, Burlingame and beyond, becoming a favorite at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. It was there that he met Daniel Steinberg, Kevin Carr and Paul Kotapish, Bay Area musicians who enlisted him to play in Hillbillies From Mars, a popular contra dance band. After years as a solo performer in cafes and bars, Ray happily adjusted to his role as a member of an ensemble that provided instrumental music for dancing, though it did give him an enlightening perspective on the contrast between being a featured artist versus providing dance music. ‚

'It's the difference between performing and performing a function,' he said. 'When I first started playing fiddle for square dances and contra dances I had to get used to people not necessarily even knowing who I was when I'd walk through the crowd on a break, though I'd just gotten off the stage. They were relating more to each other than to the musicians they were dancing to. But that kind of playing is rewarding in a different way than singing in front of an audience. You're connecting rhythmically to people's moving bodies, providing a pulse, or connecting with the pulse that's coming from them, and often it's a thrill helping them feel real good without them (or maybe even you) understanding how. On the other hand I'm doing more regular performing these days and it's nice relating to people's hearts and minds too. Of course if they tap their foot to what you're doing that's even better.'

Along the way, Ray put out his first CD Cowboy Dancing in 1991. The album featured western-flavored songs and some of his favorite fiddle tunes. Between his solo performing, contra dance fiddling and 'temporary' job, Ray kept pretty busy until a couple of years ago, when he retired from civil service and found himself with a lot of time on his hands. Encouraged by longtime friend and musical collaborator Brendan Doyle, Ray decided that after 16 years it was time to knock out another CD. So back into the studio he went, this time with Laurie Lewis as producer.

'I was nervous about it at first, knowing it would have to be pretty darn good for Laurie to put her name on it, and I'd have to raise my expectations of my own playing and singing,' he said. 'I thought there'd be times when she'd be more demanding of me than I'd be of myself, but it actually worked as often in the other direction. In all it was a richly rewarding experience working with Laurie, our friendship grew as a result, and the album came out even better than I'd hoped it would.'

Laurie was equally pleased with both the results and the process of teaming up with Ray in the studio.  'I have been a fan of Ray's musicianship for thirty-something years,' she said, 'since we played together in the Phantoms of the Opry. Back then, he could bring me to tears every time, reciting 'Phantom 309', and he still can. In working with him, I was impressed by his ability to take direction from me, and to really dig deep and go for the good stuff.'

Added Ray, 'My original idea was to do an album of songs called 'Traveling Music', since I realized that so many of my favorite songs had that vagabond theme. Other favorites crept into the mix by the time I got around to it, but traveling songs were still the predominant theme. I've kept doing songs from all the genres I've explored over the years, old-time music, cowboy songs, C&W, bluegrass, rockabilly, even some Tin Pan Alley and R&B songs. I'm drawn to songs by the story they tell or the attitude they express irrespective of style.

'Any Place I Hang My Hat' is a travelogue, not just of places, but of time, human emotions and imagination. There are classic songs of wandering bums like 'The Dying Hobo' and 'Tramps and Hawkers'‚ mixed with tales of love‚ tortuous journey to places like 'Lonesome Town', and his heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of 'We Live in Two Different Worlds.' One of only two tracks on which Lewis plays, 'We Live in Two Different Worlds' kicks off with Laurie and Ray playing a sweet western swing twin fiddle turnaround, which leads into the chorus with Ray and Penelope Critchlow singing harmony. It's a song about love gone wrong, an all too familiar destination for many on life's road. Mayne Smith‚s pedal steel guitar weaves in and out with intricate yet restrained licks that compliment the vocals.

On the other hand, 'The Old Chisholm Trail' is delivered in a traditional, almost ancient style with Ray singing and playing fiddle, accompanied only by Mark Graham on harmonica. Paired with the instrumental 'Indian Nation', Ray's version of 'Chisholm Trail' is as close as you'll ever come to experiencing the weary joy of cowboys gathering around a fire for their chuck and the chance to break the mind-numbing monotony of the cattle drive by listening to their fellow saddle tramps entertain them.

The album's opening cut is 'Guitar Man', penned by Jerry Reed and popularized by Elvis Presley. Ray takes this quintessential ramblin' man song and strips down the arrangement to acoustic guitar, bass, harmonica and drums. His voice is relaxed and familiar, but at the same time it has a roguish quality and a little edge of weariness that that provides gravitas. Ray's seemingly casual approach to singing is actually quite artful. He doesn't impose his style upon a song, but rather he takes it over from the inside and makes it his own.

This talent is most evident on the final track, the classic trucker recitation 'Phantom 309'. Departing from the roadmap that Red Sovine followed to make the song a hit in 1967, Ray riffs on the original and tells a rambling tale with many asides and tangential details. Sovine delivers a sermon; Ray tells you a tale.

'Every song Ray chooses becomes his own. It doesn't matter if it's been covered by Elvis, Ramblin' Jack or Ricky Nelson before him. When he sings it, it's fresh and personal,' Lewis. 'For Ray, the story that's being told by the song is what‚s important. He's a great storyteller and an empathetic person, so he's able to really inhabit the various roles he takes on.'

Added Steven Strauss, who plays bass with Ray in a contra-dance band called Swing Farm, 'When Ray likes a song he gathers all the versions he likes and picks and chooses varying elements from them to create his own version. He seems to enjoy reincorporating lost and superseded versions of lyrics and melody to make a version of a familiar song that surprises you in the details. Often I'll see an unfamiliar title on the set list, and it'll turn out to be a song we all know by a different name.'

Kathy Kallick, another popular East Bay bluegrasser is a long time fan of Ray's and attributes his ability to personalize a song to his 'lazy, relaxed storytelling style.' She describes his performances as more like conversations with a group of old friends.

While he must be flattered by the acclaim he's received as an interpreter of songs written by others, does Ray secretly desire to record his own material? Why hasn't he put any of his own songs on disc? 'Because I only sing really good songs!' he replied. 'And because other than occasionally adding a verse to some old folk song, I've never really written songs. Every so often I feel like I oughta, being as good a singer as I am (ahem), and being so admiring of the people I know who do write songs. But I know a good song when I hear one, and the songs I already sing express enough of me that I don't feel the need to write more myself.'

It might seem ironic that a man who's so enamored of tales of the open road and endless highway spent over 30 years at a 'temporary' job. But the journeys that Ray sings of are measured not only in miles, but in days and years and in tears and sighs. 'Any Place I Hang My Hat' is a road trip, and you're riding shotgun with Ray into a landscape that initially seems familiar and simple but at second glance reveals much more than you'd imagine was there. You notice lyrics you've never really listened to before and you understand old phrases in a new way. Ray Bierl not only knows how to make a song his own, he knows how to make it yours.

(In the journalistic tradition of full disclosure, it should be noted that Chuck's dad worked with Ray at the sewage treatment plant for years. You can catch Chuck blogging away at http://blog.myspace.com/jeanieandchuckscountryroundup)