HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (5/8/13)—Over 40 years of musicianship ain’t too shabby. Add in a compassionate approach to creating and performing inspiring, original songs—as well as some comedy at times—and you’ve got local singer-songwriter and country music mainstay, Ray Ligon.
Distinguished by his powerful vocal talents and articulate acoustic tones on a catalog of both original work and covers, Ray has amassed quite the following in western Kentucky over the years—and he has no intentions of throwing in the towel anytime soon. What’s more, his musical mantra, “It’s all about touchin’ folks with the music,” is alive and well in the music he crafts and the responses he receives from devoted fans.
Want proof? Simply check out any of Ray’s live concert dates, which include a spot at Madisonville’s upcoming Mad Flavor Arts and Music Festival on June 15th.
Yet, what most might not know is that Ray is a military veteran who once sang one of Kentucky’s most well-known tunes—the “Happy Birthday” song—to a Korean teenager and her family while stationed overseas; that he’s a rigorous, longtime supporter of both area civic organizations and charitable events such as the Madisonville Lions Club and WPSD’s annual Telethon of the Stars fundraiser; that he traveled to Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year to audition for NBC’s singing-based series, The Voice; and that he is currently working toward achieving a life-long dream of making a fulltime living from playing his music all over the country, and possibly the world.
Fortunately, myself and area photographer Jeff Harp got the chance to talk with the seasoned performer a couple months ago about the aforementioned facts and much, much more.
Who is Ray Ligon? Where do his passions lie? What does he think about the local music scene? And what does he have in-store for the future? The answers, as well as a few additional photos, can be found below.
Luke Short: Where are you originally from?
Ray Ligon: I’m originally from Cuba…uh, I mean Miami, Florida. [laughs] I was born in Miami and raised in Hialeah, Florida.
LS: Was this before or after the Cuban Missile Crisis? [laughs]
RL: This was after. I’m not that old! [laughs] I remember it all, though.
LS: When did your relationship with music really begin and how did it develop over time?
RL: My daddy bought me my first guitar when I was 13-years-old. It was an old Sears Silvertone guitar. I wish I still had it, but it got all tore up. I started teaching myself and, at first, I was going from string to string—you know, that silly “Mary had a Little Lamb” stuff. [laughs] Finally, I said to myself, “I need to start using chords,” so that’s what I did. A lot of the other stuff I learned came from other musicians that I knew or liked over the years. Then, from there, I started to develop a style all my own.
LS: Did you ask your dad to get you a guitar or did he just kind of get it for you out of the blue?
RL: I think I was kind of like, “Hey dad, can I get that?” Back then, the Silvertone was like $36 or something like that, you know? So he got it for me and he’s been supportive of my music ever since then.
LS: What’s your dad’s name?
RL: His name is Lowell. I have the same first name actually. Ray is my middle name—Lowell Ray Ligon. My dad was Lowell Dewayne Ligon.
LS: Was there a reason you wanted a guitar? Was there a band that you really liked that made you want to play?
RL: Back then, I was listening to John Denver, James Taylor, and other stuff like that. My dad always had country albums and played country music. I grew up singing in the choirs at church, too. I wanted a guitar because I liked to sing and I wanted to accompany myself.
LS: When was the first time you really ever played in front of people?
RL: I was used to singing in the youth choir, but the first time I ever really played for people was in high school. I was a sophomore and I signed up for the talent show. Before the talent show came up, I was also involved with Campus Life: Youth for Christ. Long story short, I broke this pinky [points to pinky finger on left hand] during one of our events. Well, that’s my chording hand. They drilled two pins through the bone, so I came walking out on the stage for this talent show in high school with a big bandage around my pinky finger. As you can imagine, the whole audience in the auditorium just laughed. I got up there and won first place, though. As a matter of fact, I won first place all three years in high school, so that’s where I started playing in front of people and getting used to it a little bit. Then, right out of high school, I went into the Army. I continued the adventure with music in the Army and continued learning while I was just hanging out.
LS: So you took your guitar with you in the military?
RL: Oh yeah. If I go somewhere, especially if I’m going to be out of town for a little while, the guitar is going with me. It has to.
LS: I’m guessing that you were singing during the talent shows, too?
RL: Yeah, definitely.
LS: So singing is just something that’s always came along with your playing?
RL: For sure. I’ve gotten a lot of compliments over the years. People say they love my guitar playing and what I can do on the instrument, but when I sit back and watch somebody really tear a guitar up, I feel like a rookie—especially the guys that play lead and all that stuff. I don’t do that.
LS: You have more of a singer-songwriter type approach. It’s almost like folk or Americana in a sense.
RL: Yeah, and that’s what I work on. It’s my own style. When I’m playing covers, I try to emulate the original version to do it justice, but I also put a little of my own style on it. As a performer, I couldn’t make it on just my guitar playing. I’d have to be backing someone up or have them backing me up. I also play a 12-string, a couple six-string acoustics, and a six-string electric.
LS: What kind of guitars are they?
RL: My main guitar is a vintage six-string acoustic-electric Alvarez Yairi. I also have a Santa Fe Takamine, another smaller Takamine, a 12-string Ovation, a six-string Sunlight guitar—which is a “learner” but sounds really good—and I have an Epiphone Les Paul electric guitar.
LS: At the end of the day, what do you consider your style of music?
RL: I play country, inspirational country, folk—it’s kind of a James Taylor meets Garth Brooks meets George Strait meets John Denver. It’s my own kind of thing really. People ask me who I sound like and I just have to tell them, “I sound like Ray Ligon.” I mean, I don’t want to sound exactly like someone else. There are too many people out there trying to be just like somebody else right now. I don’t want to do that. I want to be who I am. I want to pursue the dream. Why would I want to sound exactly like another artist? Now, on some songs I might sound similar to another artist. When I play Trace Adkins tunes, I can do it justice; I can sound similar to him. It’s still me, though.
LS: What do you really want to do with music when it comes down to it?
RL: I just turned 55, but I’m still trying to pursue the dream. I’m not necessarily trying to look for a major label or anything like that, but if that happens and it’s all good, I would consider going that route. But I really just want to play music fulltime. I want to run all over the country doing what I love. I’d like to go overseas with the USO to show support for the troops. I would love to give back to the military, because I’m a six-year Army veteran myself.
LS: Where all did you go when you were in the military?
RL: I started out in Fort Knox, KY for my training, went to Fort Lewis in Washington, and from there went to Camp Casey in Korea. Then I came back to Fort Knox, got out for a few months, went back in, and ended up at Fort Bliss in Texas. I’ve been a few different places through the military, including Germany for some exercises. It was cool, too.
LS: I can imagine that you might have picked up some music-related stories along the way, too.
RL: When I was stationed in Korea, President [Jimmy] Carter was in office—it was back in ‘79. I have a vivid memory from back then.
From basic training on, you never forget the sound of your drill sergeant’s cadence, and this particular day, while I’m in Korea, I’m the staff-duty driver, so I’m driving all over the place doing different things. Then, I hear that cadence, and I’m like, “Oh, dang!” Well, I went and looked and there’s drill sergeant Rhoden—he’s not a drill sergeant at this point—but he’s marching troops back to this outfit and I followed him back. I went in there and we talked. We were cracking up. He was a really cool dude. That was the year that South Korean President Park Chung-hee was assassinated and we were on full alert status. I was stationed at Camp Casey, which is about 15 or 20 miles south of the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. So, when they put us on full alert status, I was in armor—the 1st and 72nd Armor over there—and our tanks were fully combat-loaded. All the main gun ammunitions stayed on the tanks. When we got the alert, we had to take the machine guns and mount them, we would grab machine gun ammunition, and we would carry .45 caliber pistols as our sidearms. So, we’re at a DEFCON 3 alert status and we can’t leave; we have to stay in our units. Well, a battalion commander approaches me and another guy who were jamming out down at the recreation center, and he says, “Y’all will be entertaining out troops at the EM Club.” We were like, “Yeah, no problem.” [laughs] We did that and played some other shows, too.
Also, it seems like every unit over there had a Korean photographer running around taking photos and selling them. Well, in my case, the guy’s name was Mr. Kim, and he invited me to his home for his daughter’s 18th birthday party. To me, that was a real honor. He was the only person I could communicate with that was there. [laughs] He told me to bring my guitar and I sang “Happy Birthday” to her in English. Then I just hung out, jammed a little more, and everyone was smiling and shaking hands. It was a pretty cool experience.
LS: Locally speaking, you’re a staple in the music scene. Lots of people know and respect your music. How do you respond to that?
RL: I feel blessed and honored that people dig what I do, and I feel that, as more time goes on, the fan base is building. Last time I played The Crowded House, we had a really good crowd. I play at Rockford’s Place in Greenville from time-to-time, too.
LS: You recorded the album Live at Rockford’s Place there.
RL: That’s a pretty cool album. It was recorded there. They have a sound booth upstairs with recording equipment and they gave me what they had recorded from my set. Then I took that and edited it down. The album came out really cool.
LS: Who are some of the people in the area that you respect and draw influence from musically?
RL: There are so many talented singer-songwriters around this area that I like and respect that it’s hard to mention them all—people like Pat Ballard, James Michael Harris, and Johnny Keyz just to name a few. There are just too many to mention here and in the surrounding counties. I find myself inspired by them because they’re out doing what they love to do. You know, some of them might be getting out a little more than I am, but with me, I’m also trying to find work. That’s why I’d like to be a fulltime musician. Id’ rather be worn out from doing what I love than doing anything else. A job gets in the way of the music, but I’ve got to pay the bills, you know?
LS: What kind of stuff have you been working on lately?
RL: Back in October of 2012, I went down to Beaird Music Group in Nashville, Tennessee and recorded a new song. But let me back up a little bit. My cousin [and country musician] John Berry was down in Nashville for the Inspirational Country Music Awards week and called me up and told me that all the people down there were really cool. He said that I needed to come down there and hang out. At the time, I was still working, so I took a couple of days off and went down there. One of the guys who was there came up to this jam session they were having on the roof of their hotel and he asked me if I was John Berry’s cousin. I told him I was, and he was like, “Well, get up there and play a song.” So I played some of my music and he comes up to me afterwards and says, “I’d like for you to send me some CDs.” I told him, “I ain’t gonna send you squat. I’ll go down to my truck and get some for you right now.” [laughs] Then he emails me a few days later and says that they’re working on a compilation CD and that John’s going to be on it. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a hoot if you were on there with your cousin?” I told him yeah, but I didn’t have a studio-quality track. So, in talking to John, I got hooked up with Beaird Music Group and wound up recording one of my songs called “Into Her Love” with them. I’m really proud of the way it came out. Around Thanksgiving, they sent the compilation CDs out to about 1,200 inspirational country music radio stations. As a result, my music has been played all over the country.
LS: What is “Into Her Love” all about?
RL: I used to live in Nashville years ago and I was running around near the South Loop, which is near the on-ramp to the freeway. Well, there’s a guy that usually stands there with a cardboard sign. Then, this particular day, this guy had written on the sign, “I want beer. Why lie?” That’s all he had on there. [laughs] I got to thinking about that, though. I was wondering what kind of journey the guy had been on and where he was going, and when I tell this story when I’m playing out somewhere people kind of giggle, but it’s a serious song. It’s a song of hope, of love, and of faith. The guy is trying to turn his life around and the family and kids are praying for him. It’s a really cool song when you look at the meaning and message.
LS: Is that a song you recently wrote?
RL: No, I’ve been playing it out for a while. I’ve played it at most of my recent shows. I don’t know how many years ago I wrote. It was probably around 15 years ago or so that I saw this guy and had the inspiration.
LS: What are you looking at for the future of your music? Are you looking to get a new album together?
RL: Well, I would love to have a benefactor. If I could find a benefactor or benefactors to help me follow the dream, I would love to record a full, 10-12 song album.
LS: Throughout your years of playing, what’s been one of your most memorable experiences?
RL: I’ve had a memorable experience that’s been going on for nine years now. As of last November, I’ve been playing for WPSD’s Chanel 6 Telethon of Stars out of Paducah, KY for nine years. It’s in support of the Lions Club and the Easter Seals. The funds they raise go to four different centers that aid those in the four surrounding states [Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee] with special needs. To me, that’s my holiday every year, just hanging out at the telethon. They pick a location, bring in some kids and adults with special needs, and the artists will go in—mostly the headliner and the co-headliners—and they’ll go around signing programs and whatnot. It’s like Christmas to most of them. It’s very humbling. I feel privileged and honored to be a part of it each year. Charlie Katterjohn, who’s a talent producer, saw me performing over at the Kentucky Opry over in Draffenville, KY a little over nine years ago and asked me if I wanted to be part of it. I’ve participated in the telethon every year since, for nine years straight. There’s just something about hanging out with the special needs folks that’s so great. They’re so appreciative and they stay for the entire 15 hours most of the time. You can go to Telethonofstars.org to find out more information. When we went off the air this last time, we were under $400,000, but more money was pledged—and more money always comes in than what was pledged—so now they’re up over $412,000 in the bank. Seeing that is amazing.
There’s a young lady there that I talk to who’s named Tammy Harris that I’ve adopted as my sister, and she calls me her big brother. I always run around during the event meeting people and networking, and a few years back, four or five years ago, right when they had moved the telethon over to the Carson Center, Tammy came up to me—and this was second year I’d seen her—and she hands me this envelope. It was a “Thank You” card with a photo in it of me and her at the autograph session. It was a great card. And here’s the thing—you never know how you’re going to touch somebody’s life just by talking to them. Well, when Tammy and I were talking, she was telling me that one of her close family members, like a godfather to her, had passed away. He was in the military, so I shared some of my Army experiences with her and we talked about how rough of a time it was for her. Then she told me, “When you talk to me, it’s like the weight of the world is lifted off my shoulders.” Heck, that’s the kind of thing that gets you right there. So, afterwards, I went back to the dressing room—and this was the year I was co-headlining—and I passed the card around to the guys who were jamming with me at the time and said, “This is what it’s all about.” There’s actually a song I wrote called “Touchin’ Folks with the Music.”
LS: That’s your mantra too, isn’t it?
RL: Yep, that’s my mantra; touchin’ folks with the music is what it’s really all about. And that situation with Tammy was just one of many where that concept applies. I’m a member of the Kentucky Country Music Association and, about two years ago, I competed in their statewide competition and went on to the nationals over in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I did a couple songs there and one of them was called “Mother Dear,” which is a song I wrote about Alzheimer’s disease. When I was finished and had come back out, this couple who I had been talking to before followed me. Well, the girl had tears just streaming down her face because her daddy had just passed away three weeks earlier because of Alzheimer’s, so I gave them a CD and talked with them. It’s just times like that, you know, what can you say? If I talk about it too much more I’m going to start crying, because I just get choked up. To me, I just want to share the gift I’ve been given—it’s what I love to do and that’s what I want to do all the time.
LS: Is that ultimately what music is all about to you?
RL: Yes, it’s really all about touching people. You know, some people have their own genres that really work for them, but for me it’s about country, inspirational country, some gospel, and other stuff like that. To me, that’s where it’s at. When I listen to music, I want to understand and connect with what’s being said. Not being able to understand what’s being said is a pet peeve of mine. There are even headliners out there in the country world right now and you can’t understand a doggone thing they’re saying. Or, you go to concert and it’s so loud that you can’t understand what’s being said. I don’t want to do that. When I do a concert, I want to be just loud enough. I want my voice to be out there and I want the music to compliment that. I want it all to work together, but it seems like there are so many artists out there that aren’t doing that. So, when I do have an opportunity to go out and play, that’s one of the things I want to do. I want to make sure the people right off the stage are enjoying the music and that the people in the back can hear it. I want to make sure that nobody’s getting their eardrums blasted out.
LS: When you sit down to write a song, what’s your process?
RL: It’s really different for every song. I have lost so many song ideas over the years because I didn’t write them down. [laughs] I had another song idea the other day, but I didn’t write it down. It was so simple, but now I can’t remember. I can kind of remember little things, but I’d have to really sit down and focus on it. There were times back when I was living in Texas when I got out of the Army and was working as a machinist that I would hear a rhythm in the punching machines. I don’t remember which song it was, but I used that beat to back up the lyrics I wrote. There are other times that I’ll get a tune in my head and I’ll go home and try to find it on the guitar. There are times that it all comes together at the same time, too. I’ve had people give me poems that I’ll see if I can turn into a song sometimes. “Heart of Thunder” is a song that was originally a poem written by a friend, and there was a particular piece of music I’d been working on that fit with it pretty well. I didn’t have to change much at all. I haven’t sat down and written a lot lately, but it comes in spurts.
LS: Over the years, I’m sure you’ve accumulated a lot of song ideas. I bet you have a little stockpile somewhere.
RL: I’m an only child, but there have been plenty of families that I’ve been “adopted” into, and I had a “brother” that passed away down in Florida. I got to go down and see him one more time before he passed and I wrote a song for him. I played it out at the Lions Club here in Madisonville, which I’m a member of, and I think I may have played it out at a couple of other places, but I never looked at it as being finished. Well, while I was getting ready for my [NBC’s] The Voice audition in Atlanta, Georgia, I kind of pulled his song out to look over it. For starters, I don’t like doing acapella performances, but that’s what I had to do at the first round at the audition. So, I was trying to gear myself up to put the same amount of feeling into that kind of performance as I do when I have my guitar. So, after I started playing that song that I wrote for my brother and, after I had changed the arrangement a little, I felt like I could really feel the emotion behind it.
LS: How did your attempt at gaining a lasting spot on The Voice come about?
RL: There’s a young lady that lives down in the Nashville area whose name is Wynston Presley. She’s a pretty cool gal. I met her down there one time at my luthier’s shop—the guy who does all my guitar work—and she came in there, we started talking, and she sang some acapella stuff. She’s got a really powerful voice and we became pretty good friends. So, in trying to encourage me, her and her manager both said that I should try to go down to Atlanta and audition together. That’s how that came about. We all went together.
LS: What do you think are some of the positive aspects of the local music scene and how do you think it could be improved upon?
RL: A positive aspect is that we have a mess of awesome artists, awesome performers, and awesome songwriters. That is the positive thing. I would like to see more of the smaller venues around Madisonville and the general region opening up their doors to the singer-songwriter crew. It would be nice to do a larger scale show together every so often. A few years ago, I hosted a showcase of regional musicians at the Glema Mahr Center for the Arts and that was really cool. I would like to do that again sometime.
LS: And that was set up where people could come in and play and sing whatever they wanted?
RL: Right. I’m going to talk to Brad Downall about doing that again sometime soon. I love working with and mentoring younger musicians, too. I’ve played with Savana Poole here in town. She’s an awesome young lady and her mom and dad are very supportive of her. We played a show together at the Hillside Villa and at the Veteran’s Center in Hanson, where her grandfather was, in the same day around Christmas last year. I like doing stuff like that. I like giving back when I can.
LS: I’ve seen you play at the Lions Club a few times, too.
RL: I’ve played a mess of funerals, weddings, city events, and this, that, and the other over the years. I’ve had weddings where I’ve written a song for a specific theme.
Back when the Acoustic Café used to be open in Madisonville, I was a regular there. There was a lady named Marsha Coke from the Glema Center who came out and she brought her mom and dad. Her dad was suffering from Alzheimer’s and rarely left the rest home at the time, but he came to the show and I did “House of the Rising Sun.” After I got done playing that song, her dad came up to me and shook my hand and didn’t want to let go. Finally, they came and got him and went back to the table. Well, eventually, he passed away. So, they asked me to play at his funeral, and one of the songs they wanted me to do—because he had a really good time seeing me play it before and it was, as they said, the happiest he’d been in years—was the “House of the Rising Sun.” I played that and “Amazing Grace,” but that was probably the strangest song I’ve ever played at a funeral. I explained it to the people working with the funeral home and they understood, because it was special to his kids and his wife. It was just the last time he’d been able to have a really, really good time, so that made me feel really good. I do those kind of things for my heart, not for money.
There’s this song on Shenandoah’s 2000 album called “The Booger Song”, and it’s not something you’d want to play at a restaurant. [laughs] Well, I’m what you'd call a fulltime part-timer at the Glema Mahr Center, and one year a few years back, I was helping out with the Summer Arts Academy. So, this one day, they asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the kids. I was like, “No problem.” Then, the next day, they’re all sitting there on the stage, I get up on a stool and I’m singing all these songs, and then I do “The Booger Song.” You get three different reactions here: one is “Huh?” another is “Ewww!” and another is laughter. [laughs] Most of them were cracking up, though. Then we went out front for pizza and one of the young men came up to me and said, “Mr. Ray-Ray,” which is one of my nicknames, “that booger song was inappropriate.” [laughs] It was funny, man. There are a lot of little things like that that have happened over the years that make it fun.
LS: So, what’s in the future for Ray Ligon?
RL: I would like to get to a point that I’m so busy with music that I don’t have to worry about a day job; a place where I can more than pay my bills. I want to be so fulltime that I can travel. I want to get a band pulled together eventually or some session players that I can get a schedule worked out with. I’d love to get a tour going where I can open up for someone, but it’s got to be right. I kind of feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place, because I want it all so bad, but I’m so covered up with life and work and a job and this, that, and the other, that the music can sometimes seem like it's only a small portion of my life. It truly makes the music suffer. There are a lot of times you come home and are ready to sit back and relax instead of writing and practicing, you know? Then, on the other hand, I think about the success stories of other artists I’ve heard over the years: “Yeah, I moved to Nashville and lived in the back of my car for a month, but now I’ve made it.” Then I think that I have no room to complain. It’s a two-sided thing. I praise God for what I have, the talent he’s given me, and the desire I have to do it, but I just want more opportunities to get out and do it. I’d like to have three of four things every week, or more if I could. I’d like to branch out all over the world. I’d like to get to a point where I’m doing so well with music that I can help others, whether it’s in their dream of pursuing music or in their personal life. I’d like to be able to help the Lions Club out more, especially with their civic pursuits.
Locally, I’d like to see smaller venues opening up to entertainers during the week—not just on the weekend. Another thing I’d like to see are more family-oriented venues opening up. Places can still sell alcohol, while remaining family-friendly, like the Crowded House for example.
LS: In closing, feel free to say anything else you’d like.
RL: Well, I just want to say “Thank You” to all the fans who support what each and every performer around here likes to do. I’m just one of many in this area. We have a mess of great musicians and artists out here that deserve respect and support. All of us should have the respect and support here in our hometown. There’s a lot of great talent out there. I’d like to see that happen more and I’d like to be doing even more with music. I just want to live my life playing music.
To learn more about Ray Ligon and his music, visit his official site at www.RayLigon.com. You can also find Ray on Facebook.
To hear Ray’s music, click the ReverbNation player attached below this video or follow one of the following track links:
“Touchin’ Folks with the Music”
“It Feels Right”
Sugg Street Post
Writing/Interview by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp and Jessi Smith