25 Words or MoreJanuary 7th, 2003
Sean Ray is a musician originally from the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He plays multiple instruments but as of late, is primarily focused on banjo, guitar and pedal steel. From sideman to songwriter, bandleader to engineer, his musical background has been quite diverse.
1984 was the year he acquired his first guitar. A white Squier Stratocaster. Not long after, he traded up to a sunburst Telecaster. Up until the summer of 1985, he was listening to The Who, The Beatles, AC/DC, Jethro Tull and other “Classic Rock” bands. But that summer, he was exposed to a handful of albums that would permanently alter his musical direction. The most influential albums of that blissful summer were:
Bob Dylan’s first album:
“Rust Never Sleeps”
The Grateful Dead:
“For The Faithful”
And most importantly:
“Old And In The Way”
This was his first exposure to bluegrass music and the banjo.
As if that weren’t enough, he also saw Steve Martin on a “Saturday Night Live” rerun and that sealed the deal. He had to get a banjo. Banjos weren’t real easy to find around those parts and they were expensive so it wasn’t until late 1988 that he finally saved enough money to buy an Alvarez banjo that he found at “Village Music” in Deerfield Illinois. Within three months, he knew enough rolls to carry a tune and started the band “Geezer Junction” with his brother Brian and their friend Danny Schafer.
Sometime in 1989, he got his first mandolin, a Washburn M5. In the summer of 1990, he got an opportunity to play fiddle for the state of Michigan at “Fort Michilamackinac” up in Mackinac City. The only problem was that he didn’t own or play a fiddle. He knew it was tuned the same as a mandolin so he packed his belongings into his ’78 VW Westfalia and headed to Mackinac to convince the State Park Commission that if given a fiddle and a months time he could learn how to play. Miraculously, they went for it and he spent the summer of ’90 entertaining tourists as the “Fort Fiddler”.
That same summer he was once again joined by his brother, Brian and some other friends for a new incarnation of “Geezer Junction”. They somehow managed to land a gig at “Bliss Fest” and that’s where he got his first dose of Greg Cahill from the band “Special Consensus”. After witnessing the pyrotechnics of Mr. Cahill’s banjo playing it was clear that Sean had a lot to learn. Fortunately, Greg lived in Evanston, Ill., and the following spring, he was gracious enough to give Sean a crash course in banjo basics.
In 1991, Sean turned 21 and could finally gig in bars. He wasted no time getting hired on as a sideman for “Easy Louise”, a local country band in which he played Telecaster and banjo. Playing five sets a night, three times a week really got his chops into shape. However, top forty country left a bad taste in his mouth.
In a desire to rid his brain of the “Plastic Country”, he had been subjected to, he decided to play banjo in the reggae band called “The I-Lites”. As you can imagine, this was an awkward situation and only lasted a few months.
In 1992, Sean moved out to Durango, Colorado, where his brother Brian was living. There he met, Sand Sheff and Mack Starks, a few characters that he would later join up with in a completely different state, both physically and mentally. He also spent a year playing in the regional country band “Moments Notice”.
After a year of playing biker bars and Indian reservations, he decided to pack it in and head back to Illinois.
1994, was the year he recorded his first album “Travelogue” it took only three months to write and record but wouldn’t be released for a couple of years due to lack of funds.
1995, was the year Sean decided (against his better judgment) to move to Nashville, Tennessee, where his brother Brian had relocated the previous year. Oddly enough, when he wound up on his brothers doorstep, he wasn’t alone. Sand Sheff had showed up just moments before. Both Sean and Sand needed a band and a roommate so they decided to pool their resources and “Buck 50” was born. In addition to recording two albums with “Buck 50”, Sean also played pedal steel on a couple of “Farmer Not So John” albums with his brother Brian and Mack Starks. Through his connection with the “Farmers”, he got a chance to play pedal steel on an Iris Dement cut, “I Miss A Lot Of Trains”
Sometime around 1996, Sean and his drinkin’ buddies decided they should be a bit more productive, so they started a band. That band was “Pumpskully”. They never really planned on playing outside the basement so they wrote and played songs that vehemently opposed all things “Nashville, Music Row”. Little did they know, they weren’t the only musicians in town that harbored a deep disdain for the Nashville hierarchy. Well one thing led to another, and they were invited to play on “Billy Blocks Western Beat Roots Revival” live radio broadcast. After Billy gave them a long lecture on FCC standards, they hit the stage for their first live performance. Expecting to offend most of the crowd, the band was a bit surprised when they received actual applause and in fact, one man in the crowd was especially taken with them. That man was Rob (Fookie) Bleetstein and would later become their manager.
Between the years of 1996-1999, things were good for Pumpskully. They played a lot of gigs, including SXSW and Willie Nelson’s Fourth Of July Picnic in Luckenbach, Texas, and even recorded an album with Buddy Cage on pedal steel but ultimately the band imploded.
Disillusioned with the “music-biz” Sean took the advice of Neil Young’s lyrics and “Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand”. He wound up in Minturn, Colorado, where he blended into the anonymity of mountain life from 2000-2003.
In the fall of 2003, he decided that he had had enough of mountain life and once again packed it in and hit the road.
Sean currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is enjoying the pleasures of a simple life.