Fade to blue: Dave Ray's death is final note in Koerner, Ray & Glover legacy


Koerner, Ray & Glover performed at the Newport Folk Festival in the '60s.

A week before he died, Dave Ray refused to talk about his "mortality," as he put it. He sounded annoyed even to have to use the word.

"I've got a lot of thinking to do, and I'd like to do it on my own," Ray said, lying in a recliner at his home in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood on Nov. 21. "I certainly don't need someone else's interpretation of what I think."

Dave (Snaker) Ray was nothing if he wasn't direct and to the point. It's part of what made him such an admired musician. It also might help explain why his first and best-known group, pioneering Twin Cities folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover, never got much mainstream attention in its 41 years of performance.

"Anytime we met people in a position to give our career a boost, one of the three of us always managed to insult them in one way or another," Ray said, laughing.

The singer and guitarist, 59, agreed to an interview only because he was promised the resulting story would focus on the legacy of Koerner, Ray and Glover and not his health.

The trio had another of its semiannual local gigs at First Avenue coming up. It was pretty well known the show might be their last. Ray had been diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma in May, and the cancerous masses that started in his lungs were spreading rapidly.

Now Friday's concert has become a tribute to Ray, led by his old bandmates, singer/guitarist "Spider" John Koerner and harmonica player Tony Glover.

Circumstances have changed, clearly. But a promise is still a promise.

A case for KR&G

"We've never done it the 1-2-3-4 way," Glover said recently, recounting a scene in a video documentary about Koerner, Ray and Glover that shows the three musicians tapping their feet in different time to the same song.

The image is akin to seeing the wheels of a car spinning at different speeds in opposite directions. But the thing still drives.

Till the very end, KR&G could still kick it in gear, too. The all-acoustic trio stayed on track despite scant industry support, meandering solo careers and divergent personal lives.

Ray demonstrated KR&G's trademark resilience just six days before he died Thanksgiving morning: He played his last show with the trio at a roots-music conference at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"Ragged but right," Glover said before the show, talking about their music and, really, everything else. "That's what we always aimed for."

You've probably read these kinds of music articles before: "This is the best band you've never heard of." "This is the band that started [insert music trend here]." "This is the band that influenced the Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan."

All these statements could be wheeled out for Koerner, Ray and Glover -- except we'd have to throw in Beck, Bonnie Raitt and countless local musicians to make the latter point.

In many ways, though, the true triumph of these three musicians comes from the less glamorous details.

All three showed caution, thrift and quiet determination in their long careers. Go ahead and call them Minnesota values: They never spent a lot of money or time making records; never had a real manager or booking agent; never got overly ambitious about what the music business might have to offer. But heck if they didn't make a lot of great records and have a lot of good times.

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