Even though he curated the material with deep love, Tony Glover recognizes at least one thing his old compatriot Dave Ray might hate about the new three-disc album “Dave Ray: Legacy.”
“He was kind of embarrassed by the Lead Belly stuff,” Glover said — words that fans might shun.
Their Minneapolis-reared acoustic trio Koerner, Ray & Glover made its mark internationally in the early 1960s as some of the first white kids playing African-American blues classics, influencing everyone from their friend Bob Dylan to John Lennon, Bonnie Raitt and Beck. Ray, in particular, had a penchant for channeling blues master Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter with his deep voice and snaky guitar talent, as evidenced by three of the earliest songs on the 55-track rarities collection.
“He thought later it was too much slavish imitation,” Glover explained. “But when you consider it’s a 19-year-old kid playing Lead Belly tunes as good as Lead Belly played them, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Spanning four decades, “Legacy” shows the arc of Ray’s musical evolution from an imitator to an altruistic, virtuosic purveyor of acoustic blues and other roots music. The three-disc anthology arrived two weeks ago via St. Paul folk label Red House Records, which on Sunday is hosting a live tribute to the singer/guitarist nicknamed “Snaker” at the Minnesota History Center.
Ray died of cancer Thanksgiving morning 2002 at his home in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood. He was 59. Glover, who was his harmonica-blowing musical partner through most of Ray’s career, said “Legacy” would ideally have arrived on the 10th anniversary of Ray’s death, but “I had a lot of tape to go through.”
Glover took up the job of sifting through hours and hours and boxes and boxes of recordings. Compiled chronologically, they range from standard studio outtakes and live tracks to one song from a public-access-TV show and even a radio commercial for Mervyn’s department store.
“I often had six or seven different versions of one tune, ranging from the early years to the early ’90s,” Glover recalled.
The early recordings include live tracks from a University of Minnesota hangout, the Coffee Break, and an outtake from the session that became KR&G’s first album for Elektra Records — a version of Lead Belly’s “Fannin Street” played at breakneck speed. As Glover recounts in the 32-page liner notes, “The guy running the session was a militant teetotaler … which meant Dave dropping Dexamyl for the session.”
From there, the anthology meanders from late-’60s/’70s tracks by Ray’s electric bands to ’80s cuts with Glover from a weekly gig at the 400 Bar. Some of the best material is from the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the hip indie-rock labels Rough Trade and Tim Kerr Records put out albums by the duo, including the out-of-print 1990 record “Ashes in My Whiskey” (four of its tracks are featured here).
“Ashes” followed several years of regular bar gigging without any recording activity. Said Glover, “Dave and I were just ripe and ready for it. Dave especially was just kind of pent up, and you can hear it. ”
“You’d go see them then [in the late ’80s] and there’d be 12 people there, which just seemed criminal to me,” recalled Mark Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records, who put out a 1987 live Ray and Glover album on his own label and helped facilitate the other deals.
The labels “loved those guys,” Trehus said, “but they didn’t really know what to do with them.”
In the ’90s, Ray, along with Glover and their trio partner Spider John Koerner, was recognized as a legacy act by arts institutions such as the Guthrie Theater and Toledo Art Museum, where some of the final “Legacy” recordings were made. Two others come from Ray’s last hometown gig, a bill with Boston picker Geoff Muldaur at the Cedar Cultural Center three weeks before his death.
After struggling through a First Avenue gig in March 2002, Ray was diagnosed with lung cancer that metastasized to the brain. He was given six months to live.
“He soldiered on best he could — and as long as he could — because he clearly loved playing music,” said Glover.
The later recordings, Glover believes, show how Ray “got more and more relaxed and almost conversational, but maintained a lot of intensity, power and control.” Akin to their old crony Dylan, Ray suffered a bad motorcycle accident in the late ’60s, which Glover sees as a turning point in how he approached music.
“He learned how to do more single-string and flat-string picking and jazz kind of stuff,” Glover said. “Later on, you hear him casually intoning [songs] without putting too much effort in, but it’s still very moving. The guitar parts become more spare, and he chooses his notes more carefully.”
Ray’s widow, Mary Jane “MJ” Mueller, was certainly moved by the music on “Legacy” when she heard the final product.
“It’s bittersweet and a bit overwhelming for me, but of course I’m grateful to them for doing this,” she said, singling out Glover in particular. “He’s the one who knew this music better than anyone. I think Dave would’ve wanted him to be the one to do it.”
Mueller laughed over how Ray would have been less approving of the hoopla around Sunday’s tribute, which includes a St. Paul City Council resolution to rename a portion of Franklin Avenue in the Prospect Park neighborhood as Dave Ray Avenue. (That’s where Ray long kept an office for his day job as an insurance salesman.)
In addition to Glover and Koerner, Sunday’s show will feature some of Ray’s other collaborators, including Willie Murphy, the Radiators’ Camile Baudoin and his 6L6 partner Jeff Dagenhardt, plus acolytes such as Charlie Parr and members of the Front Porch Swinging Liquor Pigs.
“Dave would’ve called all this a bunch of B.S.,” Mueller said, “but secretly he’d have loved it. And certainly he deserves all of it.”