Legendary Radio Personality Ray Davis Passes

Ray DavisRay Davis, former host of the Ray Davis Show on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, died on Wednesday evening, December 3, from leukemia. He was 81 years old. He spent 65 years broadcasting, many of them in the Washington/Baltimore area. Ray retired in 2013.

Ray Davis joined WAMU 88.5 in 1985 to host Saturday Bluegrass, and shared hosting duties for the weekday afternoon program, Bluegrass Country, with the late Jerry Gray until 2001. He hosted three live hours of traditional bluegrass music on The Ray Davis Show weekdays and Sundays, on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country until his retirement in 2013.

Davis provided area bluegrass fans and online listeners worldwide with a daily dose of the traditional American art form, from prison songs and “plum pitiful” tunes to the great train rides – and train wrecks – of bluegrass music, all delivered with Davis’ encyclopedic knowledge of the artists and the music.

More than a DJ, Ray Davis was both a musicologist and an archivist who took listeners on a stroll down bluegrass music’s memory lane. His specialties, the plum pitiful tunes, were tearjerkers that explored universal themes of death, betrayal, and jealousy.

Davis began his radio career at the age of 15, when he left his boyhood home in Wango, Md., for a job at WDOV-AM in Dover, Del. He had jobs at other small town stations around the country, as well as a stint south of the border at XERF, the Mexican mail-order station that made Wolfman Jack famous, where he learned to be a radio pitchman. Davis returned to the east coast and spent 38 years hosting a popular bluegrass program from Johnny’s Used Cars for WBMD in Baltimore, MD. In 1962, he began recording some of the nation’s finest bluegrass musicians and selling these recordings under his own label, Wango.

Davis hosted bluegrass festivals and concerts around the country, including the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival and the Arcadia Music Festival. He also produced 15 hours of bluegrass music each week for WAMU’s Bluegrass Country. When he was not acting as program host or concert emcee, chances are Davis would be holed up in his basement studio producing CDs from hundreds of bluegrass tapes he’d recorded over the years. Since the 1960s, Davis had been enlisting friends like Carter and Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Bill Harrell, the Warrior River Boys, the Gillis Brothers, Owen Saunders, and a host of others to make his so-called “basement tapes.” The basement tapes included previously unreleased jam sessions with many of these legendary bluegrass artists.

Ray’s honesty, humor, and forceful on-air presence will be missed by us all.