Raymond W. McLain

by Erin Cline      5/8/00

3 Raymond McLains

When you ask him about his childhood, it is the instruments he remembers. 
"Daddy never put the instruments away," says Raymond W. McLain. "He always left them out because he wanted us kids to know that the instruments were there to use." 
McLain recalls once, when he was running through the house, he accidentally knocked over his father's beloved Martin guitar. His heart sank as he watched it fall against the stone fireplace. He picked it up, and was relieved to see that it wasn't scratched. "Did you scratch it, Son?" his father asked calmly from a nearby chair. "No," he answered, and his father responded "Oh." Telling the story, McLain says, "You know what? Daddy would have said the same thing if I had scratched it."

Almost 20 years later, young Raymond was standing beside his father onstage at Carnegie Hall, headlining with his siblings as the McLain Family Band. The family bluegrass band toured all 50 states and 62 foreign countries, making television appearances including the Today Show, and Grand Ole Opry Live. 
So how did this family from a tiny mountain community in Kentucky make their way to what the Washington Post described as "a joyous celebration of Americana"? The answer lies in the transmission of music from Raymond K. McLain to his son, Raymond W. McLain, in which music is a craft and tool to be used for communication with others.
"There's something very basic about music," Raymond W. McLain says. "It affects us on so many levels." 
With penetrating dark eyes and a warm smile, McLain's face becomes lively and animated when he talks about music. He shakes his head, as if he's trying to focus a picture in his head.
"How do you describe a sunset?" he says, as if the picture has suddenly become clearer. "You could describe the physical: the sun goes down behind the mountain. But it wouldn't have the effect of the golden glow. So if I were to describe music, I'd talk about the feeling of it."

The feeling of music, he says, is what best characterizes his father.
"That's his way," McLain says, spontaneously bursting forth with a string of adjectives. "Gentle and generous. Strong and wildly creative. Intelligent. Instinctive."
His father grew up in Lexington, Ky., and though his family was academic, they also came from a long line of traditional musicians.
"His grandfather came from County Donegal in Ireland. He was a singer and a story teller," McLain says. "His mother would sing with her sister. And Grandfather was also musical-he was in a banjo band. Daddy grew up in that environment."
His father majored in music theory in college, and went on to do graduate work in music theory and folklore at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University. Eventually, he settled with his wife and their growing family in the tiny mountain community of Hindman, Ky., where his love of mountain music thrived. 
"He traveled and played for country dancing, and sometimes he'd take me," McLain says. "He loved all kinds of music and played all kinds of music, whether it was blues, Dixieland, classical, or band music."

As a child, McLain remembers falling asleep at night to the sound of musicians playing in the living room. His father's career continued to develop, and in 1971 he accepted a faculty position at Berea College in Berea, Ky. As music director for the Berea College Country Dancers, he performed at the White House when John F. Kennedy was President. However, even in the midst of success, his father's attention was focused not on himself, but on his children.
"Daddy wanted music to be in our lives," McLain says. "He wanted us to love music, and so he showed us everything that music could be."
McLain emphasizes that his father never forced or required the children to practice. As he and his younger sisters Alice and Ruth were around music, they simply wanted to play it.
Raymond K. McLain agrees with his son's description of this process.
"Making music is a compulsion," the elder McLain says. "It never is a chore to practice, but rather a privilege. I always felt that preparing ourselves as musicians was the best way that I could think of in preparation for an uncertain world."
Eastern Kentucky lent itself to this type of preparation, he says.

"Hindman in particular was cut off from the mainstream geographically and as a result kept its old ways longer than elsewhere," he says, adding that the tradition of making music was very important. "There was no television; there was lots of time."
His son vividly remembers how time was spent.
"My earliest musical memory is sitting on my dad's lap while he was playing ragtime tunes on the piano," McLain says. "I also remember riding on his shoulders when he would dance sometimes. I loved it. It was a grand occasion."
As he got older, McLain says, he naturally wanted to play music like his father. So he would go with his father when he performed, and as he learned to play, he joined in. 
Like his father, he says environment of Eastern Kentucky was an important part of the process.
"In the mountains, people are very open-minded about music. There is a real cross-section of music, with both the old-time and modern styles. A lot of people in our area played banjo, about as many as played guitar," he says, a smile spreading slowly across his face. He chuckles, saying, "We were traveling for quite awhile before I realized everybody didn't play banjos."

By 1972, McLain, his father, and his two sisters were performing quite often at local meetings and social functions. They started getting invitations to play "further and further from home," McLain says. The family began making records, with young Raymond playing banjo, his father on guitar, Alice on mandolin, Ruth playing bass, and all four singing.
When McLain graduated from Berea College with a bachelor's degree in communication in 1973, the family was beginning to tour globally, and had invitations to do concerts all over Europe. They embarked on their first world tour, which took them as far away as Japan.

Regardless of their destination, though, the McLains seemed to take the hills of Kentucky with them. As the Washington, D.C., Courier-Journal reported after a concert, the McLains "turned the politely applauding audience into foot-stomping, whistling Kentuckians." After a concert in 1977, the New York Times wrote, "One of the most impressive things about the McLains is their big appeal to audiences who would not usually like bluegrass music." 
When asked about this universal appeal, McLain refers to his father's "resourcefulness." He gives the example of the family's tour of the Middle East, on which they held a workshop in Lebanon.
"About 50 to 60 people came-some with band instruments like tubas, and some who were voice majors at the university. They all came to learn how to play bluegrass music, and none of them spoke much English," he says, smiling. Then his eyes grow big in amazement, and he says, "Daddy thought, well, almost everybody can count in English. So he wrote a counting song right there on the spot, made up entirely of numbers. Within minutes he had everyone singing along, having a great time." 

His father says music is a form of communication, as his son's example shows.
"I think of music reverently," the elder McLain says. "Making music is sharing something wonderful. These feelings are expressed in the words to some of the songs we have written: 'Cause music's got the power for turning things around.'"
They performed those songs all over the world, from Afghanistan to Iceland. As the family grew, the band grew, with spouses and younger siblings adding their voices and instruments to the songs. 
It is not difficult to see why the Kentucky General Assembly passed House Resolution No. 40 praising the McLain Family Band for having "upheld and fostered the Commonwealth's proud tradition of bluegrass music; for using music to portray the story of the common folk and the daily happenings which color their lives."

"I was always taught by my father that music is made up of rhythm, harmony, and melody," the younger McLain says. "But the important ingredient is how music makes you feel."
"I want to feel music when I play it, and I want to play it for you and I want you to feel it. When you play, I want to feel it," he says. "Music is among people." 
This, McLain says, is what he learned from his father.
"It's important to me. It was important to him. He never told me that stuff-he lived it," McLain says. "He taught the lessons by living them."
His father doesn't have one defining lesson, McLain points out, partly because so many of the lessons weren't just about music, but life. 
"The lesson is that music is life. It's the same thing," he says. "There is music in everything."

"Daddy always said, the most important thing anyone in a band can do is make all the other members of the band sound good," McLain says. "And that applies to all of life."
After spending 18 years of his life performing with the family, his father decided to retire from touring regularly.
"I think he was tired of the road," his son remembers. "He always said no one paid him to play music. They paid him to be away from home, to eat on the road, to sleep on the road. But they didn't pay him to play music-he did that because he wanted to."
McLain and the rest of the family continued touring until his sisters felt they needed to spend more time at home with their families. However, he emphasizes that this was not the end of the McLain Family Band.
"I don't think of it as if it's ended," he says.
When you ask him why, he responds with a grin.
"Ruth and I are playing next weekend in Georgia," he says simply.

After his family stopped touring regularly, McLain spent ten years as a member of Jim & Jesse's Virginia Boys, and today he is a bluegrass and old-time music festival favorite. As the Richmond News Leader in Richmond, Va. writes, "His fiddling is simply incredible, a whirlwind of spirit and motion that can fill any hall."
This is an accurate description not only of McLain's fiddling, banjo playing, and singing, but of his personality, both onstage and off.
His father sometimes comes to hear him play, perhaps holding one of his younger grandchildren proudly as he watches from backstage. McLain says the lessons his father taught him are still alive.
"They're part of me. They shape the way I feel and the way I live my life."
When asked what his greatest professional accomplishment is, McLain smiles sheepishly.
"If I'm trying to make a press release, I talk about playing at Carnegie Hall, Kennedy and Lincoln Centers, and the Grand Ole Opry," he says. "But that's not what it's about. Music is among people. I want to enjoy music and share the pleasure."
Again, he refers to his father's words.
"Daddy always told us that the most important concert of your career is the one you're giving right now," McLain says. "It doesn't matter if you played in Carnegie Hall last week. If you're playing in a small high school auditorium tonight, that's the most important concert of your career."

Once, when the family was touring overseas, McLain says he became very homesick. He was standing outside, and his father came and stood beside him. As the wind blew across their faces, his father said, "You know, this is the very same wind that once blew in Kentucky." This experience inspired McLain and his father to write one of the band's most well known songs, "Kentucky Wind." Embodied in that song is the message one father taught his children deep in the hills of Kentucky-a message they carried all over the world. Like the wind in Kentucky, it is a message that still endures today.

If I could only see things as the wind does
In its restless journey through the land.
Then I'd know the meaning of it's message
And I'd shout it out for all to understand.
Sing to me, Kentucky wind, sing to me.

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