Vintage Guitar - July 2016 - Open - 24
pal of Chet, Friend of Les
hester and Lester were enamored of his
talent. Moreover, they called Ray Cummins a friend, and his journey includes turning
adversity into a career as one of the country's
more-respected guitar soloists.
Though a modest guy, Cummins would have
every right to boast of his amazing credentials.
For starters, he's enjoyed headline status at the
Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) for
20 years. He frequently appears as a guest artist
with major symphony and pops orchestras,
and he's been a featured artist on the Grand
Ole Opry. In addition, he's a veteran of more
than 500 recording dates and more than
200 television shows including "Hee Haw"
and "Nashville Now." He's been inducted to
the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame,
performed with Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Roy
Clark, and Merle Travis, and has toured with
many of the biggest names in show business.
Cummins was a true child prodigy. At
age five, his folks bought him an accordion
on which he exhibited extraordinary talent.
Proclaimed a virtuoso by age 10, a year later
he was also excelling on trumpet under the
tutelage of the Cincinnati Symphony's firstchair trumpet master. By seventh grade, he
was the only junior-high student to play with
the high school band.
But that summer, he developed a low-grade
fever that left him bedridden for several
months. Exams revealed a lesion on his lung,
and his days playing trumpet were over.
Young Ray was crestfallen, but only until his
dad brought home a guitar and a Chet Atkins
record to help assuage his son's sorrow. The
album was Chet's Pop Goes the Country with
the Boston Pops Orchestra featuring "Alabama Jubilee" and a number of other country
standards familiar to any kid from the South.
Score one for dad.
During his long recuperation, Ray listened,
learned, and eventually mastered the guitar
enough to make the big time working for
country singer Kenny Price, whom Atkins
had signed to RCA and who toured regularly.
But Price took only Ray on the road with him.
"I'd walk out with Kenny, who didn't have a
band, and play 'Black Mountain Rag' or 'When
You Wish Upon a Star' on my classical. I originally thought I was there to back him, but he
featured me. He was so nice and helped me so
much. And when Kenny would open for Ernest
Tubb, he'd use Ernest's band. So there I was,
age 20, with all these great Nashville jazz cats.
"Because of Kenny, I also got to hang with
Joe Maphis and luthier Hascal Haile, who
made the Atkins prototype for the solidbody
classical model that Gibson introduced as the
Chet Atkins CE in 1981."
His work with Price and Atkins also led to
the latter calling him a friend and pronouncing
him, "One of the best fingerpickers anywhere."
"I used to visit Chet frequently at his office
and we'd often play Nato Lima's 'Blue Angel'
and take turns accompanying each other,"
In addition, Cummins composed the melodic, commercial (and challenging) "Summer
Daze," a tune that became solidly identified
with Atkins, whose recording of the tune has
been deconstructed and transcribed in many
Moreover, his exceptional talent allowed
Cummins to cultivate friendships with many
other famous musicians. The guitarist was befriended by Les Paul and is among the exclusive
group of pickers invited to sit in with Les at
the Iridium Club in New York City.
"A mutual friend sent Les my recordings and
the next thing I know, Les was on the phone.
We talked for an hour and he invited me to
play at the Iridium. I sat in six or seven times."
When Cummins performs annually at
CAAS, you'll often see an affable Tommy
Emmanuel playing drums behind him.
"There are guys at CAAS playing so much
like Tommy now that they're even dancing like
him," Cummins laughs.
Today, Cummins' guitar arsenal includes
his signature nylon-string McCullough, a
'98 Ramirez, a '61 Gibson B-25, '98 Gibson
Country Gentleman, an '85 Telecaster, and
his Gibson Chet electric nylon-string. All, save
the Ramirez, are processed through his 1989
Roland JC77. - Jim Carlton