Ray Deaton has two favorite musical memories. The runner-up concerns his band getting to play the Grand Ole Opry. The winner explains why his band should get to perform there any time they want.
Hold on — you’ll see what I mean.
Deaton, 45, is the bass player and bass vocalist with IIIrd Tyme Out, one of the most celebrated and successful bluegrass bands in recent memory. Besides snagging the International Bluegrass Association’s Vocal Group of the Year Award for four years running, the quintet has walked off with almost every other high-profile accolade possible for pickin’ fast and pretty, singing on a dime, and mixing tradition and innovation up so sweetly that you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins.
IIIrd Tyme Out has pedigree to burn: Founding members Deaton, guitarist/smooth-as-silk lead vocalist Russell Moore and fiddle player Mike Hartgrove are all veterans of Doyle Lawson’s backing band, Quicksilver, while mandolin player/vocalist Wayne Benson and banjo player/vocalist Steve Dilling cut their teeth in Livewire and the Lonesome River Band, respectively.
The group’s two Rounder albums, Letter to Home (1995) and Living on the Other Side (1996), are bluegrass prizes. The former sparkles with modern flourishes (including a surprising a capella take on the Platters’ “Only You”); the latter is a gospel-harmony Hallmark card that rings as true as a country church bell.
IIIrd Tyme Out delivers the goods because they believe in the goods. While Nashvegas country makes a big show of being about family and tradition, don’t believe the hype: Those jewels belong to bluegrass. And Deaton is the living proof.
A little history is in order.
When Deaton was 11, tragedy struck his family. One of his uncles, a policeman, was murdered along with two other officers, after they uncovered a car-theft ring.
“The [car thieves] handcuffed all three of ’em together and made ’em get down on their knees, and shot ’em,” Deaton recounted by phone from his Suwanee, Ga., home. “They took their own pistols, and shot ’em all in the back of the head.”
At that time, Deaton was already playing music with two other uncles, Roger and Randall Everett (who used to gig around north Georgia as the Country Ramblers, but now perform as the Everett Brothers). When friends would drop by to offer condolences to Deaton’s grandparents, the trio would often end up playing. But the music soon took on a life of its own, becoming a weekly affair — with a growing number of guests sitting in.
Before long, the Everett home couldn’t hold the crowd that showed up. A room was added onto the house, with a small stage at one end.
“People who didn’t pick, they’d sit out in the music room,” Deaton explains, “and whoever wanted to pick, they’d just get up on the stage and jam and have a big time.”
But when space became an issue yet again, some friends donated an old boarding house, which was torn down and hauled to the Everetts’ property. Family, friends and fans all pitched in to build Everett’s Music Barn — now a bluegrass institution — out of the scraps.
Even the kids helped out. “We pulled the nails out of the wood, straightened ’em, cleaned the wood, and stacked it up,” Deaton recalls. “We had five-gallon buckets after five-gallon buckets of nails.”
Those nails were made of bluegrass gold: Since the Music Barn was built, 30-odd years ago, it’s hosted many genre greats: Lawson, the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, the Bluegrass Cardinals and Lost and Found among them.
“I don’t plan on ever letting that little place close,” Deaton asserts, “because it’s part of my whole life, and whole history.”
There’s a great, true story about when Lawson was visiting the Music Barn some years ago, and a young Deaton played him a tape by his first band, Clearwater. Deaton was the group’s mandolin player and tenor singer, but when Clearwater’s bass vocalist got sick and couldn’t sing, Deaton filled in the low vocal parts on two songs. When Lawson heard the result, he offered Deaton a job — as bass player and bass vocalist.
“I said, ‘I’m a tenor singer; I ain’t no bass singer,'” remembers Deaton. “Doyle said, ‘The heck you ain’t.'” (Deaton may well be the most recognizable bass singer in bluegrass today.)
Deaton’s number-one musical memory is, in fact, of his very first professional concert with Lawson, a gospel show in Gainesville, Ga., about 25 miles from Suwanee.
When Deaton got there, his mother was in the audience. “She came down the aisle and got in the front row,” he remembers. “And she sat there and cried through the whole show.”
During an intermission, his mother told Lawson a story. She began by asking Deaton if he remembered what he’d told her after they’d been to see another show in Gainesville — with bluegrass greats Flatt & Scruggs, back when Deaton was a kid. Deaton confessed that he’d forgotten.
“She said, ‘We was in an old ’50s Chevrolet, and we was comin’ down the road, and you was settin’ up on the edge of the seat, holdin’ onto the defroster vents. You looked over at me and said, ‘Mom, do you know what I want to be when I grow up? … An entertainer. I wanna pick and sing like folks like Flatt & Scruggs’s doin’.'”
At that point in the story, says Deaton, his mother asked him if he remembered the venue for that long-ago show. He didn’t. It turned out to be the same building they were in right then.
“She had a big ol’ tear runnin’ down her face,” he continues. “She said, ‘You finally made it, didn’t you son?’
“The following Tuesday,” Deaton adds quietly, “my mom died. She only got to see me do that one show.
“I’ve got tapes of when I was a little boy, where … I’d play the guitar, and my mom would sing with me. Gold wouldn’t buy those. She always carried me around to all the shows. She was behind me; she wanted me to make it really bad. She helped me buy my first mandolin.
“And then,” he muses, “she got to see me do what I wanted to do. That was on a Saturday night. And I come home on a Monday night, and … on Tuesday mornin’ [I went] to put Freon in her car, and I found her dead in the chair.”