Nashville Cats: Salute to Ray Edenton

October 6, 2007
As one the of most recorded guitarists in American history, Ray Edenton will forever be linked with the small, special group of session musicians known as the Nashville A-Team. Because the original A-Team is considered such an exclusive group, Edenton admits that he’s often asked why such a small cast of players appeared on so many classic recordings.

“It was several things,” Edenton explained during the latest installment of the ongoing Nashville Cats series, a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum program honoring top musicians from country music’s past. “You had to learn real quick, and you had to adapt real quick. If you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t do sessions. I’ve known several fantastic musicians who could not play sessions. When the red light came on, they froze. They couldn’t adapt quick enough.”

Interviewed by museum instrument curator Bill Lloyd, Edenton addressed his musical development and career for more than ninety minutes before a reverent audience in the Ford Theater on October 6. He estimated that he’s played on more than fifteen thousand sessions across various genres of music, working with everyone from Country Music Hall of Fame members Marty Robbins and the Everly Brothers to rockers Neil Young and Leon Russell to international stars Henry Mancini and Julie Andrews to jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton.

Edenton joins Harold Bradley, Lloyd Green, Don Helms, Charlie McCoy, Bob Moore, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on the list of musicians honored by the museum series. During his talk, Edenton mentioned several others, including Chet Atkins, Jimmy Capps, Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Buddy Harman, Grady Martin, and Boots Randolph.

“The group of us that worked so much together, we could adapt very quickly,” he said. “We might do a pop session in the morning, then a country session, then bluegrass, then jazz—all in one day.”

Edenton noted that he once did twenty-two sessions in five days. “That was four sessions a day for three days, and five sessions on two of the days,” he explained. “You don’t go home when you’re doing those five-a-days. You just go to sleep on a couch in the studio. You know, I’d get tired.”

Edenton was born November 3, 1926, near the small town of Mineral, Virginia. His grandfather was an old-time fiddler, and his mother played piano. Edenton’s first instrument was a banjo ukulele, and he grew up performing with brothers and cousins at local square dances for twenty-five cents a night.

After a stint in the army ended in 1946, Edenton began his professional career at age twenty playing with the Rodeo Rangers on WMBG in Richmond, Virginia. He split off with two other members of the Rodeo Rangers to form a western trio that played radio shows in various cities across Virginia and Maryland.

In 1948, Edenton joined the Korn Krackers, a band led by famed guitarist Joe Maphis. “At that time, Joe was the best player I’d ever played with,” Edenton recalled with characteristic humility. “I thought I could play, but I found out that I couldn’t.”

Later that year, he moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to work on the Mid-Day Merry Go Round on WNOX radio. There, he encountered other legendary performers, including Chet Atkins, Archie Campbell, Bill Carlisle, the Carter Family, and Homer & Jethro. “Those are still some of the best musicians I ever worked with,” Edenton said.

While in Knoxville, Edenton came down with tuberculosis and spent twenty-eight months recovering. During his hospital stay, he met Bill Railey, who owned a record store in Richmond and aspired to become an artist manager and agent. Once Edenton’s health improved, he and Railey traveled to Nashville.

It was 1952, and Edenton decided to stay. He accepted a job touring with blackface comedy act Jamup and Honey, and his breakthrough as a studio player came on a session with Red Foley and Kitty Wells that included the 1954 hit “One by One.” Edenton split time between side jobs, working on the road with Cowboy Copas and George Morgan and picking up studio jobs.

After getting married and starting a job, Edenton focused on working in Nashville. He worked on the Grand Ole Opry; a Nashville TV show, Home Folks; and a WSM radio show, Two Guitars, which he played with Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd. He also was part of Marty Robbins’s first band, playing lead guitar on the hit, “Singing the Blues.” Edenton and Robbins even cut four sides as a duo, Ray and Roy.

Edenton later recorded with the Everly Brothers, creating the duo’s famous crisp guitar sound together, with Don Everly on one acoustic guitar and Edenton on the other. The style pioneered on those Everly recordings, with a tuning called a “high-third string,” became a popular technique among guitarists.

By the late 1950s, Edenton had emerged as a primary Nashville player. Among the Country Music Hall of Fame members Edenton supported on record include Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens, Don Gibson, Merle Haggard, Sonny James, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bill Monroe, Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Charley Pride, Carl Smith, Hank Snow, Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb, Merle Travis, Mel Tillis, Bob Wills, Tammy Wynette, and others.

Edenton got so busy that he and some of his fellow A-Team players grabbed sleep whenever they could. The guitarist recalled one instance of playing four sessions one day, with four more scheduled the following day. After the second session on the second day, Edenton told fellow guitarist Grady Martin he was exhausted.

Martin reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle of scotch, suggesting a drink might wake them up. The two men took a “nip,” Edenton recalled. After a short while, Martin said he thought Edenton still look tired. “Grady, I am,” Edenton told him. “I’m just beat.” So Martin suggested another nip. Edenton agreed. Realizing it hadn’t helped, Edenton told Martin, “I need to take a little nap before the next session or I’m not going to make it.” He crawled up under the grand piano at RCA Studio B and fell asleep on some carpet.

“When I woke up, there was the loudest clanging and banging I’d ever known,” Edenton said. “They’d started the session with me asleep, Henry Mancini was at the piano doing his first song. I looked around, and Grady was just dying laughing. He’s trying not to fall out of his chair. I waited until they finished the track and started the playback, and I crawled out from under that piano.”

Edenton retired in 1991, after winning several honors: the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences named him the most valuable player for rhythm guitar in 1977, 1978, and 1979, and he was a member of the Superpicker Band from 1975 to 1979.

“I just loved to play, and I liked the challenge of having to adjust to whatever situation we were in that day,” said Edenton. “I always felt lucky to be whatever part of the music that I could.”

—Michael McCall