About The Group
Ray and Kay (Barnard), the Banjo Kids were a brother - sister act on the on the WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic from about 1949 to 1955. Their parents were Herbert Lyle Barnard, (who was known as "Lyle" but his nickname was "Syke") and Wilda Avis. They were part of a large family of three brothers and three sisters. Marceline was the eldest, then came Durant and Gordon, followed by Ray, then Kay and the youngest, Claire.
Both Ray and Kay played banjo. Ray would sing lead and his sister would sing harmony. When they started out, entertaining together, Ray was ten years old and Kay was only 8. They began performing and in one instance Ray tells us of a time around 1944 or so of their songs being recorded by an engineer from WHO radio at a home talent show in Cedar, Iowa, along with announcer Al Bell.
Interestingly enough, at this show, Ray and Kay weren't competing in the contest as their Dad felt they were no longer amateurs having won the princely sum of $15 for first place in another amateur contest. As a result, at the Cedar show, they were considered 'guests'. Ray would have been about 11 years old then and his sister 9.
The songs that were recorded at this appearance were when they were still very young were:
Ray was the first one to take up the banjo and learn it. Both of them played the tenor banjo, which had four strings tuned C, G, D and A. Kay began playing banjo about a year before that Cedar show, but she was already pretty accomplished on the piano. But they were unable to take advantage of the some of the invitations they had to perform because many of the places they played - schools, farm bureau meetings, Grange halls - did not have pianos.
Ray was kind enough to let us listen to these early recordings and we had a chance to follow up with him to ask him about his banjo playing influences or inspirations. He mentioned that he had always wanted to play and emulate the steel guitar sound. That steel guitar influence came from some neighbors who loaned them an old Hawaiian guitar, steel bar, picks and all. No one taught them how to tune it and he began to play. But Ray's dad was of the thought that there were already a million guitar players out there, so he encourage Ray to stick with the banjo. We'll touch more on Ray's musical influences later, but now let's get back to their story.
Around this time, they appeared on a Wednesday night show that aired over radio station KBIZ out of Ottumwa, Iowa. That lead to weekly appearances on the station's barn dance show. At that time, the show was two hours long and took place at the Coliseum on the banks of the Des Moines River in Ottumwa. One of the announcers at the barn dance show in Ottumwa Ray tells us was Del Donahoo, who later became one of the announcers on the WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic.
Around 1950 or 1951, Ray and Kay appeared on another WHO Home Talent Show, hosted by Cliff Carl, who was also in charge of the WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic show. He invited them to appear at the WHO Tent at the Iowa State Fair. They got a rousing reception which led to an invitation to appear on the "live" Iowa Barn Dance shows on Saturday nights. From there, they became regular performers on the Saturday night show.
Their early appearances on the show were usually did without any backup from a band. During the latter part of their time on the show, they were backed by another singer and his band who would later go on to fame as a songwriter and star of the WWVA Original Jamboree show in Wheeling, West Virginia. That man was Dusty Owens and his band, the Rodeo Boys.
During their years on the show and their earlier years of performing, their mom and dad were there to lend. Their mom and a cousin, Arlene McEwen would personally hand-sew the costumes for them and sometimes would be up late getting them ready for the Saturday night shows. Their older sister, Marceline also helped get the costumes finished on occasion, too as she and her husband had electricity and it was easier to see to get the job done during those late nights getting things ready for upcoming appearances. Ray also told us fondly of a log book that their mom had kept that kept little tid bits of information about their performance on the show - with little anecdotes such as when one of them was a bit sick or when the crowd really responded to their act. Their mom and dad were a part of the Barn Dance family, too, so to speak, for Ray told us and Dusty Owens has as well, of occasions when some members of the cast would make the nearly 70 mile drive up to the Barnard family farm for a weekend lunch or dinner.
Ray was kind enough to tell us a couple of tales of the hurdles they sometimes went through on their personal appearances.
There was one winter evening in the late 1940s, Ray recalls that he and Kay were booked to play at a small town about 100 miles away from home. Snow was in the forecast that night. Dad and mom had an old 1937 Plymouth that wasn't running too well at the time; Ray thinks it probably needed an overhaul, similar to what it got every couple of years in their farm garage. The mechanics for the family car were two brothers and brother-in-law Herb Tennis.
That particular night, however, their dad prevailed on Herbie to take his 'new' 1935 Chrysler AirStream on this personal appearance. Now, "new" might be a relative term as the auto was "new" to Herb and his wife, Marceline, Ray and Kay's sister.
Understand that this was before some things we take for granted today in our automobiles were not common features then - such as defrosters. The car had a small dash-mounted fan set up to blow the warm air from the heater onto the car's windshield. At the same time, the latest 'invention' was a windshield wiper blade made of cloth wrapped around salt crystals. The salt was meant to keep the frost from accumulating on the outside of the windshield. They drove off for this personal appearance with seemingly the 'latest' equipment in their car.
The show was for the "commercial club" which today is akin to the Chamber of Commerce in a town in Eastern Iowa. True as forecasted, snow began to fall in the evening and gradually got heavier as the night wore on. Herbie was telling Ray and Kay's parents about it during the night, too. Ray remembers that when they came out after the concert and loaded things up for their departure, there was already about four inches of snow on the ground. The wind was picking up, too - making for some unpleasant driving conditions on the way home.
They began the journey home and then about 35 miles from home, visibility became so poort that they couldn't see out the windshield at all - it seems the so-called 'miracle-wiper' they had wasn't doing the job any longer.
But Herbie was unflappable. He would drive a few miles, then get out and scrape the windshield, then continue driving. After a few tries, it became so bad that cleaning and scraping it was accomplishing nothing.
Herb then rolled the window down on his side of the car so he could see the edge of the road with the lights and an electric lantern, and he would drive until his eyes "teared up" so bad that he would have to pull over to the side of the road to get his bearings before moving on.
They travelled the final 15 to 20 miles like this and would have been home sooner, except the country roads were drifting so badly, they had to stay on the highway to get to the next town.
That evening, Ray and Kay stayed with their sister and Herbie, then went home the next morning, AFTER the motor grader snow plow had opened the roads so they could even GET HOME! Ray says it was the worst night he had ever been out in. It wasn't fit for man or beast, yet, Herbie came through.
As for the "new fangled" windshield defroster? It was never found after the last time Herbie had to clean the windshield by hand, and Ray supposes it's somewhere out there, a long throw from the highway!
On another occasion, Ray and Kay were booked to a Farm Bureau event some 100 miles from home. On the day before the date, it started snowing and got heavier as the day went on. They had planned to drive to the show; however, roads were closed in many areas, so Mom took Ray and Kay to town and bought them bus tickets as buses were seemingly the only thing getting through by that time. Ray says he will never forget his Mom paying $20.00 for three roundtrip bus tickets to go play a $30.00 job. Not to mention meals and other expenses. Then having to ride back home on the bus after the show (an all night drive, by the way) and changing buses in Des Moines along with a layover and more!
But, Ray's Mom and Dad would recall later in life that "The Kids never were late and NEVER missed a booking". However, Ray says that we can do the math and realize they weren't really getting wealthy, and in fact, it was a rather expensive trip just for the experience to say the least! The life of a performer is not always as glamorous as we might think.
An old 1953 WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic souvenir flyer highlights the two of them and described them as "...A brother and sister act who sing those good ole country songs with youthful enthusiasm to the rhythm of their twin banjos and tapping feet." Back then, the Barn Dance was being held at the Hoyt Sherman Theatre in Des Moines.
They continued to perform on the show until April of 1953, when Ray was drafted into military service during the Korean conflict.
But before Ray left, someone came up with an the idea that perhaps Ray and Kay should record some of their tunes as the sense was that the act was breaking up. Dusty Owens and his Rodeo Boys provided the musical backup and the recordings took place in the basement of the home of a WHO engineer by the name of Vic Blacketeer. Dusty's band at the time included Bob Cooley on rhythm guitar; Don Edwards on bass; Chuck Adams on steel guitar and from the Buckaroos band, Slim Hayes on fiddle.
The tunes Ray and Kay recorded were:
When we listen to these tunes and those from their earlier years and hear their banjo playing, Ray tells us that the little finger rolls you'd hear were usually Ray while his sister was usually playing the rhythm as she had started playing later than Ray.
Ray was discharged form the service in 1955 and he and his sister resumed performing on the WHO Iowa Barn Dance Frolic show. But, other aspects of life such as marriages, children and employment obligations meant that Ray and Kay had to discontinue performing for the show in 1956.
Kay pretty much retired from the music business at that time. But later, Ray continued to pursue his musical interests. For a time, he formed a band in Omaha, Nebraska and played the local clubs on weekends while maintaining his career with the railroads.
Now remember that Ray was telling us of his musical influences earlier. While he had that band, he was basically playing guitar pretty much full time during those years and thinks he probably never played the banjo again. But he says Kay still has hers. Later on, he was influenced by Floyd Cramer's style on the piano, which he switched to exclusively in 1966.
His later musical career did have its treasured moments.
While in Omaha, Ray had the opportunity to appear on a Grand Ole Opry show that starred Ernest Tubb, Skeeter Davis and Ray Price. Ray tells us he got a great audience reception since he was the 'home town' boy and recalls fondly the thrill of having Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours backing him up on-stage - Buddy Emmons on steel, Jack Drake on bass and a lead guitar player whose name he can't recall yet.
Here's what Ray told us about that appearance:
"Anyway, Ernest stood just offstage as did Skeeter. When I came off, he called me back onstage and told the audience he was inviting me to Nashville to appear on the Midnight Jamboree!
Ernest also invited Ray to tour with them for a couple of weeks while they made personal appearances in Nebraska and Iowa. But, Ray had to decline the opportunity as he couldn't get time off from his job with the railroad.
But Ray says he wrote songs '...like mad for the next few months...' and even recorded a demo at radio station KOOO in Omaha.
Finally, he made it to Nashville one New Year's day - arriving on a Saturday around noon and headed over to the YMCA. (This appears to be January 1, 1960). They had no rooms but he did manage to share a double bed room with another guy. Ray took the room as it was right around the corner from the Ryman Auditorium and Ernest Tubb's Record Shop on Broadway. After he got settled in, he called Ernest.
Ernest told him they were rehearsing over at the WSM studios shortly and that he would stop by and pick him up at that "Y". Ray was pretty happy by this time as you might expect.
Ray recalls that Ernest picked him up in his Cadillac and they visited for a while. He recalls that Ernest was a "...friendly and helpful man" to him and other young wannabe's. He then dropped Ray off at the "Y" after their rehearsal (which Ray didn't think they needed!) Ernest told Ray to come over to the Opry and come backstage and ask for him.
When he got there, Ernest took him around and Ray got to mingle with many of the Opry stars back then - Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Stonewall Jackson. And even Skeeter Davis - she even remembered Ray and asked how things were going in Omaha. Ray said it was something every country music fan should have had a chance to experience. He'd be hearing jam sessions in every beatup room and dressing room. It was all very informal and he saw different members of the bands playing tunes together as he strolled around backstage.
Ever gracious as a host, Ernest asked Ray if he wanted to watch the show out front or backstage. He mentioned it was better out front, so Ray got to watch the entire show and then went over to the Record Shop for the Midnight Jamboree.
Ray treasures that picture - as he tells us:
"(It was)... a tremendous honor for a small town Iowa farm boy who worked for everything he ever had and to end up being in the company of such an esteemed man and a man whom I had gone to see at a show when Kay and I were just kids ... and to listen to the Opry every Saturday night on a battery operated Philco. We didn't even have electricity until I was 15 years old."
And the story doesn't end there. After the Midnight Jamboree was over, Ernest told him to be ready at 11:00am Sunday morning. Ernest was going to pick him up and take him over to Decca Records and Ray was going to play his songs for Mr. Owen Bradley. Ray said he hardly slept that night and woke up around 10:00. But while he was getting dressed, he noticed that a brand new pair of shoes he had worn were gone and an old beat-up pair was left behind in their place. Ray was a bit down at the time and since it was New Year's weekend, all the stores were closed. He said he finally went out to an alley way and banged on the back door of one store until the manager came. He explained what the problem was and the importance of it to him and in the end, let Ray buy a new pair of shoes. And just barely got back in time to the "Y" to meet ET!
When Ray got to the Decca studios, he saw Brenda Lee relaxing between sessions, sipping on a malt. He saw Floyd Cramer playing piano on that session for her. Finally, they finished and Ernest introduced Ray to Mr. Bradley. Ernest then had them play Ray's demo recordings for him and Owen. Both of them, Owen and Ernest told Ray he was on the right track and showed promise.
Ray later told Ernest about his 'shoe' fiasco and what he went through and Ernest just laughed and laughed along with Ray. But that wasn't the last Ray saw of Ernest.
A couple of years went by and Ernest and his band was on a tour of eastern Nebraska and Ray went to see his show at a fair that was about 50 miles west of Omaha. Ray found the bus which was parked just off the edge of the stage and walked over to it. The band was getting ready to go onstage so the door was open, but it seems Ernest was the only one on board at the time when Ray hollered hello. Ernest invited him inside and remembered him, asked him things were going and then he looked at Ray's feet. And started to laugh. And told Ray, "Good to see you've still got those shoes"!!! Ray says to this day he has never forgotten that moment. Two years go by and a legend such as Ernest Tubb remembers this small town singer and an incident as trivial as his shoes.
As for Ray's appearance on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree show that long ago New Year's night, Ray tells of calling his mom back home and that she told him that she and dad had heard him perform and that she was crying, tears of happiness. She told him in words he never forgot,
"Son, you're simply getting the attention and recognition you and sis have richly deserved for years."
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