The first song Ray Stewart ever learned to play on guitar was the theme song from the hit television show Bonanza.
“My uncle taught it to me. Everybody watched Bonanza so it was pretty nice to be able to be able to play it.”
He first picked up a guitar around nine or 10 years of age.
“There were musicians in my mother’s family and she sang a lot of older country music favourites so I guess I got a little encouragement.”
He took a few months of guitar lessons from Johnny Welch, who had a radio program on Saturday nights and eventually found his way into a band. Many of his early bandmates drifted toward country music, but Stewart was more drawn to the early folk and ballad tradition.
“I played a lot of music from Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Stampeders and Three Dog Night. Then I kind of put away the electric guitar, moved on to the acoustic and settled into folk.”
He lists James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce among his favourites.
“My kids bought my wife, Frances, and me really good seats at a James Taylor concert in Halifax and it was the thrill of a lifetime to hear him live.”
Stewart writes some of his own songs so he has a songwriters’ respect for Gordon Lightfoot.
“I don’t think anyone can tell a story in a song better than he can.”
Croce put out five albums before he was killed, at age 30, in a plane crash in 1973, and Stewart wonders how many more top songs he would have produced.
“He had such diversity in his songs. Who else could write something as beautiful as Time in a Bottle or as off the wall as Roller Derby Queen?”
Stewart never aspired to be a musician and regular weekend gigs lost their appeal after a while.
“When you had to do it every Friday night and every Saturday night, it lost something for me. I love to play but it should not feel like a job.”
He went to work at Michelin in 1975 but soon knew he did not want to stay on the production line.
“I started studying electronics on my own by correspondence and when the chance came I applied for maintenance. Figuring out how and why things work always interested me.”
He left Michelin after 35 years but was not ready for retirement.
“Being retired scared me so I looked around to see what else I could find. My daughter pointed me to an advertisement for someone to teach electronics at NSCC. Honestly, I didn’t think I had any chance of getting the job but ended up joining Glenn Coleman here.”
Stewart loves the sociability of teaching.
“I enjoy the young kids who come right out of school but I really enjoy the people who have been out in the workforce and come back. They know what they want and they’re ready to work for it.”
Some years ago Stewart penned a song in honour of fiddler Karen Lynn MacDonald, who died of anaphylactic shock after ingesting peanut oil.
“I thought the song needed a fiddler so I approached Fleur Mainville. I had a whole list of reasons ready to try to persuade her but she agreed right away. It became known as Karen’s Song and it was also the beginning of a great friendship with Fleur.”
Stewart became a frequent accompanist for Mainville.
“She was a real talent to work with and wonderful person. She introduced me to musicians and music I’d never have encountered otherwise.”
He estimates he has been playing with a local quartet, Inner Voice, which features Dawn Gorman, Jean Cameron and Murton Arbuckle, for about 30 years.
“We manage to get along and do events around the county. We’ll usually play at for the Dragonboat festival and Relay for Life.”
It is only been about eight years since Stewart began singing and he puts the blame or credit on local musician Jim Dorey.
“He talked me into going to a songwriters’ event and told me I’d get a lot out of it and he was right. He also told me I wouldn’t have to sing and he was wrong about that. Up to that point I just thought of myself as a guitar player but since then I’ve enjoyed singing.”
He recently produced his own CD, Through These Doors.
“Rev. Mary Beth Moriarty took it to the Atlantic Conference of the United Church and I think it is kind of neat that some churches are going to incorporate it into their services.”
Stewart gets a lot of satisfaction out of playing with local musicians and hearing them perform.
“I’m thinking of guys like George Canyon and Dave Gunning and Jason Brushett who is an amazing musician. We’re blessed with talent and we have so many young musicians coming along.”
He credits local music teachers Janice and Andrew Alcorn, Al Sutherland and Monica Punke, with giving young people the opportunity to develop.
“To be asked to play at nursing homes, wedding, funerals, or special events is a great compliment and I’m always inspired to give it my best.”
Performing with his 12-year-old granddaughter is another high for him.
“She’s pretty good on guitar and she has introduced me to Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. I’m actually getting to like Sheeran.”