“I’m just an open stage singer…”

I’m all but certain that Ray Naylor was younger than I am now when we first met, over a quarter century ago.

That’s an important thing for me to realize today, because it helps me put my respect for him into a perspective that I couldn’t fully understand back then, when Ray would come to the Monday night hangs at the Grape Street Pub – I mean, I had met Ray some years before when I was hopping from one open mike to the other, trying to figure out how this whole thing was supposed to work, but “The Grape” was a different animal for a number of reasons.

Grape Street Pub on a Monday night in the mid-nineties was probably the closest I’ll ever come to the Troubadour Experience of the late sixties and early seventies, when a horde of artists I’d come to love and look up to were all hustling, getting their thing together and figuring out who they were.

Monday nights were the one night of the week that most of us weren’t gigging somewhere else, and the Grape became a hot spot – songwriters came there for the hang first, and for the opportunity to play second…or maybe third or fourth, depending on who you might ask. It was an exciting time to be an artist in Philadelphia, and all the stars aligned for our little ragamuffin community.

Of course, whenever something becomes hot or trendy, all the tasteless and talentless wannabes line up to crash the party, hoping that some of the mojo will rub off on them, and there was plenty of that as well – but cliques tend to drive out folks with any degree of self-awareness that can sense when they’re not wanted, and you had to put in the work to become part of that family…and that’s exactly the way we wanted it.

Ray Naylor was easily older than most of us were at the time, and I remember thinking that there was something innately awesome about this guy who’d come in and get up and play Phil Ochs songs, peppered by his own compositions that were proudly and unashamedly carved from the Macdougal Street/Village tradition…because, Goddamnit, Ray was who he was, and he was defiantly uninterested in pretending to be something other than the sum of his own parts.

At the time, it was just a modicum of general respect on my part – but now that I’m likely older than he was then, I’m able to appreciate it in ways I never could’ve at the time.

I moved to Nashville almost ten years ago and realized – far too late to change course – that for me, there comes a time in ones’ life when it really is too late to start over. I couldn’t see myself going to the Five Spot or the Wash and becoming the East Nashville Version of the Steve Buscemi meme (“what’s up, fellow kids?”) and pressing new flesh and trying to navigate an entirely new musical community – aside from the fact that every possible manner of crazy shit befell us during that first couple of years, I just felt any motivation to try to do that, to be that guy – it just ran down the drain.

But at that same age, Ray was coming to the Grape and getting up in front of a room half-filled with Villanova Douchebags who couldn’t decide if they wanted to be Kurt Cobain or Dave Matthews and topped off with a bunch of self-absorbed folks staring up their own asses and complaining that they didn’t get to play because they were too cool to write their names on the damned sheet.

Everyone was trying to claw their way up the food chain, but Ray Naylor didn’t give a shit about any of that.

I don’t know that he ever aspired to anything more than what life ultimately revealed to him, but he never hung it up – he wrote songs, he made records (I got to contribute a few instrumental parts to one of them at Daoud Shaw’s studio years ago), and he ultimately found a home in radio, hosting his own folk show for some time.

The last Facebook post I saw from Ray was only a couple of weeks ago, when he announced that he was turning the reins of his show over to new hosts, and my first thought was – why?

I didn’t know anything about Ray’s health situation, as we haven’t really stayed in touch (Ray has that in common with a great many people, and it’s both a regret and a safety mechanism for me, it seems. I’m at a loss to explain it.) – but this afternoon I saw a post as I was leaving the office that he’d passed away during open heart surgery.

I feel like this little corner of the internet has become nothing more than a perpetual last stop for friends shuffling off the mortal coil, and I’m using the term “obituweary” a lot this past couple of years – it’s a thing.

Ray – thanks for showing all those roomfuls of kids what it means to be who you are without getting caught up in the trappings of nonsense.

It took a long time to rub off, but I think I understand it now.