Hank Ray

Darkness and obscurity, they come in all forms.
They transcend both art and life and are part of the fabric our existence.
They permeate through the canvases of our artists and fill the screens in both our theatres and living rooms giving us access to a side of ourselves most of us choose not to explore. But the darker side of the human animal is demonstrated in its most earnest through music.
It’s blatantly obvious in most underground forms of Metal and pervades the depths of the industrial scene but it can also rear its head in some unlikely places.
One such place is in the mind and on the compact discs of the grandfather of Death Country as we know it;
Mr. Hank Ray.
Very seldom does an artist transcend a multitude of genres while maintaining a firm grip on the roots from which they came. Even more seldom would these roots emanate from Country Music, but Hank Ray has evolved the sound of Country to a pitch-black amalgamation of weirdness, punk sensibilities, and old time crooning.
Without further ado, I give you an artist that if you don’t know, you definitely should and soon:

Hank Ray 2012


Greets Mr. Ray. It’s an honor to interview someone I have looked up to musically for the better part of the past decade.
You must be one of the older musicians of this modern Americana movement.


Hey Troy, thanks very much for having me.
Hell, yeah, I’ve been doing this whole thing for 30 years, so I guess “older” sums it up pretty well, hahaha.



For all of our readers who may not be familiar with what you’re about or what Death Country is, please enlighten us.


Okay, here we go with some generic bio facts:
we started out in high school back in 1980 as The Garbage Groupies - playing mostly completely incompetent covers of songs like “I Heard Her Call My Name / Sister Ray”, ”Green Fuz”, “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine”, ”Wooly Bully” and ” I Got You Babe” …just to name but a few.
After going through a series of line-up shifts and heavily influenced by the Cramps/ Alan Vega/ Alex Chilton, the Garbage Groupies would become The Raymen in late 1983.


The Raymen, 1986

It must have been some time between 1987 and 1989 that I started writing/recording Country material beside the work with my main band.
Okay, we had recorded some Punk-injected Country songs - very much in the vein of the Gun Club / Blood On The Saddle - as far back as 1985, e.g. “Wild Wind” being the closing tune for the “Going Down To Death Valley” album or “Nowhere Train” being one of the “hits” from “Desert Drive”; but this new stuff was darker / bleaker than the material we would usually do with the Raymen.


Desert Drive Album Cover

These new songs were strongly influenced by the somber laments of Hank Williams Sr. a.k.a. Luke the Drifter.
Luke/Hank’s world-weary, sorrow-laden epics like “Men With Broken Hearts”, “Mother is Gone” & “Beyond the Sunset” and the work of artists like Porter Wagoner, Lee Hazlewood, Johnny Paycheck, Marty Robbins & the Sons of the Pioneers were a major source of inspiration in those days and still are.


Combine that with a slight touch of Delta / Chicago Blues, e.g. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Leadbelly & Son House and you’ve got it.
“Death Letter”, one of the first songs I ever recorded commercially in early 1990 was inspired by the Son House’s song of the same title, by the way. It is a completely different tune though.
The lyrics of these songs were mostly dealing with the twisted depths of the human psyche, body & soul: death, murder, drugs, desperation, suicide, loneliness, insanity, self-destruction, serial killers, electric chairs, the A-bomb, redemption, jealousy, unrequited love, hate, purgatory, heaven, hell …..


Mainstream Death Country Cover

It must have been around the release of the “Mainstream Death Country” album in March, 1994 that the term Death Country popped up in the media. From then on it kinda stuck as a label. Not really sure about the origin of the term.
I’ve always felt somehow familiar with the expression ever since I had read about “murder ballads” or “teenage death ballads” in the liner notes of some cheapo comps, describing death records like Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”, Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” or Jody Reynolds’ “Endless Sleep”.
“Mainstream Death Country”, the album that paid tribute to the genre via title, didn’t contain many death / murder tales though. With the exception of “Overshadowed” and “The Day Sweet Valerie Turned Evil”, the songs were mostly countrified glam-punkers.


I know you began in the 80’s with the garage punk/psychobilly group the Raymen, but what lead you to move into your particular style of country music?


Well, I guess I needed an outlet for the ballad guy in me. I’ve always loved ballads since I was a teen; the heavy tear-jerker kind. Roy Orbison has always been one of my big heroes. Way on top of my hit parade!

Raymen 2012


Besides I wanted to play some slow songs beside the Raymen’s uptempo Trash Voodoobilly.
You know, songs that would give me more room for experimentation and a broader variety to create an especially haunting atmosphere, something that was hardly possible with the wall-to-wall jack hammer rhythms of the Raymen.






What influences helped form this sound? I assume a lot of musicians that are from outside traditional or old school Country.


Hahaha, yeah, there are quite a few influences.
Okay, let’s kick it off with a little bit of name-dropping right here!
As a teen I was raised on radio and Glam rock - CCR, T. Rex, David Bowie, Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Sweet, Kiss, Gary Glitter, Bay City Rollers and such - with a good deal of Mid -70’s Progressive - like many of my contemporaries. …and then New York & English Punk rock, of course! New York Dolls, Suicide/Alan Vega, Blondie, Television, Vibrators, Damned, Sex Pistols, Clash, Magazine, etc…
The Ramones and the Cramps are still my #1 combos of all times!
Early US bands like the Flesh Eaters, Gun Club, Germs, X, Dead Kennedys & Bad Brains were big favorites also….and still are.


Going Down To Death Valley Cover


Jimmi Quidd, the guy who discovered the Bad Brains, was the producer of the first Raymen album “Going Down To Death Valley” in 1985, BTW!
Besides the musicians I’ve mentioned a little earlier, Country crooners Bob Nolan, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, Jimmy Wakely & Jimmie Rodgers have always been a great influence on me, especially when it came to writing.



Then combine these C&W romanticisms with the Euro-Americana-visions of Hollywood composers (Dimitri Tiomkin, Max Steiner, Lionel Newman) and some distinct elements of experimental cool prominent in the works of the Velvet Underground - Neo-classic (John Cale) meets Americana poetry (Lou Reed) -, the Stooges, Captain Beefheart and early Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and you get a pretty good idea of the pool of inspirations.


Speaking of names…here are some “Sinister Country Classics” your readers might wanna check out:
George Jones ~ The Neon and the Rain
Autry Inman ~ Six Rounds of Love and Hate
Everly Brothers ~ Down in the Willow Garden
Porter Wagoner ~ Out of the Silence
Jack Kittel ~ Psycho
Marty Robbins ~ The Chair
Johnny Paycheck ~ Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill
Wilburn Brothers ~ Knoxville Girl
Wynn Stewart ~ I’m Gonna Kill You
Bill Anderson ~ The First Mrs. Jones
John Anderson ~ Red Georgia Clay
Sanford Clark ~ Black Jack County Chain
John Ukhart ~ Death Row
Wendell Austin ~ L.S.D.
Chuck Wells ~ Down and Out
Billy Strange ~ Hell Train
Jimmie Skinner ~ One Dead Man Ago
Freddie Weller ~ Room 269
Eddie Noack ~ Dolores
Johnny Paycheck ~ The Cave
Porter Wagoner ~ The Rubber Room


From your earliest albums there has been a lot of experimentation with sound on your recordings.
“Countricide” contained a great deal of disturbing background noises/music that really enhanced the songs in my opinion but on your newer releases this has been less prominent.
Is this something that may resurface in the future or have you finished exploring this direction?


No, not at all!
Countricide Cover “Countricide” – most of the material that forms the core of the album was recorded in May, 1995 - has remained a strong personal fave ever since. There are a lot of non-player guitars (inspired by Eno, who had recorded weird shit like rattlesnake guitars in the mid 70’s…having snakes crawl across fully amplified guitars and record them ) and overly distorted slide guitars. I just love these treatments and there’s more to come in the future!


Back then when I began recording the material I had something in mind that would sound like a Carson Robison impersonator with a frenzied Bryan Gregory, fuzzing away in the background.
…and true, the white noise / distortion aspects have fallen behind on “Ballads from the Badlands of Hearts”, which consists of vocal/acoustic guitar/ stand-up bass – arrangements mainly and on “Barbeque of Souls” with its pretty glossy production, but this particular way of arranging songs will always remain a prominent part of my work.


Being somewhat unfamiliar with the Americana/Country scene in your neck of the woods, do you have contemporaries there and other artists who share similar ideas or are you a lone wolf so to speak?


Honestly I can’t even comment much on other artists.
I usually get CDs from friends/labels informing me about the latest trends and artists….and I like some, some I don’t like, but please don’t ask me any names.
Oh, I should mention T. Tex Edwards and Rudi Protrudi, of course.
Both have recorded great albums of C&W tunes with dark murder themes in the past that are really worth checking out!


On a similar topic, I know you have played live (thanks Youtube) in the past, but are live performances something that you will be doing going forward?
How has the reception been for your brand of Death Country in the live arena?
I also noticed that you performed a decent amount of Johnny Cash covers live and they sound excellent. Any plans to record any of these covers for a proper release?
Any plans to ever do something similar to your “Ballads from the Badlands of Hearts” release? (*Ballads from Badlands is a cover album that consists of Hank Williams lesser known songs and poems).


Well, live shows usually go over pretty well.
Yet, live crowds seem to prefer mid-or up tempo material, so I try not to overdo the ballad section and make ‘em fall asleep, hahaha!

Hank Ray on stage


But that depends on the crowd’s reaction also.
I’m always pretty open and usually use the set list only as a guideline; that can cause quite an amount of irritation among accompanying musicians, but since I’ve always been privileged to work with the top of the heap, this has never become a big issue.
You should speak with my old buddy / guitar-picker T-Base about this one…we do a lot of things off-the-cuff, so to speak.


Hmmm, Cash cover album?! Even though I’ve been a big Cash fan for many, many years, I have never thought of doing one.
I’m not such a big fan of cover albums, because most of the time these well-intentioned ventures fall pretty short compared to the originals.
Of course, there are exceptions, like Del Shannon’s great Hank Williams cover album from 1964. Same goes for the Residents doing Hank in 1986 for their American Composers Series.


I could imagine doing such a Cash cover album on special request though; just like “Ballads from the Badlands of Hearts” was done on request by Rhythm Bomb Records.
The initial idea was to record only a few songs for a tribute compilation which after some re-consideration from Rhythm Bomb turned out to become a full album. I like it! It’s pretty dark. Some people have even called the overall atmosphere of the recordings sickly sweet & suicidal.

Ballads from the Badlands of Hearts


Well, here’s to shine a little light on that.
During recording and mixing of the album in Summer, respectively early Fall 2004, my marriage was deteriorating to an all-time low and finally ended up in divorce. So I guess this factor combined with the almost tropical heat in the tiny little recording studio - temperatures reaching up to 95.0°F / 35°C - contributed largely to the dark ‘n’somber tone of the album.



When I first contacted you for an interview you said that you thought it was strange that a predominantly Metal Magazine would be interested in an Americana/Death Country artist. Over here I know first hand that a lot of underground Metal supporters have an interest in real Country and Americana music. Are the two scenes totally separate in Europe? I know they worship their Metal and are very dedicated to it but I figured the gloom and darkness of those of your ilk would cross the musical boundaries as they have in North America.


Hank Ray, 1995

Looks like European scenes, no matter what kind, like to stick to their own kind maybe just a little more than they do in the U.S. or Canada. That counts for all sorts of music somehow - Metal, Punk, Psychobilly, Garage, Country, …you name ‘em!
Personally I‘ve never been a big fan of that sort of segregation. There is cool stuff in almost every genre.
As for my first reaction when you approached me concerning the interview: Guess, I was just a little surprised, since you’re the first Metal zine to cover an interview in 30 years.


Along the same lines, do you have any interest in any forms of Metal or “harder” music styles?


Well, 60’s & 70’s Punk / Trash Rock has always been my big thing in the fast ‘n’ loud department. Aside from that: I love stuff like Motorhead, Rose Tattoo, you know, the old-school section.
Okay, some Slayer, Napalm Death and early Metallica every now and then. Speaking of Slayer; not too long ago the idea to re-arrange the songs from “Reign in Blood” for a Death Country album popped up in my head. Well, that plan that hasn’t materialized yet, but who knows…sounds still pretty cool to me!


Everybody's into Rock'n'Roll

On the other hand, there’s always been a friendly connection to the Metal heads anyway.
Not sure if I ever mentioned this before, but Gordon Perkins is the alias for internationally known Metal drummer Jorg Michael (current where-about is Stratovarius). Back in the early 80’s he was the drummer for the Avengers, who changed their name to Rage a little later, and he provided the fantastic backbeat for our “Going Down to Death Valley” album in 1985.


And let me tell you this, without him the production of the album would have fallen far short. He was the only pro then, the rest of us being merely amateurish to speak the truth. He was the drummer for the Raymen - we didn’t have a regular drummer then so we had to borrow from our Metal buddies - from August ’84 until January ’86. Along with Gary P., who’s been very successful in Metal Management/Promotion ever since leaving the band in 1988, on bass and Martin Toulouse on Guitar, this will always remain my favorite line-up.
Oh, yeah, one other little footnote: I wrote the lyrics for Avant-garde / Progressive Metal outfit Mekong Delta’s “Principle of Doubt” album in 1989.
What else! Well, one of my brothers-in-law is a huge Metal fan and I mean HUGE! He also writes for a zine.


Back to your works specifically, I read that your aim for “Barbecue Of Souls” was to create a sound that merged old school Country with Goth and Glam. First, what made you think up this unique combination? Now that you can look back on the recording do you think you achieved what you set out to do?


I’ve always been a big fan of John Cale, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed & David Bowie and their 70’s albums. “Ziggy Stardust”, “Paris 1919”,”Transformer”,”Lust For Life” …Wow, great stuff!
Around 2001 I thought that the time had come to pay homage to these guys, who inspired me so much with the sound of their 70’s masterpieces.


Hank Ray, Barbeque of Souls

Well, the result, “Barbeque of Souls” has come out pretty cool, I think, given that we were facing several time - consuming delays. It took almost six years from the first recordings to getting the album out on Devil’s Ruin Records of Leo, Indiana in November, 2008. Don’t wanna bother you with details here, but tight time schedules of the musicians involved, several re-recordings/mixings of tracks and finally the label search contributed largely to this procrastination. But, hey, it’s a cool album, so WTF! I’m proud of it.


Most of your lyrics are generally of the darker sort. Can you give the readers any idea of what lyrical themes and concepts they can expect to hear when picking up a Hank Ray release?


Let’s just call it the whole variety of the sinister cesspool of dark desires. I believe Nick Cave mentioned in an interview a couple of years back that songs about serial killers, murderer and the darker sides of life in general provide a far more interesting lyrical playground than raving about the usual boy-meets-girl-lovey-dovey. I agree one-hundred percent with ole Nick here.


What inspires you to delve into these darker topics?


Well, look at Country songs recorded over the past - let’s say - 80 years from Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family, Hank Williams, Tex Ritter. Lefty Frizzell to Johnny Paycheck, Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others and you will find a plethora of tales of drunkenness, cruelty, failure, killing, mistreating and a million other bad vibes that are part of human life even though a lot of people prefer not to admit it.
Well, Country songs (the somber kind, not the dull mainstream bullshit) just like many of Blues have this particularly great quality of letting you accept failure and the other darker aspects as an integral part of life and still hold your head up. Sometimes you need to go down to the very bottom of the barrel to come back up, you know. You feel like f****** crying in your beer, well, here’s a tune to cry to.

Hank Ray, 2012

So the dark or sad stories have always been there. I’ve been picking up on that tradition with maybe a little more Goth/Horror/Novelty thrown in.
Needless to say I’ve always loved horror movies! Just recently I watched “The Bride of Frankenstein” again after many years. What a great film. Very moving and spine-chilling! My favorite scene is when the “monster” comes to the shack of the old blind fiddler somewhere deep down in the woods -attracted by the beauty of the sounds he hears.


This kind of, well, call it sentimental stuff, always had a great influence on me too – remember Roy Orbison!!! - and “Ave Maria” is maybe one of the, if not the most beautiful song ever written. Jasha Heifetz’s recording from 1917 is my favorite version. I think this could also be the version used in the movie, but I’m not sure. At least the movie version is pretty close to Heifetz’s reading. Very haunting!


Before we close up this interview I would just like to get your opinion on the state of the current Country and Americana scenes? How do you see it progressing? Do you think it’s going in the right direction with it’s increasing profile or would you prefer it to stay in the underground?


Like I’ve said before, I’m not too familiar with what’s going on inside the Country / Americana scenes, so I can’t really comment on that. Fact is that every art form gets more or less watered-down when it becomes overground. That’s why I usually prefer the underground stuff over the commercial bull.


What can we expect from Hank Ray in the not-too-distant future?


Sinister Funtime Cover

A new album by the Raymen called SINISTER FUNTIME will be released within the next couple of months. We're also working on the new Ray solo album. We've done some backing tracks with vocals, but the whole thing is still pretty much up in the ozone. Songs for the album are a little more traditional Country than Barbeque, with the usual touch of sinister twangy-ness. Working title is "Love Spells 'n' Goofer Dust".



Well Mr. Ray, I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and to let our readers in on something they’ve probably been missing out on for too long.


It’s been a pleasure, Troy.
I hope I could shed a little light on a few things here.
As for your readers:
If you wanna learn more about what’s happening in RayLand as far as releases, gigs, newsletters, merchandise etc. go, or just wanna say “Hi”, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Reverbnation or follow us on Twitter.



Interview taken from: