Byard Sneed Ray was born in 1910 in Sodom Laurel, a section of Madison County that has been home to a great many legendary musicians. Ray’s parents, Rila and Champ, both played the fiddle and banjo, sang, and told stories. Like so many fiddlers, Byard Ray first learned to fiddle by sneaking his parent’s (in this case his mother’s) instrument away when no one was looking, and sawing at it until he learned to “tease a tune out,” as he said. By the time older family members decided that Byard was ready for his first fiddle lesson, he already knew a great deal more than they realized.
Ray was influenced by fiddler J. D. (Dedrick) Harris, like many prominent Western North Carolina fiddlers of the early twentieth century, as well as by Ashbury McDevitt, and great-uncle Mitchell Wallin.
As an adult, Ray taught fiddle at Berea College in Kentucky, and North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College. He recorded with a variety of bands and musical partners, most famously with banjo player Obray Ramsey. Ray and Ramsey made several recordings together, and even appeared in the “hippie western” movie Zacharia.
Byard Ray’s musical tradition is carried on today by younger members of his family. His daughter Lena Jean Ray is a well known ballad singer and banjo player, and his granddaughter Donna Ray Norton carries on the ballad singing traditions of Madison and Buncombe Counties.