Ray Whisnant was born and raised in Caldwell County in the Valmeade community which is now within Lenoir’s city limits. “Ever since I can remember, I loved to sing,” says Ray. He started playing guitar when he was twelve years old, and by the time he was fifteen, he was making trips to Baltimore with other young musicians from the area to work as a musician. “That was the first time I ventured out,” said Ray. And it wouldn’t be his last. Ray played music professionally all his life.
Johnny Whisnant, an important musician in the development of modern banjo picking, was Ray’s cousin, and Ray spent a lot of time with him. “I knew him real well,” he says. Other early influences came from listening to the radio and hearing musicians like Roy Acuff, Earnest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizell. Ray says his first and foremost influence, however, was Jimmie Rodgers.
Ray continued to make trips to Baltimore as a youth playing music, and he moved there to work during the Korean War. After joining the Navy in 1952, he met other musicians through his military service. “I met a boy there who played some music in California,” says Ray. “So, after we got out, we went out there and toured the west coast and down south.” Ray described the music he played as country music, but he explains, “When I was just a young boy, you might hear Bill Monroe then Earnest Tubb. Country wasn’t separated from bluegrass and other rural music.”
From California, Ray went to St. Louis and Alaska playing music. During this time, music was his primary income. Around 1961, Ray had his first recording session for the Red Car label, which later became the Orbit label in California. Among other songs, Ray recorded “Rock That Rhythm,” which has been inducted into the Rock-A-Billy Hall of Fame. Ray once saw a copy of the original record sell on an Ebay auction for $500.
Ray also worked as a musician in Florida. He said that people always had trouble pronouncing his last name. At one of his Florida gigs, the announcer said, “I’m just going to call you ‘Carolina’ Ray,” and the name stuck. “Carolina” Ray has been used that name for the rest of his life.
“Carolina” Ray often performed later in life with Kay and Patrick Crouch or the Harris Brothers, all of Caldwell County. His recordings include an album on Patrick Crouch’s label that features Ray’s singing on country songs mixed with George Custer playing fiddle tunes. He is also featured on multiple of the Caldwell County traditional musicians’ showcase CDs, which have been produced by Crouch and the Caldwell County Arts Council.
“Carolina” Ray Whisnant passed away on October 2, 2019 at the age of 86.