Lena Jean Ray grew up surrounded by some of the most acclaimed musicians of the North Carolina mountains—her father, fiddler Byard Ray, her great-aunt Dellie Norton, her father’s partner and friend Obray Ramsey, and many others. She loved and learned the music of her family and community, and in doing so carried her family’s musical traditions into a seventh generation.
Though thoroughly steeped in her community’s ballad-singing traditions, Ray’s own style of singing differs from the sound that one might most immediately associate with Madison County. Her smooth, airy voice recalls folk revival icons like Jean Ritchie and Judy Collins, and hearkens back even further to the early days of recorded mountain music, to the styles of Bascom Lunsford, Kelly Harrell, and Buell Kazee. Appropriately, Ray was honored in 1999 with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Award from Mars Hill College for significant musical contributions.
Ray has performed extensively and for many years, both singing (solo, with musical partner Buddy Davis, and with daughter Donna Ray Norton), and storytelling. She has recorded albums of ballads, most recently Cloudy in the West. Her performances have been at such prominent events as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, the Bascom Lunsford Memorial Festival at Mars Hill, and many others. Ray’s daughter and student, Donna Ray Norton, has now joined her as a prominent member of Madison County’s traditional ballad singers, advancing their family’s musical heritage into its eighth generation.
Lena Jean Ray passed away on July 30, 2021, at the age of seventy-six.