Ray Dellinger was born and raised in a musical family in the Green Cove community of Mitchell County. He played mountain music most of his life and built instruments for more than a decade. Asked when he first remembered hearing mountain music, Ray replied, “When I was big enough to hear it.” Most of his family played music. His grandfather William Gragg played fiddle and was known as one of the best in the area. His mother went to shape-note singing schools as a child, and Ray remembered her singing around the house. “She could pick up a songbook and just start singing,” Ray said. His mother’s brothers all played fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Ray remembered them playing together and swapping their instruments around.
One uncle, Obediah, stood out in Ray’s memory. “Uncle Obi” never married, and he would often visit Ray’s family and stay for a week at a time. Ray remembered Uncle Obi’s visits fondly, especially the music he played, and the funny stories he told. “We felt he was the next best thing to Jesus Christ,” said Ray. He largely credited Uncle Obi with the fact that he and six of his eight brothers played music.
Ray played a lot of music with his brothers, especially James Roger, who was a great guitar player. James Roger showed Ray how to finger chords on the guitar and play rhythm to provide the back up. “I never considered myself an accomplished musician,” said Ray, but he played from his boyhood on. In addition to guitar, Ray also played a traditional two-finger banjo style that heard family and community members play while he was growing up.
When Ray retired in 1996, he decided to repair an old homemade banjo that had cracked. He studied the way it was constructed, and he soon made his own banjo from scratch. Someone saw his newly made homemade banjo and offered to buy it. Ray started making more banjos and selling them. “It’s just something I do because I like it,” he said, “It keeps me busy, and I help keep a mountain tradition alive.” Some of Ray’s uncles made homemade banjos as well, but Ray extended the family tradition making dulcimers, mandolins, guitars, and fiddles. When he decided to make a fiddle, a friend from Mitchell County, Red Wilson, helped him. “I can’t stress how much help he was,” said Ray. Red Wilson, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was a very influential fiddle player in the area, and he also made instruments. In his last years, Ray enjoyed building instruments, entertaining guests (and dogs) in his shop, and performing stories and songs locally with William Ritter.
Ray Dellinger passed away on January 8, 2021.