Ray Dellinger was born and raised in a musical family in the Green Cove community of Mitchell County. He has been playing mountain music most of his life and has been building instruments for the past ten years. Asked when he first remembers hearing mountain music, Ray replies, “When I was big enough to hear it.” Most of his family played music. His grandfather 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 remembers her singing around the house. “She could pick up a songbook and just start singing,” Ray says. His mother’s brothers all played fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Ray remembers them playing together and swapping their instruments around.
One uncle, Obediah, stands 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 remembers 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,” says Ray. He largely credits Uncle Obi with the fact that he and six of his eight brothers play 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,” says Ray, but he has continued playing since he was a boy. In addition to guitar, Ray also plays a traditional two-finger banjo style that he remembers hearing 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 says, “It keeps me busy, and I help keep a mountain tradition alive.” Some of Ray’s uncles made homemade banjos as well, but Ray has 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,” says Ray. Red Wilson, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, was very influential fiddle player in the area, and he also made instruments. Ray continues to play some music, but he now spends more time building instruments in his shop beside his house. “Normally, I’m never in the house unless I’m sick,” he says.
Ray is available for workshops or demonstrations about instrument building. He is also available to show his instruments at festivals or craft fairs. He continues to play music, and he occasionally performs with family members and friends.