Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife
Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana
The Louisiana Delta: Land of Rivers
Working in the Delta
Homemaking in the Delta
Worshiping in the Delta
Making Music in the Delta
Playing in the Delta
Telling Stories in the Delta
Delta Archival Materials
Vidalia's One-Man Band, Gray Montgomery: "Several Different Musicians Rolled into One"
By Ben Sandmel
"I took up the guitar," recalls W.C. "Gray" Montgomery, "when a kid who played real good moved to our neighborhood, and all the girls went crazy over him. I got me a $l4 guitar, started rapping on it, and learned to play. And it worked directly—those girls were going crazy over me, too!" That teen-age debut took place nearly five decades ago, and Gray has continued to delight his neighbors ever since. Laid-back and youthful at age 63, he rarely has strayed too far or long from his home base in the Concordia Parish city of Vidalia. But this somewhat restricted range doesn't imply a limit to his talent, because Gray is a masterful, accomplished guitarist and a rich, warm baritone crooner. Actually, as a one-man band, he's even more than that. "I stomp my own bass notes," he explains, pointing down to his foot-pedal bass—more typically found with an electric organ. "And then I have a little computerized drum unit that sounds like a tambourine."
Beyond such instrumental ambidexterity, Gray also has an unusually broad repertoire. It includes country tunes from the 1930s on, low-down blues, rockabilly, and rock-'n'-roll, and soft, sentimental "dinner music." "I love to play the blues, too, now," Gray says, adjusting his drum unit and strumming an open E-chord. "Years ago I used to play in black clubs and little juke joints across the river in Natchez, Mississippi, with an old blues harmonica player named Papa George. And I love to pick fast boogies, and Western rock. You can play different kinds of music, and it'll almost make you feel like you're several different musicians rolled into one."
Gray casually mentions that he used to be in a band with Jerry Lee Lewis. "He's from Ferriday, just down the road," says Gray. "We'd play everything: rockabilly, country, waltzes, blues. We'd mix it up good and try to keep everyone happy. But Jerry Lee would get mad real quick. Somebody'd make a request, and he'd say 'we don't play that kind of damn song around here!'"
"Yeah, Jerry was kind of wild," Gray says, shaking his head. "When he first tried to join our band, he was real young. He wasn't a good enough piano man, and we told him that, so he started learning. Meanwhile, he worked with us playing drums. Our gig in Natchez started at 9 p.m. sharp, and he was almost always late. The owner would ask him, Jerry, where you been?' and Jerry would say, 'Well, you know, I live way over yonder in Ferriday.' Somehow that excuse always worked."
When Jerry Lee went on to major stardom, Gray decided to take his own shot. "I went up to Memphis," he remembers, "and auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. He's the one that signed Elvis, Jerry Lee, all of 'em. I had a song that I'd written myself called "Right Now," and I liked it just the way we played it. Phillips wanted to add on a horn part and I didn't, and I told him 'No.' He wanted to dress it up and make it too slick, and when I didn't agree, the deal fell through."
Gray stayed close to Vidalia after his unsuccessful try for the big time. "I would work and play, work and play," he recalls. "I did some truck driving, surveying, hay-baling, little jobs to make a living, and I'd play music on weekends. Then I went to trade school and learned air-conditioning and refrigeration and electronics. That's what I do now, fix electronic vending equipment."
"I toured with a few bands, he continues, "I was on the road with Lash LaRue, a guy who did a pop-the-whip act. He could pop a piece of paper out of a little girl's mouth and cut that paper clean in two. But that got old, and I wasn't making enough to pay my bills."
Gray sets his guitar down for a moment and leans forward: "You see, I believe in trying to live as easy as you can, and if you're gettin' by pretty good, don't jump out on a limb. I didn't want to turn a good thing loose to go running after something else that might not even be there. I'm glad that I stayed home and raised my four girls. I'm remarried now, and my wife, Alice, and me are real happy. I still like to play, and if nothing big comes along, I'll still be happy. I got a lot of friends right around here who like to hear me.
These days Gray can be heard in neighboring Natchez at the Moose Lodge, the Elks' Club and the Prentiss Lounge at the Best Western Motel—or a bit farther north in Louisiana towns like Tallulah and Epps. He also has expanded his scope lately, performing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and he's being featured at the 1990 Louisiana Folklife Festival in Kenner.
Wherever Gray plays, he's apt to appear in full Western regalia. "I fell in love with cowboy music back in the thirties," he remembers, "from watching all them old cowboy shows. And I believe that if they brought those shows back, it might cut down on crime, 'cause the crooks always got punished, and the guy who was honest always won out."
With that, Gray Montgomery tilts back his 10-gallon brim and breaks into "Back in the Saddle Again," followed by Jimmy Rodgers' "All Around the Water Tank." "Now Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith influenced me a lot, too, on those fast boogie-woogies," Gray says as the last note of "Water Tank" fades away, "and I love the way that guys like Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters play the blues. I'm crazy about a good truck-driving song, too. Come to think of it, I like it all. I know thousands of songs. I even have my dog sing harmony on one. But in these little towns where I play, you got to keep changing up to please everybody, and you got to know all the latest country hits. "Let's see now," Gray says, turning one of his tuning pegs, "I think I'll wind down here with "Mother, the Queen of My Heart."