Life is unpredictable, even a well-planned one. We set our goals and then plan and prepare for a career in a field we love. Despite this, we often face challenges that delay or even destroy our dreams. When this occurs, we grieve and seek sources of inspiration as we work to resolve whatever challenges we are facing. Often, we look to stories of others who have had similar difficulty to find inspiration for how they were able to accept and overcome the loss or disappointment. Such stories are even more heartwarming when setbacks happen to a young person whose career is cut short on the threshold of launching a promising future.
Ray Cummins’ story is one of powerful inspiration. It is a story of a young life that began on a high note, plummeting to one with feelings of despair at age 16 when the career he was dreaming about, planning and preparing for, came to an abrupt end. But as is often the case, life had a better plan for Ray; one filled with possibilities that he could never have imagined or foreseen at such a young age.
Ray has always loved music and quickly learned to play any musical instrument he chose. While his parents were not musicians, they recognized his musical talent. When he was five, his parents bought him a 12 bass accordion. As was to become his pattern for life, he learned to play quickly and well. By fourth grade, they upgraded him to a 120 bass accordion, and he was soon performing difficult pieces in recitals.
By fifth grade, Ray’s growing interest in performing led him to the trumpet, which was to become his primary instrument, replacing the accordion. He wanted to play in the school band, but the accordion was not part of a band composition. He considered drums and saxophone and found there were already too many of these, so when band instructors suggested the trumpet, a new musical adventure began for Ray.
Under the tutelage of the first chair trumpeter of the Cincinnati Symphony, he quickly learned to play the trumpet. He was further motivated to excel after being introduced to the enchanting trumpet of Al Hirt. By sixth grade, he was playing first trumpet position for the band; by seventh grade, he joined the high school band, the only elementary level student to do so. The trumpet was clearly a match for his musical ability, and he believed he had found his calling and began to plan a career around this new musical passion.
During the summer following his sophomore year, Ray developed a low grade fever that lingered. Medical exams revealed a lesion on his lung; a condition that not only left him bed-ridden for months, but also ended his trumpet-playing career. Ray was devastated and heartbroken. At 16, it seemed his life and career were over. He was to learn a great life lesson from this experience. God had better plans for him than any he could have imagined for himself.
To take his mind off his illness and inability to play the trumpet, Ray’s father brought home a new record album one day, along with a small used guitar. The album wasn’t the usual music popular with most teenagers at the time. The Pops Goes Country album featured Chet Atkins and the Boston Pops Orchestra, with Arthur Fiedler, and included Alabama Jubilee, a song that fascinated Ray because of the sounds coming from the guitar.
He listened to the new album continuously while he recuperated, mesmerized by those sounds and amazed that one person was playing all the notes and chords he was hearing from one guitar. Rising to the challenge of once again learning to play a different instrument, he began to practice diligently until he learned how to recreate the Chet Atkins sound. As he played and healed, he dreamed of playing Alabama Jubilee with a symphony just as Atkins had done. He did not realize it at the time, but this was the start of a new dream, leading to what was to become a remarkable career, where he often performs with symphonies.
Since that devastating year when one dream died and a new one was born, Ray has become known as one of the best guitarists in the industry, with a sound consistent with the Chet Atkins style. Atkins said of Ray and his talent: “Ray Cummins is my good friend and one of the best finger-pickers around.” And from Al Hirt, “The greatest guitarist I ever heard.” High praise indeed from two of his musical mentors.
Today, Ray has two signature guitars that are sought after by other guitarists for their sound—a long way from that first small, used guitar on which he learned to play. He evolved from those early days of listening to Atkins, to playing with him on a compilation CD. And from those days of despondency when he thought his musical career was over, he has accomplished enviable credits, to include –
Headlining performances at the annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) convention for over 20 years
Performing in over 100 churches annually
Playing hundreds of solo concerts at colleges and music halls
Performing with symphony orchestras, including as guest artist with the Jacksonville Pops
Scoring 11 arrangements for full symphony
Arranging multiple guitar pieces for symphony orchestras
Appearing solo on over 200 television shows, including Nashville Now and Hee-Haw
Performing on the Grand Ole Opry
Recording with the renowned gospel group, The Kingsmen
Playing on over 500 recordings as a studio musician for multiple artists
Serving as featured guitarist on compilation CDs from the Bill Gaither video series
Playing with legendary guitarist Les Paul
Performing as featured guitarist on over 500 shows with the late Kenny Price
Playing on shows and often touring with artists such as Ernest Tubb, Cal Smith, Osborne Brothers, Leon Redbone, Leona Williams, Don Gibson, Bill Anderson, Charlie Daniels, Cybil Shepherd, and many others
Performing with Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Roy Clark
Being inducted into the National Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, 2012
Dreams for Ray have certainly come true, although not in the way he expected. Despite the illness that he thought had ended his musical career, he made a comeback that only God could have orchestrated. He attributes learning to play the guitar as inspiration to heal and motivation to move forward with his life. Ray believes God blessed him with a gift at a time in his life when his need was great and that his experience is proof that God answers prayers.
Music touches people in many different ways. It touched Ray’s life in a profound way. He went from devastating heartbreak over losing the ability to play trumpet to a joyful career as a renowned guitarist. Ray now serves the Lord with this God-given talent on the guitar and hopes his story will be a model and a reminder for others who need inspiration to overcome life’s challenging circumstances.