Alternative country music singer Stewart Ray has come a long way in country music since he started sneaking into bars at the age of 14 to sing on open mic nights.
Ray was born in Manhattan and graduated from Manhattan High School in 2011. While he still lives here and plays here often, he’s also starting to see broader success, booking shows across the state and in Texas and Oklahoma.
“I’ve always had a passion for music even at a young age,” he said. “It was always around the people in my family but I’m the first to play an instrument or sing.”
It wasn’t until seventh grade that Ray started to play guitar, and by his sophomore year of high school he’d also learned to play the harmonica, although he’d been expressing interest in music long before that. By his freshman year of high school he had learned to write music. He was also playing in Longhorn’s on open mic nights and in other bars in Aggieville while he was still in his teens.
“I don’t write fiction. My music is mostly about my life or someone’s life who is close to me,” he said. “It has always been easy to sit down and pump out songs about love and pain. I don’t really write any party songs. It is all about where I am at the time; I have songs about Texas, Georgia, Colorado and California.”
Since the musical side of what he does comes so naturally, the hardest part of developing himself as an up-and-coming performer has been the business aspect: spreading his name as an independent artist and promoting himself, especially on the radio or securing performances in other states.
“I get more nervous in a room with three people going over promotions than I do on a stage with 10,000 in a crowd,” Ray said.
Although it sometimes presents a challenge, Ray has been making headway with his dreams. He headlined the Lake Whitney Music Fest in Lake Whitney, Texas, July 6. Aside from the rush of headlining his first concert, he also recorded a new live album that night and filmed a documentary for the music fest.
Ray draws a lot of inspiration from Oklahoma and Texas musicians. He said he was thrilled to record his next album in a state that means so much to him as an alternative country artist.
“Friday night playing in the Stockyards was one of the best nights of my career so far,” Ray said. “I’ve wanted to play the Stockyards for a long time now, and the warm response from Texas made it feel like home.”
He was the last performer to go on at 10 p.m. and played a 90-minute acoustic set.
Ray estimates that over the last few years he has played roughly 120 shows each year, with roughly half of them being paid.
“As time goes on money starts to become a bigger thing because the music has become more than a hobby; it is also a business,” Ray said. “I love to play — it is my vice — so if someone really wants me to play that means a lot to me, I will try to play regardless of if I am paid or not.”
Ray plans to use the headlining gig in Texas to further expand his performance area to allow him to play more out-of-state venues in the next 12 months, however, he still plans to play around Kansas in the meantime.
One of his upcoming performances is scheduled for Aug. 2 in Abilene. On Sept. 20 he is hosting Stew Palooza at R.C. McGraw’s, a dual concert with a top-20 Texas country band and celebration of Ray’s 21st birthday.
The event at R.C. McGraw’s will also double as a CD release of Ray’s new live album from the Lake Whitney concert. The event will be open to the public but tickets will be required to ensure bar capacity is not exceeded.
“The release of my new CD will mark another chapter in my life,” Ray said. “Once I write new songs and put them on a CD, I slowly start weaning them out of my life and moving forward. I don’t want to be a one-hit-wonder.”
He has already had songs played on the K-State radio station, on stations in Dodge City and Hays and on a few networks in Texas.
“The first time I heard my song on the radio it was weird… I was driving down a back road, and it was that moment that a lot of people dream of, to be able to have one song on the radio,” he said. “I am blessed enough to have friends in high and low places who work for me and helped that happen.”
As Ray has continued to establish himself as a country singer over the years, failure has never crossed his mind.
“My mom has always said I’m a legend of my own mind, so the thought of failing has never been there,” Ray said. “After the release of my first studio album a dramatic change took place in my music and the direction I’m going; my sound is finally getting to where it should be.”
Ray is currently in the process of assembling band members and hopes to have a group put together by the fall. He is also throwing around the idea of moving to Austin, Texas, or Nashville, Tenn., to continue to grow as a performer.
“Established artists in the business have given me the advice to ‘stay with the music and do what you love,’” Ray said.
So far, Ray’s fondest performance was when he had the opportunity to play with artist Logan Mize at the Wareham. During Mize’s song “The Boys from Back Home,” he invited Ray onstage to sing with him, which was “awesome since we’re both from Kansas and both chasing the same dream and the same neon lights,” Ray said.
Wherever Ray ends up or how successful he becomes, he intends to always return to play in Kansas.
“I’ve been blessed with a talent I don’t understand — but I’m happy to live the life I do,” Ray said.