Guiding Light: Neil Donnell Ray

At Paddy’s Pub, 2017. photo credit: Tony Murnahan

In planning for 2021, I had an idea to (for now metaphorically) sit at the knee of our local artistic wise ones and learn from their processes and experiences. They are truly Guiding Lights for our community.

You can’t be in the Fayetteville art scene for very long and not hear the name “Neil Ray.” I wasn’t in town two weeks before witnessing his brilliance at Java Expressions, the open mic night he created and has hosted for 22 years at The Coffee Scene on Morganton Road. He serves as MC, recites poetry both pre-written and improvised, and jumps on the cajon to accompany many of the singer-songwriters. Somehow, he both exudes warmth to his audience and artists and is the epitome of cool at the exact same time.

What does success look like for you? “Accomplishing a particular purpose,” he said, which in Ray’s case is not only pursuing his art of poetry and music, but also encouraging the artists around him to “see they’re stars in their own right.” He’s candid about the ups and downs he’s witnessed or experienced, which builds trust with his audiences and artists.

What change do you seek to make with your art? “I want to inspire others in the community.” Ray shares a story about a young person who attended a Java Expressions one night, then came back the next week and braved the mic to share a poem that started as a suicide note but then wound up being a life-saving piece of art. There is literal truth in his catchphrase: “If no one else will listen–the page will.”

How have you constructed the bridges of your practice? “I find every day life inspirational: the people and the action around me.” Ray became smitten with writing poetry in elementary school. He wrote while serving in the military, created custom pieces while working as a flower salesman, helped students as a teaching artist, and all the while works to make a community more inclusive using his art. “Practicing gives you a better understanding of your craft.” Getting up on stage or getting away to an artists’ retreat to write and record music both contribute to Ray’s continued longevity and growth.

Who is in your artistic cohort? “I look at [my community] like a buffet: my eyes get wide and I take all I can now.” Ray is not one to shy away from naming names. He pulls dozens of people into his art network: from early mentors Lt. Colonel Bill Bailey and poet Glen Carter to musicians Erik Smallwood (with whom he toured all over the Southeastern USA) and Puncho Forrest to next generation hyphenates like poet/performer/coach El’Ja Bowens, author/musician/teacher Shane Wilson, and poet/coach/designer Yolanda “Yogii with 2 iis” Barnes. He talks about theaters, poetry groups, the Writers Ink Guild, drum circles, jazz bands, Southeastern Regional NC Poetry Festival, and more.

It is one thing to watch Ray give away more ideas and inspiration than he keeps, encouraging poets, songwriters, musicians, and authors to work through creative concepts and build new shows, albums, books, or organizations. But the real blessing is to watch the love come pouring back. Over and over I’ve watched and listened to artists give credit, give adoration, even give money to help cover medical costs after Ray had a stroke in 2019. Ray’s generosity in both word and deed is truly an act of wisdom. May we all continue to be blessed by this elder.

It may be 2020, but we’re still doing a season of gratitude

It’s November so internet rules state I must post a gratitude list.

But this blog isn’t about me, it’s about all the amazing artists in and around Fayetteville.

So I asked them who they were grateful for.

The love train was phenomenal.

Arts Event Manager and writer Ashanti Bennett (and one of my personal gratitudes) called out painter Jen Hancock, who choose two other painters: “This year, I am grateful for all of the BLM inspired artists and artwork, but Carlos Tolentino’s George Floyd portrait particularly stands out for me. It was a beautifully and powerfully portrayed artwork reminding me that there is a whole nation of people within our nation who have felt unable to breathe for centuries and we all need to do better, and be better humans. I am also infinitely grateful for another of the local heroes of our artist world, Mary Ward, whom we tragically lost a week ago. Not only did she create art that burst at the seams with bright and loving joy, but she bestowed her passion and love of art on to my children who were blessed enough to call her their art teacher. She is already truly missed.”

Minda Rella tagged Val Humphrey, who said, “I’d like to shoutout Beth Davis. I pick her because, not only is her artwork visually stunning and complex, but she also happens to be remarkably kind and humble. I love her vivid use of color and intricate line work. Her art is very different from mine, and yet it inspires me so much.”

Doug Burton and Michael Daughtry caught their own loop. Michael said about Doug “Thank you for supporting original artists and creating excellent original music!” And then Doug responded about Michael: “Throughout the year he’s kept us all entertained via “Get The Drift” webcasts, even while we can’t make it out to traditional venues. Michael supports local music & musicians like very few others, and we are lucky to have him as part of our community.”

Dec 2019 Lisette and Justin perform at The Sweet Palette.

Singer TishMone and Author Shane Wilson both tagged singer-songwriter Lisette. She shared “Grateful for my cellist / partner in crime Justin Mackey, for helping me record and produce my acoustic EP. Grateful for The Arts Council for supporting the arts during a year where everything had to go virtual.”

Pre 2020 pic. LtoR: Devra Thomas, Ashanti Bennett, El’Ja Bowens. Photo credit: Monica Bowens

“Talent, passion for his craft, entrepreneurship, leadership, generosity in lifting others, and willingness to invest his time, talent, and energy into the community. Plus, a genuinely good guy.” Of course Sam Dubose is talking about El’Ja Bowens. He then spread the love around more: “For me, there are too damn many lol. But, let’s go with Neil Donnell Ray, Law Bullock, Yolanda A. Barnes, Ed Owens, and Ashanti Bennett. All dedicate themselves to their craft, community, and above all else they are willing to look past themselves to help the greater good.”

Shane also tagged painter Damien Mathis, who returned the love and then some: “Shane, he met me at a point in life where I didn’t understand a lot about how people view my art. As an author, he solidified a different viewpoint. Carter has gave me every opportunity without asking for anything in return…honest in his tomorrows. Metoya Scott has been very informative in what’s going on in the community and has a professional persona about the art world.”

Pre everything. Neil Ray and El’Ja Bowens at The Sweet Palette. Photo credit: Law Bullock

And almost everyone mentioned Neil Ray. As musician Shaun McNamee put it: “Can’t have this list without mentioning the great Dr Neil Donnell Ray. There wouldn’t be a local scene without him!” Neil replied, “It is so good to be honored by your peers! My respect and adoration of these artists and so many others is the true testimony of the talent we have in this area! I am grateful to all of them! They have helped me become better! Or at least get in the game!”

Keep the love going! Shoutout in the comments a local artist you’re grateful for this year!

Honorable Poetry: Law Bullock II

A native of Fayetteville, Lawrence “Law” Bullock II is a motivational speaker, spoken word artist, the founder of M.U.G. Photography, a published author, member of Bronco Toastmasters, and a member of Let’s Make It Happen Together, a nonprofit providing positive alternatives for at-risk / high risk youth and families in our communities. His poetry projects have been in a print anthology, online magazine, and his own book. Law acknowledges that art can connect people from different walks of life. No matter your belief system, art knows how to build bridges.

Favorite Local Third Place: The Sweet Palette and Coffee Scene tie

3 Things you can’t live without: God, family and poetry

Local artist (any genre) you admire: Neil Ray

A practice you’ve started during quarantine that you plan to continue: I picked back up drawing and sketching since it all began

What is one of your current artistic experiments?  Structuring poems into a storyline that continues over several pieces

Who is someone who encouraged or championed your artwork? My Aunt

What advice would you give to new/younger/less experienced artists in your genre? Stay true to yourself. Never sacrifice who you are just to fit in with the crowd. There will only be one you that brings what you bring to the art form.


 

Listening and Learning: Singer-Songwriter Lisette

The artistic bio: Blending elements of dark alternative pop with orchestral instrumentation and electronic production, Lisette creates colorful, cinematic soundscapes that are enhanced by her powerful vocals. She is a singer-songwriter born from early influences of rock, alternative, indie pop, and her love for classical music and film scores. Her music is comparable to the likes of Evanescence and BANKS. She began writing songs at 15 and performed at music venues and open mics around her home state of North Carolina. While studying music business and popular music in college, she stumbled upon her love for producing and she released her debut single “Run This Far” in 2018. Lisette won ‘Best Rock Female’ at the 2019 Carolina Music Awards.

Lisette captivates audiences with her haunting voice and lyrical poetry that flows within her songs. Her debut EP Beneath the Surface released November 1, 2019.

Favorite Local Third Place: The Coffee Scene or Rude Awakening! Dirtbag Ales is also one of my favorite nighttime spots.

3 Things you can’t live without: My cat, piano, and acoustic guitar

EP release at the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County, Nov 2019.

Local artist (any genre) you admire: Lauren Light. She’s actually from Greensboro, NC but I’d still say she’s considered local. She’s a pop singer-songwriter, co-founder of twoOhsix Music, and also runs a podcast called “The Enlightened Musician,” which focuses on the music business and turning your art into a successful business. 

A practice you’ve started during quarantine that you plan to continue: Lately I’ve been making my morning cup of coffee and sitting on my deck to read and/or journal (if it’s not too hot!). I’ve really been enjoying that morning ritual to clear my mind and feed my imagination before work.

What is one of your current artistic experiments? I actually just finished recording an acoustic version of my debut EP Beneath the Surface with my good friend cellist Justin Mackey. The production of the original EP was electronic pop with cinematic elements and I really wanted to strip everything back and focus on the raw emotions and lyrics of each song. We took each of the five songs and reimagined them using organic instruments such as acoustic guitar, piano, and cello.

Lisette and Justin Mackey.

Who is someone who encouraged or championed your artwork? My parents have always encouraged me to reach for the stars when it comes to my music. Neil Donnell Ray, who is a pillar of the Fayetteville music scene and hosts The Coffee Scene’s Open Mic Night, has always been a big supporter of mine since I began performing there when I was 16. He’s been around through the years to see my growth as an artist and has always encouraged me. Also, my college music professor Dr. David Lee Fish, cellist Justin Mackey, and, of course, my friends.

What advice would you give to new/younger/less experienced artists in your genre? If you want to make a full time living from being an artist, learn as much as you can. Not only about music in general or your instrument of choice but also about the music business itself. In this day and age, it’s crucial to be well rounded and knowledgeable about branding, marketing, social media, booking practices, etc. Gone are the days where record labels develop artists and help them build their fan base. They want to sign artists who have their own following and brand, which they can then help them to achieve even higher heights. With that said, these days you don’t even need a record label to be successful. Social media and the internet has completely changed the game and any artists in any location or any genre can be successful if they have the right tools. Remember, if you don’t know how to do it yourself you will have to pay someone else to do it for you. This is why I’ve taught myself music production, graphic design, video editing, website design, photography, etc on top of getting my Bachelors degree in Music Business and Popular Music.


Collaboration leads to Connection: Wilson and Ray new concept album

What are you looking for/
Love Hope Happiness/
Everything else they sell at the store

-from the song “Oh Dang”

It’s fitting — in a weird 2020 way — that the first new article of the year is about the same artist as the last new article, published a year ago. Shane Wilson, FTW. That experimental cd we wrote about? It’s out today, July 3! The Blue Ridge Connection, Volume 1 uses original songs and poetry to tell the story of a young man named Martin who goes into the western North Carolina mountains in search of answers to some of life’s most perplexing questions. (Hint: there may be shrooms involved in answering some of them.)

The Blue Ridge Connection is an evolving collective of artists brought together by the magic of the western North Carolina mountains. This iteration is a collaborative effort between Neil Ray (percussion and poetry), Shane Wilson (vocals, guitar, lyrics), Michelle Winfrey (vocals), and Drea Dreiling (violin).

Fans of Shane’s writing or Neil’s spoken word poetry will not be disappointed. Both are equally featured throughout the tracks. The Blue Ridge Connection, Volume 1 is available on all major streaming platforms or can be purchased directly from Shane’s website.

Shane Wilson, with Sequoia Rising partner Jerry Smith