Gastonia lost something of a star Sept. 17.
But most people who crossed Ray Crisp’s path wouldn’t have known it. The
83-year-old was never one to brag about his exploits — even when they
involved traveling around the country playing music with country music legends.
Crisp, who died at home after declining health, lived a remarkable life. He
was married to his wife, Mary Daphine Crisp, for 65 years, he was
a father and a grandfather, and his fiddle is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Crisp was the first fiddle player in a country music group to
play at RKO Palace Theater on Broadway in New York City, in 1955. He played on
the Grand Ole Opry and toured with big-name acts of the
1950s and ’60s like Kitty Wells, Johnny and Jack, Roy Acuff and Ray Price.
“Ray was a quiet person,” his wife Daphine said. “He didn’t brag. You would never
know he ever played with any of these stars. We’ve got the pictures to prove it, but
he never once bragged about where he’d been.”
The living room of the Crisp house is filled with memorabilia — mostly photos
of Ray playing on stage with the who’s who of country music past or posing
with musicians while on tour. Daphine said her late husband was a natural
musician who “never took a lesson in his life.”
Flipping through a photo album in her home Friday, Daphine pointed out several
autographed photos from musicians who shared a stage with her husband at one point or
another. She even opened a few personal Christmas cards sent from famous
musicians — including the legendary George Jones.
At her home on Friday, Daphine teared up as she listened to her late husband
play fiddle and sing “I wish I Could Fall in Love” on an old record
from Don Reno & His Tennessee Cut-Ups.
To Daphine, Crisp was always a star. That’s how she saw him the first time they
met on Nov. 2, 1952, during a square dance in a Gastonia gym. Crisp was on
stage playing fiddle, but Daphine doesn’t remember how it sounded.
“I really wasn’t paying that much attention to the fiddle,” Daphine said. “I just thought
he was a cute little red-headed fella.”
Within a year, they were married, and Crisp was soon traveling to play music.
Crisp had various gigs, including shows with WLOS-TV act Cousin Wilbur in Asheville.
There, he caught the ears of Tennessee musicians Kitty Wells, her husband Johnnie Wright
and his bandmate Jack Anglin. Crisp started playing on the Opry in 1954,
and he would spend about 12 years performing in Nashville, Tenn., staying with Wells and
Wright and coming back to Gastonia when he wasn’t working. The Crisps didn’t really
like the way Nashville was set up, Daphine said, so she stayed here. As their
family grew, Crisp decided he wanted to spend more time back in Gastonia, and
he basically gave up professional music, Daphine said.
“He was starting to write a lot of music for himself but he stopped,” Daphine
said. “He didn’t pursue it… His family meant more to him than the music.”
He was 38 when he retired, and a Gazette profile at the time called him “a retired star.”
Of course, Crisp still took out his fiddle every now and then, including when
he played onstage with his sons and other local musicians during one of Gastonia’s old
Fish Camp Jam festivals.
Though Crisp met his fair share of big-name acts, there was at least one time he
was underwhelmed: When he met a young musician from Tupelo, Mississippi, by the name of
He called Daphine to say, “That boy will never make it.”
“Two or three years later, Ray said, ‘Boy, was I wrong,’” Daphine said.
Crisp’s name might not have been well-known around town, but he made an impression
on more than a few superstars.
Bob Bigger, who was a country music DJ, met Crisp when the two worked at Burlington
Industries Flint Mill in the 1970s. It was after Crisp, in the words
of his wife, “closed his fiddle case.” Crisp was able to give Bigger anecdotes about
touring, which Bigger was then able to turn into personal connections with guests
he was interviewing — something he now says was transformative for his career.
“I would talk about an experience, and almost without fail, their faces would light
up, and they would smile and say, ‘Well, how in the world did you hear
about that?’ and I would say, Ray Crisp,” Bigger said. One time in 1975,
Bigger says, Willie Nelson even recorded a personal message for Crisp while in the studio.
“He grabbed the microphone out of my hand and said, ‘Hey, Ray, if you’re there pal, come
see me,’” Bigger said.
The Crisps attended Gastonia Church of Christ, and Daphine said their faith was — and continues
to be — and important part of their story. Throughout her husband’s career as
a musician, millworker, father and grandfather, Daphine said she’s had
one constant feeling.
“I was proud of him,” she said. “I’ve always been proud of Ray.”
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