If you tune into 91.9 FM on your radio dial on Saturday mornings, you’re likely to hear a familiar guitar twang.
Ray Hadley Sr. the self-proclaimed ‘Last Kickapoo Hillbilly’ is a musical act that many know simply as ‘Uncle Ray.’
Some 84 years ago, Hadley came from humble beginnings in rural LaFarge, where music wasn’t just for entertainment but also a means of income.
“In the 1930s, my dad was singing and playing with my older siblings,” Hadley recalled. The family band, ‘The Kickapoo Hillbillies,’ traveled the local circuit playing the WPA talent contests at the various opera houses. At the time, the Works Progress Administration, a depression-era public works and employment program, played a big role in the impoverished rural areas. A fine moment came for the family in the late 30s, when the band won first place at the local WPA talent contest.
“The whole town was there,” Hadley remembered. “Dad and Ma were all dressed up. Barbara and Goldie (Hadley’s sisters) were all dressed up in handmade cowboy outfits Ma made.”
The WPA talent contests brought people to town, earned the winners a couple of dollars, and boosted morale as part of the inclusive New Deal program brought on by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Hadley participated in his first talent show when he was about eight or nine years old in Rockton. Hadley sang along with his family and occasionally played the fiddle.
“I never played guitar back then, I always sang, sometimes chorded on a fiddle,” Hadley recalled as he sat back in his chair, surrounded by various guitars. A guitar of some type occupies nearly every corner of Hadley’s quaint cabin in rural Viroqua.
Growing up, Hadley’s father, Merle, also made the fiddles that they would play during their evening performances. His first was made from an old cigar box.
In the family, music was also for entertainment around home.
“Well we had a battery radio, but we always had to save the juice for war news and usually nothin’ else,” Hadley explained.
Merle knew how to read music, but it was a skill that Hadley himself never picked up.
“Dad tried to teach me how to read notes and play chords on the guitar, but he just ended up giving up on me,” Hadley said with a chuckle.
Learning to play by ear in his own style, Hadley credits early blues musicians like Robert Johnson for influencing his style.
“I keep my guitar tuned to Drop D. A lot of musicians in the south tuned their guitars that way,” Hadley said.
You can easily pick out a Ray Hadley original, with a similar, hard strum in all of his songs, and his strong voice leading the charge. Once you hear one of his tunes, you’ll never forget his sound.
This style was also memorable for Hadley’s oldest grandson, Wes Edge, who is also a musician.
“He has always tuned the low strings on the guitar way low, like down tuned Death Metal low, he’s playing bass notes in there too. His style can be described as ‘a Midwestern version of Old Time Hillbilly style from the 1920s’,” Edge said. “Changes are driven primarily by strong vocal lines.”
As a child growing up with Hadley, watching him play was the norm for Edge.
“He would play guitar and harmonica (at the same time) and record it in the silo with an old tape deck recorder. Dustin (Hadley’s youngest son) used to sneak back there and try to scare him. I’d love to hear those recordings now,” Edge said, fondly remembering those days.
Wes Edge was not the only one to remember Hadley’s talent and passion for singing and songwriting that had been around as long as anyone in his family could remember. It was this memory that lead Hadley’s nephew, John Parish, to introduce him to Mike Koppa, a radio DJ on 91.9 FM, WDRT radio in Viroqua.
“John started seeing me play at Crazy Frank’s Flea Market years ago,” Hadley said. “He was always telling me that I should come up and sing on his friend’s radio show. When John moved to the Carolinas, he had a going away party. Koppa and his wife were there and we got hooked up and that’s how it all started. John was always talking about ‘Uncle Ray’.”
This was two years ago this month, according to the records kept by Hadley’s friend, JJ.
“It started out on Thursday afternoon, and now its Saturday mornings. After the first time, he asked me back and hasn’t told me to leave yet,” Hadley said.
Hadley generally plays about three songs in the final 20 minutes of Koppa’s show. Some covers and some originals.
“My dad was always into writing songs, you know, and that’s how I got into it,” Hadley said. Singing about his real life and then some, Hadley’s songs are infectious, staying in your head, until you’re singing to yourself.
“I’d rather drink muddy water, and sleep in a hollowed log,” you’re hearing, with the strum of his guitar softly playing in the back of your mind.
Ray Hadley also has a talent that many musicians don’t practice anymore—yodeling.
“We always gotta play one with yodeling,” Hadley said. “You know, the yodeling is a thing now. Koppa likes to yodel along with me.”
Occasionally, Mr. Koppa isn’t the only one singing along on the show. Hadley will also bring his older sister, Barbara Kelly from time to time to join him in singing and telling stories.
“We only usually get 20 minutes, but if Barbara comes along we’ll go longer, because she likes to talk,” Hadley noted with a grin.
With three binders full of lyrics, Hadley has no shortage of material.
“Whenever I think of a song, JJ will get me the lyrics. I do a lot of Jimmy Rodger tunes, and a few by Willie Nelson. If we loose an artist, I like to do a couple of their songs. Gotta throw an original in there every once in awhile too,” Hadley said.
Regular listeners of Mr. Koppa’s Neighborhood may have noticed Hadley’s absence over the previous weeks,
“Well I was gone a few weeks for heart surgery, but it was good to come back and sing a few songs,” said Hadley.
Barbara told Ray at a family gathering shortly after his surgery that he sounded better than ever.
Even a stay in the hospital couldn’t keep Ray Hadley from his guitar. While awaiting the surgery in Madison, he had a guitar and his snakeskin hat brought to him. He played out in front of the hospital until the nurses shooed him back inside.
Ray Hadley is a true Kickapoo legend, who will continue to strum his guitar for many more years.