Porter Waggoner once sang that there’s no satisfaction like a satisfied mind. For Erik “Fingers” Ray, the satisfaction lies in having his free time occupied by a froth of things to ponder in an ongoing search for new ways to tinker with things. Last time one of his classes averaged more than 90 percent on a test, he treated them to a version of the school song, “Onward, Conrad” on a plastic army ruler and the edge of a desk. One hand holding the ruler, the other twanging.
Rancher, high school math teacher, part-time musician and full-time family man, Erik “Fingers” Ray is living the life. He grew up in Conrad and married his childhood sweetheart. He and his brother, Wild West yodeler Wylie Gustafson, were the first kids in town to own a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. He’s got as many musical interests as he has nicknames, and he’s very fun to talk with: lighthearted, slyly modest and equally interested in the thinkings and doings of the interviewer. To the point where the interviewer forgets that he’s supposed to be conducting an interview and notices some time later (i.e. while transcribing his notes) that instead of asking the prepared questions, he was only too happy to go plunging off the topic at hand with Erik whenever and wherever possible. In fact, the excerpt that follows was the only real question-and-answer portion of the 15 or so minutes we got to chit-chat on a Monday evening right about dinnertime. The rest of the conversation was spent talking about the latest news on the Fireballs of Freedom, good bluegrass in Missoula, his first impressions of Devo, and everything else you wouldn’t expect a small-town math teacher to think about.
Last time we caught up with the Conrad cosmonaut, he rated accordion players just slightly sexier than kosher plum brandy and girls with scars through their eyebrows (but not quite as sexy as knee cymbals and the circus) and told us that the best piece of advice anyone ever gave him was to get out of the music business while he still had time. “That was the best and worse piece of advice,” he says. This time our agenda wasn’t quite as pressing, but it was fun to get all caught up.
So on the whole, Erik, you like living in Conrad?
The small-town life’s for you?
Oh yeah, it’s great for raising a family.
You’ve got kids, then?
Three kids. Senior, sophomore, sixth-grader.
Do you teach any of them?
Yep, my son. He would have had a four-point if it wasn’t for me.
That hurts. You dad blows your four-point. Jeez, Erik.
He got what he got. There were kids that got As. He just wasn’t one of ‘em. I teach calculus and trigonometry and geometry. It’s hard to get an A in the classes I teach.
Are you one of the cool teachers?
The students elected me for Teacher of the Year last year. I don’t know if I’m one of the cool ones, but I do have fun with the kids. I have a special empathy for the ones who don’t fit in.
Is that because you were one of the kids who didn’t fit in when you were in high school?
No, I was the opposite. I was a jock. Went to Idaho on a track scholarship and was one of the cool guys. I get along great with most all of the kids, but every once in a while I make a special connection with the ones who don’t fit in.
Been on any creative tears with the one-man band lately? Writing a lot of new songs?
I purchased a Korg D-12 digital recorder a month ago and I’ve really been getting into that. I plan on having a CD out, oh, hopefully by next summer. I’m working on it right now. Right now it’s kind of heavy on the accordion. I don’t know if I’ll continue in that direction, but the first songs have a lot of it anyway.
Did you teach yourself the accordion?
Yeah, I’m self-taught on everything. I can’t read a note. Nope, can’t even read the tablature for knee cymbals.