Acoustic Blues

(Acoustics, August 1993 - Guy "Doc" Lerner)

Ray Chesna: Doing It All Well

On a recent weekend I decided to engorge myself in the Atlanta music scene. I spent Friday night at the new Blues Harbor in Buckhead enjoying country Blues in the authentic styles of Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Tommy Johnson and Blind Blake. On Saturday, I made my way over to a Decatur street festival to hear a country swing band performing the tunes of Bob Wills and Hank Williams, Sr. On Sunday night I was back in Decatur at the Freight Room rounding out my weekend with tradition bluegrass. Three different styles of music in three days -- great music and great fun!

If there was a common link in each of these performances, it was Ray Chesna. It was Chesna gigging solo at Blues Harbor where he has become Atlanta's best contemporary, acoustic bluesman. And it was Chesna fronting both the swing band (with his Bunkhouse Buddies) and the bluegrass band. Without a doubt, Ray is an accomplished musician well versed in many styles, and his long professional career is reflective of this. But what I found most impressive about Mr. Chesna is his approach to and understanding of the music that he plays.

Chesna's musical background begins in the late 1960's when he was part of the "tail end" of the blues revival centered in New York City that produced such current legends as Bonnie Raitt, David Bromberg, Paul Geremia, Rory Block, John Hammond, and Dave Van Ronk. In the early seventies with the blues revival at a low point, Chesna began to expand his musical horizons. He played in several bands where the musical focus ranged from rockabilly to bluegrass to an Eastern European show band. As Chesna recalls: "Those Ukrainians could party hard. Some weddings lasted nine hours! That really built up my calluses." Yet, his most rewarding experience was with Wicker's Creek, a progressive string band whose members included Marty Laster and Bela Fleck. This certainly was a time of growth on his instrument. "We really pushed ourselves; we were all young musicians trying to learn more and get better. We had rules like one person could actually challenge you to play a solo only using certain areas of the fret board."

In the eighties, Ray left New York and moved to Atlanta. He hoped for Nashville but his wife was relocated to Atlanta. He taught guitar for awhile and opened a guitar repair shop. As the blues made another comeback, students began requesting that he teach them the songs and styles of the old blues masters. "There seems to be more of an interest of where the blues came from -- at least this time around, anyway. I never really did approach the music from a Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton perspective, although I love what they do. My approach to the blues and all the music I play, for that matter, has been from the original recordings. I sought them out. I think that's why I've been successful during this most recent blues resurgence. I have something different to offer."

As interest in the "older" blues continues to surge, Ray has found an increasingly wider audience for his talents. In 1992, he was selected to be an instructor at "Blues Week", the award winning workshop of the Augusta Heritage Center. Ray worked closely with Piedmont bluesman John Jackson; he also taught his own workshop on the "Boogie Woogie Guitar". Riding the wave of good fortune, Ray is performing weekly at Blues Harbor and Red, Hot, and Blue in Buckhead. You might also catch him around town with his swing and bluegrass bands performing the songs in an original, authentic style. As in the early days, Ray hasn't limited himself to one genre.

Copyright (c) 1993, Guy Lerner

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