Like his brother Wylie Gustafson, Erik “Fingers” Ray is a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, quite content to tinker around the ranch penning songs about barbed wire and the state bird. Unlike Wylie, Erik once again hangs his hat in their hometown of Conrad, where he also teaches high school. His involvement in the Missoula music scene spans 20 years and includes stints in (see if you can remember) Tumblin’ Dice, the Mad Dog Blues Band, cult New Wave heroes The Talk, Erik Ray and the Skates, and Erik Pain and the Aneuploids, which he describes as “a tragically unsuccessful stab at punk music.” This week, “Fingers” Ray is back for one of his regular gigs at Sean Kelly’s, which prompted us to have this recent, virtual conversation with him via e-mail:
Did you assign yourself the “Fingers” handle or did someone else give it to you?
First of all, it is not a verb. It was actually tagged on me by a ranch hand named Dale Camp in the winter of ’83. We spent a lot of time in the pickup, driving across the prairie, telling jokes and shirking work, and he noticed that my fingers were longer than the average cowboy’s. That is the honest-to-gosh truth.
What do you teach, and what is your particular interest in the subject?
I teach geometry (remember just how much fun proofs are?), advanced math, calculus and computer programming. After eight years of muddling around in college, my advisor noted that I had more math credits than the usual student, so that became my second major. I actually graduated with a double major, biology and math, but I just couldn’t see a future consisting of various frog organs hurtling through a classroom of wild sophomores, so I took the math route. Much cleaner.
Are you the cool kind of teacher or the kind that gives a pop quiz on Senior Skip Day?
I am a combination of crass and cool: cruel. I try to make math funny and interesting, but just how many giggles can one get out of finding the volume of the figure formed by rotating the region enclosed by the graphs of y = sin x, x=0, x=pi/2, and the x axis, about the y axis?
Rate the following items in declining order of sexiness and explain yourself: kosher plum brandy, scars through eyebrows, the circus, accordion players, knee cymbals?
Okey-dokey. (1) The circus. Have you ever seen elephants mate? (2) Knee cymbals. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I like to sand the edges on mine down a bit—less damage to the mattress. (3) Accordion players. When Myron Floren’s charming smile beams out of my 1961 Zenith Seabrook (model H2231), it just sets my little heart a pitter-patter. (4) Scars through eyebrows. Reminds me of an old girlfriend in East Glacier. (5) Kosher plum brandy. They don’t serve this on the Hi-Line, so I had to put it last.
What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you? The worst? We opened for Buddy Guy and Junior Wells at the Top Hat about 15 years ago. At a social gathering afterwards, I was talking to Buddy, telling him of my fondness for music and my burgeoning career as a “bluesman.” He looked me straight in the eye and said “Get out of the business now, while you still can.” That was the best and the worst piece of advice.
Erik “Fingers” Ray plays Sean Kelly’s this Friday, March 24 and Saturday, March 25 at 9:30 p.m. Admission is FREE.