Valley serves as refrain, refuges for much-traveled musician
His life could be likened to driving along a mountain road – always up and down and never knowing what’s around the next corner. But that’s the way T. Ray likes it.
The 56-year-old musician is as well-known in the valley for his songwriting as he is for his singular personality and storytelling.
Thomas Ray Becker was born and raised in the south side of Chicago, where he studied art and played music on the side.
“I got my first guitar when I was 16. I played for a year and a half in a black band in the south side of Chicago,” he remembered. “I was the front man singing and blowing harp.”
Soon after graduating from the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1969, he was on his way to Los Angeles. He planned to stay overnight in Aspen with a friend.
He said his friend told him to stay because a band called Black Pearl was coming to town and they were looking for a singer. Then, like a lot of people around here who planned to stay just for a few days, he wound up sticking around.
“For the next five years we were playing six nights a week,” he said.
The band had just come off a national tour and they were hired on as the house band at The Gallery, a rock club in Aspen. While playing in the band, T. Ray met members of the Eagles and J.J. Cale and Willie Dixon when they played at the club.
“I got to jam with a lot of those people,” he said.
Those five years in Aspen were fast lane all the way, Becker said.
“Anybody who wasn’t there – you couldn’t tell them what it was like. It was everything to the max all the time,” he said.
But five years later, as quickly as he arrived in Aspen, he was gone. He got married and moved to Montana.
“I started my own band up there – the Becker Band – and we toured the Northwest,” he said.
Up north in Virginia City, Mont., Becker did whatever he could to make a living.
“We lived in Montana for 10 years. I’ve branded calves, irrigated fields, bucked bales and patched roads.”
But he had aspirations for bigger things. He was an extra in the movie “Missouri Breaks,” which starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando.
He also tried his hand at being a vocal image maker, which was what he called himself as he worked as a voice man for commercials and such.
In 1977, after a couple of years touring with that band, his first son, Jesse, was born. It wound up changing his life.
“I quit the music business and quit drinking,” he said. “I didn’t drink a beer for 11 years. I had to get out of the scene.”
Eventually he moved back to Colorado, and while on the Front Range, Becker landed speaking roles in two movies, “Manhunt for Claude Dallas,” which starred Rip Torn, and “Prison for Children,” starring John Ritter.
“God, he was funny. A nice guy, too,” Becker said of Ritter.
He also worked as the media director for a magazine.
In 1989, Becker and his wife moved back to the Western Slope, but things began to fall apart.
“We moved back up here in ’89 and bought a piece of property on the Crystal River. But two years later we got divorced after 18 years and two kids,” he said. “I gave up everything in my divorce.”
And that’s when the traveling really began.
“I went to Nashville about a year later,” he said. “I got standing ovations in the best (song)writer’s clubs.”
Those clubs featured such renowned musicians as Bill Monroe, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
“I met Townes 30 years ago. He pulled up to the Red Onion on his horse, pulled out a flask and gave me a pull and we went in and got drunk.”
All those years later in Nashville, Becker said, Van Zandt remembered him.
The Nashville experience lasted for about a year, but despite playing often, he didn’t make much money.
“Because Nashville is Nashville, I played for free and came back broke.”
When he again returned to the valley, he was hired on as a dishwasher at the Pour House in Carbondale.
“Once I got back, everyone told me to go to Austin. They said, `They’ll eat you up in Austin,'” he said.
But when he went down there, the picture wasn’t as rosy as some made it seem.
“I went down there with 200 bucks. I was down there for two weeks and wound up broke.”
“I had a quarter in my pocket, a half tank of gas and headed out at 11:30 on a Friday night in a rainstorm. I played a truck stop south of Waco and sold a CD.” That CD, released in 1992, was called “The Price of the Song.”
He said he flipped the quarter to decide between going to Dallas and Nashville.
“It was heads, so I headed back to Nashville,” he said. “When I got to Nashville, I had a half tank of gas and a dollar. I left (Texas) with a half tank of gas and a quarter – that’s a 300 percent profit.”
Out of that trip, Becker wrote “Brokedown and Broke Down in Texas,” a prime example of the guitar-based cowboy blues style he’s adopted and fashioned into his trademark over the years.
Once he got tired of digging ditches in Nashville for $6 an hour, Becker again moved back to the valley.
“I was in Glenwood and I met a woman and we lived together here, then bought a house in Paonia,” he said. “Meanwhile I was house painting.”
While in Paonia, Becker produced his second album, “Pathos Bill Rides Again.”
“I had a website ready to roll and a manager. Also, my artwork was beginning to sell and that’s when she left me for another man and kicked me out.”
Again he was left with practically nothing.
“Everything was in her name because she had credit and I didn’t,” he said.
So for the fifth time, Becker headed back to the Roaring Fork Valley. But times for a working musician have changed, he says.
“I started 40 years ago and it’s my passion and my life and I can’t not do it and still be myself. This passion and trade of mine is no longer worth anything because of things like DUI laws and karaoke. Bar owners can’t afford to pay you.
“People don’t pay what musicians are worth. One reason that they can’t is because DUIs have really hurt the business. Also, unless you’re part of the good ol’ boy network, you can’t pay enough to get your stuff played on 500 stations,” Becker said.
He said music today is just a business deal, and quality music is lost in the shuffle.
“So as good as you are after all these years, you’re stuck in limbo – that’s the way it’s evolved … It’s not anybody’s fault, this is the way it’s evolved,” he said.
Despite the hardships, however, Becker said it’s still worth the price.
He told a story about performing outside in Aspen recently. He played a sad song as a woman watched and listened intently. When the song was over, Becker said, the woman looked at him and said, “Wow, I really needed to hear that.”
She then threw $5 into his open guitar case.
“That’s the part I can’t leave alone.”
To contact T. Ray Becker for a gig, a regular job or anything else, a message can be left for him at 963-1804.
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