Originally Published: September 19, 2010 10:11 p.m.
PRESCOTT - If legendary fiddle player Ray Gardner had a nickel for every tall-tale or joke he told, he'd be a rich man.
"We feel like he's the top man around here," said Vesta Robitaille, 92, who is a neighbor of Gardner and his second wife, Betty, at the Arizona Pioneers' Home in Prescott. "He's definitely the top fiddle player."
The Greater Arizona Country-Western/Swing Music Association agrees with Robitaille and recently inducted Gardner into its Hall of Fame.
"I had no idea I was getting an award," Gardner, 88, said while sitting on the front porch at the Pioneers' Home in his trademark cowboy boots, jeans and Western-style shirt. "I was playing at a place in Prescott Valley and they got up and gave me the award."
A typical tale of Gardner's goes something like this: "I was born in Los Angeles in 1922. I got tired of the place after about a year, so I borrowed a horse and rode to Rico, Colo." That would mean Gardner embarked cross-country on horseback as a 1-year-old. "Yep. That's about right."
Western swing and honky-tonk music fans in the tradition of Bob Wills, can find Gardner and his fiddle playing at various locations in the county. He plays fiddle for the popular Western-swing band The Prescott Playboys: "Western Swing Music - Keepin' it Alive."
His family actually did move to Rico in the 1930s, but not exactly the way Gardner tells it. From Rico, his father moved the family to Wilcox in southeastern Arizona. After his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Gardner attended Eastern Arizona College and earned his teaching credential at the University of Colorado.
Although he is known today more for his fiddle skill, many county residents remember Gardner as a Mayer Elementary School teacher.
"I was looking for a teaching job away from Phoenix," he said. "I applied at Mayer and got hired to teach sixth grade. But I couldn't teach art worth a darn, and a fifth-grade teacher couldn't teach music, so we traded off."
One of his former music students is retiring Mayer Justice of the Peace John Kennedy.
"He is one of the finest fiddle players I've ever heard," Kennedy said in a previous interview. "And he is one of the finest people you could hope to meet. And he's a character alright."
Gardner credits his parents for his love of music and specifically Western-swing.
"The main reason I got interested in music is because my parents were both musicians," he said. "Ma could have been big-time on the piano if she hadn't of married my pa. I always said that he wrecked a great piano player."
Gardner credits his father with his gift of gab and natural ability to string a tall tale.
"They called my dad 'Windy' at Wilcox," Gardner said. "He was full of wind and bull and had a story about everything."
However, 'Windy' is the person who brought home a record of the "Goodnight Waltz," which launched Gardner's love for Western-swing.
"That's the first time I heard a guitar and fiddle together," he said. "We had an old wind-up record player and I played it over and over until I wore it out."
Gardner's daughter from his first marriage, Raelene, gave him a fiddle 30 years ago and it's the same fiddle Gardner carries around and plays today.
"I met him when he played at my birthday party," Robitaille said. "He was wonderful. He brought so much happiness to us. I like country music, and I like the way he does it."
Gardner is quick with a story, quicker with witty comebacks, and lightning-fast with a smile.
"I was lucky with my parents, and been lucky with my life," he reflected. "I've had a lot of good living in my life."