When Nan Ray, founder of the Texas Western Swing Heritage Association of Bell County, hears Western Swing a tidal wave of things rush to mind. However, first and foremost is always love, and her late husband of 57 years, Durwood “Mitz” Ray.
Immediately after him comes all the wonderful music, talented musicians, family memories, and many friends she has met over the last 18 years of hosting the Bell County Texas Western Swing Fiddlers Showcase. For Nan, a native Texan, Western Swing embodies everything there is about her, including her family and Texas lifestyle – living and working – on their Central Texas ranch.
The Texas Western Swing Heritage Association of Bell County is a nonprofit organization established to promote and preserve Texas Western Swing music heritage by providing an entertaining and educational Western Swing Showcase.Every year the TWSHA unites some of the most talented musicians in western swing,including Grammy award winners, hall of fame musicians, world champion fiddlers and renowned recording artists to performing one premier showcase.
“My husband Mitz loved the fiddle and western swing. He was the reason I started this event. I knew he would enjoy it. It’s been a lot of hard work over the years, especially in the very beginning. But it’s been worth it. I’ve enjoyed it. And the entire family has been involved ever since day one. Even the children when they were little sat around this very table and helped me prepare mailings and stuffed envelopes ,worked at the event taking tickets.“They have always been a big part of it. And they know everything there is to know about it and exactly how I like things done. They could run the showcase without me if they had to,” said Nan laughing, “And they will tell you, I have always been very particular about how I wanted things done and they had to do them my way.”
Nan still remembers the first showcase like it was yesterday. “I was so nervous, all I could think about was, what if nobody shows up?”Then we had an unexpected cold front blow in at the last minute and the temperatures dropped below freezing. The wind was howling. It was just awful. I remember pulling into the dark parking lot at the Expo Center and my heart just dropped–it was sleeting. I remember sitting there in my car thinking, ‘All that hard work for nothing! Nobody is going to DARE venture out tonight in this weather.’
“The roads were already bad and, of course,they were only going to get worse as the night went on. I didn’t even know what to do. I finally decided to go on in, thinking we would have to cancel. But just as I was getting out of the car, another car pulled up alongside me and the driver asked me if I knew where the Western Swing Fiddle Showcase was being held.“In that moment all my worries left and I grabbed my boxes of tickets and headed for the door. We ended up having a great turnout and I realized then just how much the music really meant to people. And if we could pull in a crowd in that kind of weather—everything was going to be just fine.”
Nan not only hand-picks all of the musicians personally,to ensure only “the best of the best” take the stage; she stands at the door to greet and thank each and every guest for their support. “I think that is very important and I have done it every year since we started. There aren’t many places left these days where you’re greeted or thanked for your business,” Nan said. “I am old-fashioned. You take care of your guests and you do everything in your power to make them feel comfortable and welcome. That’s just how we were raised growing up. We may not have had much,or anything fancy, but we always made sure the house was clean and comfortable for our guests and we shared everything we had with them.
“Each year we have a large attendance.Of course, I also have my regulars who come every year and they never miss a year. Even now that some of them have moved out of the area-even out of state, they still comeback every year. I just love seeing everyone.
It’s like a big reunion. It takes a lot of hard work, but in the end it’s always worth it. We have top-rated musicians and the best music you’ll ever hear.”