Ray Duckler: Teaching calculus, playing guitar and doing both very well

Last modified: 2/5/2014 11:58:32 PM
His life sounds like a dumb sitcom.

But it’s more like reality TV.

He’s a guitar-jamming cowboy who teaches calculus. He’s a former ranch hand whose fingers race across a guitar neck as quickly as his mind grasps logarithms, whose brother’s yodeling – “Ya-HOOOO!” – was heard on a TV commercial promoting the search engine, and whose father is a newly elected member of the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Erik Gustafson, a teacher at Bishop Brady High School, is finger-pickin’ good on the guitar, and if you look him up on YouTube, which I suggest you do before we move on, you’ll see what I mean.

. . . Okay.

His nickname is Erik “Fingers” Ray (Ray is his middle name), and late last month he played in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. He finished in the top eight, among more than 100 of the best you’ve-never-heard-of guitarists in the world, each advancing through local competition.

The final round was held at the famed Orpheum Theatre, with its 125 years of history, its tasseled draperies and its crystal chandeliers.

It’s not hard to believe that Gustafson, raised on a ranch in Montana, values music like oxygen.

“I have to play,” he said, sitting at his desk in his classroom after school. “It’s an addiction. That’s my addiction.”

What’s strange is that when Gustafson returned to work Monday morning nine days ago, he was perfectly content with his surroundings, even after getting his guitar fix in front of more than 2,000 people.

In fact, he was happy to be back.

“I came back to my job here and got just as big a thrill out of teaching calculus,” Gustafson said. “People ask me if wouldn’t that be nice to quit teaching and go play. No; I would miss it.”

So he does both, the Monday-through-Friday teaching gig by day, the three-times-a-week open microphone performances at near-empty bars by night.

In fact, after his first day back to school following his trip to Memphis, there was Fingers, jamming at a bar on Elm Street in Manchester, doing what comes natural, doing what he’s been doing for 40 years.

“Two other hosts and the bartender,” Gustafson said, when asked how many people were there.

Once, back in Conrad, Mont., he was a cowboy, a real cowboy, herding cattle and baling hay and digging holes for fence posts.

“If it was daylight,” Gustafson said, “we worked.”

He earned his nickname because of his long, sturdy fingers and big hands, which served him well on the ranch, and later onstage.

Fingers played an eclectic selection of music – honky tonk, blues, rock, country, zydeco, jazz – 100 nights a year, by his estimate, saying he’s played more than 3,000 shows in his lifetime.

He played with his brother Wylie for a while, after their father, Rib, inspired them with his late-night bluegrass picking and strumming.

Wylie went on to form Wylie and the Wild West, which still tours nationally and internationally. Gustafson said his brother also earned $1.5 million after copyrighting the use of his “Ya-HOOOO!” yodel.

Gustafson, meanwhile, broke off on his own, forming a one-man band. He wore his trademark tall, tan Stetson cowboy hat. Fingers’s arms and legs worked as one, plucking his guitar, hitting his kick drum and toe-tapping his hi-hat cymbal.

He also played the harmonica, held in front of his mouth with a brace, his cheeks puffing and pulling, over and over.

He would drive up to 200 miles each way in his Chevy van to play, working smoky rooms and sipping Canadian bourbon, in between songs, straight from the bottle.

He said he connected with the blues in a way many don’t understand, and he got in close to the tough, hard edge of this traveling lifestyle.

“It’s always been a dream to play for a living, but you know how hard it is to do that,” Gustafson said. “So many of my musician friends have played music all their lives and have nothing, even if you’re the top. So many of my musician friends have died from alcohol or whatever, not taking care of themselves.

“I do not recommend going into the music business to young kids.”

Somehow, after hitchhiking through Europe and raising three kids and becoming one with his guitar, Gustafson got an education, and he’s used his teaching skills to keep his head above water for 30 years.

A Montana TV show profiling colorful characters focused on Gustafson shortly before he moved east. He was doing what he’s doing now, teaching high school math and playing guitar.

Said his former boss, the superintendent, “He transforms himself from being a star teacher to the entertainer. Erik Gustafson and Erik Fingers Ray are two different people.”

Both personalities came to New Hampshire last summer in a scenario that played out like lyrics to a song. He came for the love of a woman he’d met 30 years earlier, during a gig at one of those smoky bars.

He lives in Tamworth, rooms in Canterbury during the week to be close to Bishop Brady and plays his guitar on weeknights in anonymity, wowing small crowds like he did recently at the Orpheum Theatre.

It’s been a long, strange trip.

Like a dumb sitcom.

“I learned to quit planning,” Gustafson said. “You can make plans, but don’t count on them happening like you think they’re gonna happen.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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