The lights go down. The casual hum of fellowship rises as familiar faces shuffle into the cozy confines of The Lariat.
The stage is saturated with color and a lonely microphone stand takes front and center. Brother Rob announces the next open mic guest and suddenly the quiet bar erupts.
Shouts of “Willie!” rain down from the rafters and a sense of prominence fills the air.
Slowly a weathered man stands up, his vintage Martin acoustic under his arm, and approaches center stage and sits down.
As he lifts his head, an electric smile shoves its way through a grey worn beard and deep-set green eyes as the first few notes of Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” fall on a captive audience.
“A math teacher used to call me Smiley,” Bill Gray reminisced with a reflective grin.
It’s a smile that has greeted almost every musician that has crossed the open mike threshold for the last 15 years.
The smile has also become synonymous with the accepting and familial vibe that present-host The Lariat strives to create for all musicians and guests.
A retired high school biology teacher, Gray’s main job now is making others smile through playing music.
“I love seeing others smile,” Gray said with a warm authenticity. In fact, Gray jokes that he cares about creating smiles so much that sometimes he will even forget the lyrics of the song he is performing because he is so enamored by the audience.
This ethereal love for music and its healing powers sets Gray apart from other musicians and is the model of class.
A native of Long Island, New York, Gray moved to the Upper Arkansas Valley in 2005 after retiring.
Growing up in a music-friendly family, Gray was enrolled in piano lessons as early as 5.
“I think I came out of the womb playing,” Gray said and chuckled as he rolled back the years. After 5 years of piano lessons, Gray realized his love was elsewhere and his dad got him a ukulele.
However, young Bill couldn’t keep the mini-guitars in one piece as he continually broke them by using them as step stools to get to the top drawers of his dresser.
By the time he was 11, and several crunched ukuleles later, Gray finally acquired a loaded six-string acoustic guitar and began a lifelong journey of dedication and discovery.
When a young Gray heard Gene Autry perform “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” he knew he had to be a performer, some way or another.
“I don’t know if I will have a horse, but I’m gonna play guitar and sing,” Gray regaled as he reflected on that pivotal moment in his life.
It is that sense of dedication and love for music, that has led Gray to become the grandfather of open mic in Buena Vista.
Shortly after moving to BV, Gray saw a need for a musical outlet that would meet his needs and welcome other musicians at the same time.
In collaboration with musical accomplice Ellen Larson, Gray began hosting a weekly open mic night at The Roadhouse in The State Highway Department (now The Trailhead) and then the Coyote Cantina, among other stops.
The response was overwhelming and open mic night quickly grew to become a showcase of local talent. When the Coyote closed, Gray’s dedication to continue open mic eventually led it to its current home at The Lariat.
Soon after new owners Court and Robbie Johnson remodeled and put in a stage and Buena Vista’s first dedicated dance floor, The Lariat became a hub for aspiring and seasoned musicians to network, listen and perform fantastic music spanning everything from opera to reggae.
Through his involvement with open mic, Gray has become an extraordinary servant for aspiring local musicians by constantly inviting and encouraging them to share their talents.
“At my age, I want to do things that make me happy and put my energy into making others happy,” Gray said.
A cowboy singer and storyteller, Gray often shares anecdotes during his sets that give beautiful insight into the songs he has chosen and why they are special to him.
“To be a happy man (it’s) wine, women and song,” Gray said with a cheeky grin and an infectious laugh.
Gray’s contributions to Buena Vista cannot be quantified in numbers, but rather in the smiles of all the lives he has touched over the years.
A young cowboy at heart, Gray’s musical career has spanned over seven decades and he has no plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Singing makes me happy. I hope I am singing on my last day,” Gray said with a smile.