It was one of those brilliant, sparkling, spring days in Paducah. You know, the kind where you slide on your shades, roll the car windows down, and turn the radio up a few more notches.
I was running errands just before lunch on that beautiful Tuesday morning, and, as I stopped at a light on Lone Oak Road, I heard a sound that was familiar yet oddly out of place. The distinct intonation of bagpipes sang their cadence across the air, swirling about in the warm, noontime air.
Confused, I looked to the drivers in the vehicles around me. Who in the world would be blasting bagpipe music?
That's when I spotted him out of the corner of my eye, a lone figure, marching back and forth on an empty lot, bagpipes in his arms. I knew I had to get to my next stop as fast as possible in order to get back and talk to the mystery piper.
Upon my return, I discovered Ray Main, a driver for the Paducah Area Transit System and a determined and dedicated bagpiper.
"My entire life, every time I'd hear bagpipes, I'd get emotional," said Ray. "I can't explain why. I just did. They always touched me. Just before I turned 40, my mom said that if it meant that much to me, I should learn it."
Ray, who lived in Irvine, California, faced an uphill battle when it came to learning the bagpipes. Most pipers start as children, raised not only to play but to be a part of the larger Scottish culture most associated with the instrument.
"I bought a practice chanter (a practice version of the part of the bagpipes where the melody is played). It was a cheap one, but I used it and started teaching myself. It took almost eight weeks before I could blow a full scale.
"I found out there was a Highland gathering nearby, so I got a cheap kilt and went. For a couple of years, I was known as the hack piper. I really knew nothing about the culture or bagpiping. It was blatantly obvious. I didn't have the right bagpipes, and I didn't have the right outfit."
Ray entered competitions and, admittedly, failed miserably. But he was successful in making contacts and eventually connected with Davey Armstrong of the world famous LA Scots.
"He took pity on me," laughed Ray, "and he said he'd teach me. Really, that's the piping tradition. It's an old-fashioned thing that is passed down with men mentoring other men. I improved and started winning some of the contests I entered.
"That's the thing about the Scottish folks I've met," he adds. "They are all so nice. Even if you are terrible, they'll accept you and let you come along, even if they aren't going to tell you deep down that you just aren't cutting it!"
During this time, Ray discovered that his love for the pipes went beyond a mere musical sentimentality. "My dad always said we were of Irish descent. But I did some digging, and I participated in the National Geographic Genographic Project and found out I was of Scottish decent and a part of Clan Gunn. It all made sense! I say if you have any Celtic blood in you, the pipes call to you. It is amazing!"
In 2012, the much improved piper moved to Paducah and immediately went to work for PATS. "I had been paratransit driving for seven years in California. I love the job. It is fulfilling. When I made my final move, I arrived in Paducah on a Sunday night at 11pm and went to work at 7 am the next morning. I've also been working on the place where I live now. So I've been going nonstop since I got here!"
The hectic schedule doesn't keep Ray from his first love, however. Thus my chance meeting with the mystery piper on Lone Oak Road. "I practice whenever I can," he said. "I'll stop on my break for lunch, get out the pipes, and play."
This has earned Ray quite a bit of attention around Paducah. "I had really played mostly for just myself. Now I am learning what it means to share that with others. I've been hired to play at different functions around the area and been involved with the Murray Highland Festival."
Ray's greatest moments come when someone connects to the music the same way he does. "I was practicing on an empty parking lot on the south side. A lady pulled up, and she was just bawling! She said she hadn't heard the pipes in Paducah for over twenty years, and she just had to stop and say thank you. What happened with her there was very important. The music can touch us deeply and move us in ways we can't explain."
Ray admits that he doesn't know where his piping will lead. He's working toward starting a local piping club with other local pipers. But in the end, it is about that same feeling he has whenever he hears the instrument of his ancestors. And Ray shares that by simply practicing the music he loves. So if you're around and about Paducah and hear the familiar sounds of bagpipes drifting across the air, take a moment, breathe it in, and enjoy Paducah's newest musician.