Red Cravens, Bluegrass Legend, Dead at 88

Bluegrass musician Robert "Red" Cravens has died at age 88, his former bandmate Harley Bray confirmed. Cravens died around Jan. 11 and had spent his last few years in Santee in San Diego County, California. Cravens was a guitarist who played with the Bray Brothers, Nate Bray (mandolin, lead vocals), Harley Bray (banjo, baritone), and Francis Bray (bass).

Cravens was born on July 4, 1932, in Illinois and initially learned to play the banjo before switching to guitar. He met the Bray brothers at a square dance in the early '50s and helped expand their knowledge of bluegrass. In 1955, the group formed a band a by the next year had become a fixture on The WBLN Hillbilly Jamboree in Bloomington. In 1957, they disbanded when two of the Bray brothers enlisted in the Army, though Cravens and Francis Bray continued to attend jam sessions at the Brown County Jamboree park, Bean Blossom, Indiana.

Cravens assisted Birch Monroe with some his duties and went on to befriend Bill Monroe, which led to the group become a fixture on WHOW in Clinton on the Cornbelt Country Style show, hosted by Uncle Johnny Barton, where they left a number of tapes done for radio. They also recorded two sides for Jim Ludwig’s Five Strings Records based in Eola, Illinois including Harbor of Love, which led to Red Cravens & the Bray Brothers' single appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in July 1961.

The quartet was one of the first bluegrass groups to fully utilize the capabilities of a recording studio and eventually earned a contract with Liberty Records as The Bluegrass Gentleman. With Liberty, they recorded their only studio album, The Blue Grass Gentlemen.

The group broke up in the '60s due to the pressure associated with becoming a popular act and compromising their sound to appeal to listeners. Cravens moved to southern California and eventually attempted to reunite with the brothers, though the reunion was short-lived as Nate was seriously ill at the time. Harley Bray recently said of Cravens, "Red Cravens was the best rhythm guitarist I ever played with."