Growing up on a dairy farm in Morristown in East Tennessee, Michael Gray developed a unique talent for storytelling by just listening to everyone talk during family gatherings.
“We were on the farm and my grandparents lived down the road. I had an uncle on the other side and on Sunday afternoon people would just stop at my grandparents’ house, sit in the yard and share stories. We called it ‘talking’,” Mike says.
“Most of the time we were talking about other people. Gossiping,” he laughs. With only two channels on television, there was not a lot of distraction for youngsters growing up in the 50s. Mike and his older sister, Judy, enjoyed the entertaining conversations that would take place.
When Mike was growing up he wanted to be anything but a farmer. A hero, a musician – something that didn’t involve the pigs, cows and chickens on the farm!
Mike liked writing; he sang and played the guitar some but tobacco would be the means of putting himself through college. He worked on the farm until he was 18 and moved to Knoxville while attending UT and eventually becoming a businessman.
“I was in the banking business and that was when the big crash was going on. I was in a small community bank,” Mike says.
After the community bank sold out to First Tennessee, Mike was being transferred each time that a new bank was bought in another area. Mike said that he could see the writing on the wall and decided to change things up.
In 1984 Mike’s wife at the time was hired at Provident and Mike began his own consulting business in Chattanooga.
“I have always worked in and around computer systems. I was a tech manager of First Tennessee and that was when PCs were first starting to come in vogue,” he says.
“When I came here, I thought I made the biggest mistake I had ever made in my life – it was so small and so dead. But Chattanooga exploded soon after I moved here,” Mike says.
He still owns his business, Michael Gray-Consultant but he likes to give his time and attention to a new venture called the River City Sessions. Mike had performed storytelling over 25 years ago and had put it on a shelf until just two years ago when he produced a show for the community coffee bar and music venue located in the Southside neighborhood of Chattanooga called Camp House.
Though it had always been in the back of his mind to perform, it took a traumatic event in his life to show him that he was not promised tomorrow and what he wanted to be doing, he needed to be doing right now.
Mike was driving home and had fallen asleep at the wheel, hitting a tree head on. Waking to the impact and trauma threw his heart into atrial fibrillation and into congestive heart failure.
“I almost died. It was one of those eye-opening moments where you just quit putting things off,” Mike insists.
“Every year, I usually will write a Christmas story and use that as my Christmas card and I email it to friends and clients. The Chattanooga Writer’s Guild had asked me to present it a few years ago. Afterwards several of them came up and said, ‘You should tell stories’,” Mike relates.
“I had always wanted to do it,” Mike says, “since the first time I heard Garrison Keillor perform ‘A Prairie Home Companion’. For years I thought, ‘as rich as the South is in its heritage of storytelling, literature and music - we should do the same thing here’.”
In 2010, Mike decided to go for it. He started practicing in his bathroom. “I kept trying to find a place to do storytelling and I couldn’t find anywhere to do it, so that is how River City Sessions came about,” he maintains.
“I came to Camp House to see if they would like for me to put on a show of storytelling and music. They were interested and they were very accommodating. They didn’t even charge me for space. They just said they would split the door with me,” Mike recalls.
“So I produced one. I had met a couple of other storytellers and asked them if they would participate. I knew some musicians, gathered a few of them together and we did a show,” he says.
Peggy Douglas, who is a performance poet, participated with stories of her growing up in the 50s in Chattanooga. Dewey Dempsey, who tells more traditional type stories, had also joined in, as Mike told Appalachian humorous stories.
“We practiced a few times and came up with a schedule of events, hired a sound person and we have done a show four times now, every spring and every fall.”
Mike is busy producing a spring performance which will be held in the community theater in the upstairs of Soldiers and Sailor’s Memorial Auditorium that is undergoing remodeling.
Through his storytelling, Mike made contacts at WUTC radio and has been on the air a few times performing Halloween shows and a Valentine’s Day show. He will perform on air again in the spring.
The format of performances is a mixture of traditional and Americana music, mixed with storytelling, poetry and literature.
“A lot of times when people hear “Americana” they think of blue grass or old time music but it is more than that. We could have a show that would be Appalachian opera, it could be jazz, or blues,” Mike says.
He relates to an Appalachian theme because of the stories he heard growing up. “My mother’s family is from the Pisgah National Forest area - the mountains of Western North Carolina. They were all mountain people,” he states.
Mike also does volunteer work in the Chattanooga community and serves on two boards - Grace Point Camp, a retreat center for grades K-12, and CADAS drug and alcohol treatment facility.
When he isn’t running his business, volunteering or storytelling, Mike enjoys fly fishing, camping and hiking. “Fly fishing is the ultimate art,” he says, motioning with perfect wrist action. “It’s hard to think of anything else; it is very rhythmic. It is hard to get worried about what you are doing even. It is very meditative,” he says.
Mike has taken his son, Andy, on many fishing trips. With being in the mountains and experiencing the beauty of nature, Mike jokes, “You can ruin a good day fishing by catching a fish.”
Though Mike makes up his stories, he pulls out memories or comes up with characters from people he has come across who made an impression on him in some way. He tells many tales about his sister, conjuring up stories of her dating.
“My sister, through my stories, has dated every bad man you’ve ever known!” Mike laughs.
“I am exploring how I feel about the people that I have known in my life. Sometimes I have in mind somebody that I have known and how they affected me in some way,” Mike says.
“It’s a passion – every one’s got to follow a passion. It’s just something I really enjoy and makes me feel alive. It allows me through telling stories about other people, to explore who I am myself.”