He formed the band with Kevin Sheerin (guitar). They eventually gravitated towards American Country and became one of the new wave of country bands which came on the scene in the late 60's and included the Cotton Mill Boys, Smokey Mountain Ramblers and many others. They focused on modern country (as opposed to the "country and Irish" of Big Tom, Larry Cunningham, and others) and tried to infuse the scene with an authentic brand of the music.
The original lineup (which would stay together for many years) included Ray and Kevin along with Ray's brother, Johnny Lynam (bass), Billy Burgoyne (drums), John Ryan (keyboards), Mick Lube (guitar) and Billy Condon (fiddle). It wasn't long before they attracted the attention of Mick Clerkin of Release Records who signed them to a recording deal and they changed their name to the Hillbillies, turning fully professional in early 1970.
Their first single, Busted was soon released, and although it did little in terms of sales, their manager, Sean Reilly explained "when the record first appeared, the boys were relatively unknown, so only their local fans in Westmeath, Cavan, Roscommon and Longford bought it straight away. As their reputation grew, so did sales." Still it may no impression on the charts. As and aside, the band had little major chart success (especially in comparison to the country and Irish artists mentioned above). While everyone admitted that "American-style" country was good, it just didn't catch on like the Irish version with the Irish dancing public.
In August of 1970, the band released it's second single, the Buck Owens song, Sweet Rosie Jones. If fact, many DJ's and writers had been comparing Ray's voice to Buck's since he arrived on the scene. The record was hailed critically, and it sold well, lingering just outside the Top Twenty for over a month, but it never quite made the charts.
One would have to have been going to dances in those days to fully appreciate the issues which faced the Hillbillies and bands like them. In a column in the January 1, 1971 issue of Spotlight, Pascal Mooney had great praise for the band and their talents, but he criticised the group for playing an "all-country programme and this kind of restriction could endanger their bid for wider popularity." Pascal concluded, "Many people get bored if they listen all night to the same kind of music, no matter how goods it might be."
Indeed, this was a problem for the band and probably one which kept them (and several others) from successfully competing with their country and Irish counterparts. An indication of this issue was made apparent when the 1971 Spotlight Poll listed the top five "Country and Western" male singers in Ireland as 1. Big Tom, 2. Gene Stuart, 3. Brian Coll, 4. Dermot Henry and 5. Dermot Hegarty. The number one female vocalist in all of Ireland was Margo (the Queen of country and Irish), who finished ahead of even Dana, the previous year's Eurovision winner.
In early 1971, the band was celebrating a year on the road and finally began to hit its stride. They appeared on the cover of Spotlight magazine in February and released the very popular track Gypsy, Joe and Me (it sold fairly well, but again remained just outside the top twenty). They also released their first album, Hillbilly Country. In late April, Ray and the band were to appear at the third annual International Country Music Festival at Wembley's Empire Pool in the UK. A crowd of over 20,000 saw the band rub shoulders with some of the biggest stars of American Country, as well as Larry Cunningham and other Irish artists. This was to be the first of many trips to Wembley for Ray and the lads.
As their second year on the road drew to a close, the boys had released two more singles, Will You Visit Me on Sunday and the Christmas tune, Santa Looks A Lot Like Daddy. Neither made the charts, but the band's reputation for high quality music and Ray's stature on the international country scene continued to grow. The lack of sales success did not phase Ray and the lads. "A record is essential for airplays and general publicity, and its value should not be under rated," said Ray in a November interview, "but a band must make an impression in the halls irrespective of their current place in the charts, or the public just won't want them back." Although this was a sentiment shared by many bands who never had a hit, the Hillbillies would soon be no strangers to hit records, despite their focus on quality material vs. commercial sounds.
In January, 1972, Ray's favour with the fans was borne out when he was voted the number 5 country singer in the country in the Annual National Showbiz conducted by Spotlight magazine. He tied with Margo, but was behind Big Tom, Brian Coll, Gene Stuart and Dermot Henry. In February, 1972, plans were in process for the 4th International Country Music Festival and Ray and the band werre tipped once again to appear alongside artists like Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn. They also the band released The Selfishness of Man and finally had their first chart record which topped out at number 14. This success was especially satisfying as Ray had continued to make a conscious effort not to embrace any gimmicks or overly commercial songs.
A few months later, the band was fresh off their second appearance at Wembley and they released Brand New Mr. Me which cracked the top ten, going to number six and giving the boys their first big "hit" record. It is worth noting that around this time, there was a lot of confusion about country music in Ireland. Quite a few "authentic" country bands had been formed in the early 70's (Rocky Tops - the reformed Smokey Mountain Ramblers, Cotton Mills Boys, Hoot'nanny's, Virginians and many more). Few had found the success afforded the top country and Irish acts (Big Tom, Larry Cunningham, Margo, etc) and several had given up on fiddles and added brass back into their lineups. The biggest issue was probably the Irish dancers lack of acceptance for bluegrass music, which at the time was seen as "real" country music.
One thing was certain in 1972, country music was here to stay, although most bands continued to provide a range of genres from Pop to country to ballads and Ceili. At the same time, pop bands proliferated as well (Memories, Chips, Tweed, etc.). The battle of the dancing genres was on and although it could never have been predicted at the time, ultimately country music won out and continues to dominate the Irish dance scene in the 21 century!
But back to our story. Ray visited Nashville on several occasions (as did many of the aspiring Irish country artists back in the day) and was scheduled to make a visit to the Grand Ole Opry. Publicity from Release Records stated that his singles were being simultaneously released in the United States, but we have no way of confirming this.
1973 started with a new honour for Ray, he was voted the number one country singer in Ireland by fans in the National Showbiz Poll in Spotlight (after tying for fifth the previous year). He appeared on the RTE television show Spin-Off which featured the top artists in the poll.
In early 1973, the Hillbillies had their third chart record in a row when I Can't Believe You Stopped Loving Me went to number 12 in the Irish charts. A few months later, the band took a page from famous American country pairings like Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, and released a record with Philomena Begley, who was also signed to Release Records and had scored several top ten chart hits with her own band, Country Flavour. They came together and released You're The One I Can't Live Without which reached number 5 in the Irish charts, the highest placing to that point for either artist. Work was started on an album featuring the two superstars of country music in Ireland.
With Philomena Begley a successful duet team, appearing regularly at Wembley both solo and duo. Albums include. We Go Together Again '84 on Sonus, Country Stars '84 on Homespun, Simply Divine '85 on Ritz, all with Begley; his solos incl. Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile '86, Back In Love By Monday '88 and Very Best '91 on Ritz.
Sometime around 1980-1, the band underwent a major change when original members Billy Burgoyne, John Ryan and Billy Condon left the band. They replaced two of the musicians (we are researching the facts) and became a six piece band.
In 2013, the band got together for a reunion concert in Ray's home town of Moate. It featured the original members of the band, along with James Blennerhassett on bass who played with both the Kim Newport Band back in the early 80's and more recently, the Conquerors.