SLAYTON — Mylan Ray was a teenager at Slayton High School when he told buddies of his plan to be a disc jockey.
The aspiring music man ran into skepticism, including from one of his own pals.
“He goes, ‘Is it true you’re going to be a jockey? Don’t you think you’re a little too big to be riding a horse?’ ” Mylan recalls.
He laughs at the story. Indeed, Mylan isn’t a horseman. But he’s big, all right. Big on the radio. The longtime DJ has been a fixture on the radio and at wedding dances in southwest Minnesota for nearly 50 years.
It’s a career that’s brought him fame and familiarity to several generations of Minnesota music lovers.
Yet if he’s built a legacy surrounding sound, he’d rather be remembered simply as “a person with a good heart.”
There’s certainly a song in his heart.
Mylan, who lives now in Pipestone, is a fixture at Christensen Broadcasting. He’s had many titles over the years, such as music director, programming director, etc.
“But now I’m just called the old guy,” Mylan says, eyes twinkling.
But he’s so much more than that.
Mylan, 66, is on the air for three Christensen stations, during weekday mornings playing oldies on Pipestone’s KSID (FM-98.7) and spinning Country songs afternoons on Slayton’s K-JOE (FM-106.1). He also has a prerecorded contemporary Christian show that airs afternoons on KDWC (FM-99.3) and Sunday mornings on K-JOE.
“I have a Gospel singer friend who calls me ‘Pastor Mylan,’ which is pretty funny,” he smiles.
Deep radio roots
His radio roots go way back. Mylan’s first memory of the magic that is music through a box dates back 60 years, when his brother wanted him to hear a new song and brought the family radio over. Playing was Johnny Cash and “Take Your Guns To Town.”
Says Mylan, “I was in awe immediately, not just because of the song but because of radio itself.”
A 17-teen-year-old Mylan, a self-described hippie, helped manage a Slayton rock band filled with friends such as Sonja Nywall, Larry Cote, Chuck Hustad and Andy Burch called “Stone Free.”
Mylan wasn’t a singer.
“I wanted to be,” he laughs. “I bought an electric guitar, then an amplifier and a microphone, and I went to (longtime Slayton teacher) Courtney Tommeraasen to have him teach me how to play guitar. I went to one lesson and he said he didn’t have time to teach me.”
“I don’t know if I was that bad or what,” Mylan says. “But I never learned to play guitar. And I’m not too good of a singer.
“Really the only way I could be involved with music was to be on the radio.”
He’s always loved music.
“I’ve collected records since I was 9 or 10 years old and have a huge record collection,” he says.
Inherited work ethic
Born Mylan Ray Oldewurtel, he learned to work hard thanks to his parents’ example. Henry Oldewurtel grew up on a farm near Woodstock, while his wife, Ellamay (Thompson), was from the Hadley-Lake Wilson area. She worked at the hospital and other jobs in Slayton.
Henry, who loved country music and could play the accordion, became chief custodian at the Murray County hospital.
Henry also cleaned churches, mowed yards and cemeteries, and plowed snow.
“He also helped out the old Gamble’s Store in Slayton delivering furniture,” Mylan says. “The guy was a workaholic.”
The trait was passed down to his son, who eventually switched his middle and last names legally. Mylan figures he works 11 hours a day now, combining advertising sales and on-air radio time. On weekends he’s often doing wedding receptions and other parties — 2,000 dances, he figures, since starting the gig in 1977.
“When it’s fun, it’s not work,” Mylan smiles.
The career has enabled him to rub elbows with many recording giants, including Merle Haggard, Garth Brooks, Alabama, Conway, Twitty, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Johnny Rivers.
And Johnny Cash.
As a 9-year-old, Mylan and his folks were in the audience at the Sioux Falls Coliseum for a concert by The Man In Black. Mylan squeezed through the fans and got near the stage, where Cash winked at him.
Some 30 years later, Mylan met the legendary performer.
“I told him that story,” Mylan smiles, “and I got the biggest belly laugh out of Johnny Cash.”
Many recording stars have consented to cut little radio spots for Mylan, promoting his shows. That, he says, is a good feeling.
“One of the things my classmates used to tease me about in radio was that I wanted to be the next Wolfman Jack,” he says, referring to the famed disc jockey who famously played himself in the classic film “American Graffiti.”
Mylan says he didn’t want to be like Wolfman.
“I wanted to be the next Dick Clark,” he smiles, “because he was friends with all those artists he had on American Bandstand. I wanted to be on the inside loop so I could know these people, be friends with them and really have a door open to that. And boy, it’s been busted open farther than I ever dared to imagine.”
After graduating from broadcasting school Brown Institute in Minneapolis in the early 1970s, Mylan embarked on a career he hoped might lead to the big-time. He had a rude awakening at his first radio job in Florida, which paid $127 per week.
He eventually landed a job in Miami at a “major-market” station, earning a whopping $140 per week.
It was close to poverty. So Mylan left Florida and returned home. But he never abandoned his dream.
“I’m born to do this, absolutely born to do it,” he says.
He borrowed $200 from his folks and set out to find a better job in the Midwest.
“I hit the road for two weeks, stopping at radio stations all over,” he says. “I started in Sioux Falls, went all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska.”
He dropped off resumes in Missouri, Illinois and Ohio, using the borrowed cash for gas.
“When I got back home, KLOH in Pipestone was the last place I stopped,” he says. “I didn’t know if I wanted to work that close to home and have my old classmates listening and ridiculing me. But I stopped there as a last-ditch effort.”
The boss wasn’t in. So Mylan left his tape demo and resume and drove back to Slayton.
“I was dejected and rejected,” he says softly. “I got home and my Dad yelled at me from the other side of the house before I even got the door open. He says, ‘Were you just in Pipestone? Get back there. They want to talk to you because they might have a job for you.’ ”
The Christensen Broadcasting bosses had heard Mylan’s smooth voice and thought he had something special.
They gave Mylan a six-week trial, which he has turned into a successful 45-year career.
He’s won many honors, including induction into various music halls of fame in several states, and for 37 years has been married to his wife, Helen.
Mylan and Helen have two grown children and six grandchildren.
“And the best thing is they all live close,” Mylan smiles. “I feel real blessed.”
Something special? That’s Mylan Ray, a music man extraordinaire.