Thursday, September 19, 2013

Remembering Nashville Skateboard Legend Ray Underhill

Posted By on Thu, Sep 19, 2013 at 12:53 PM

In this week’s issue of the Scene, you can read about my visit with Dathan “Dee” Ostrander, a crab-leg-loving skateboarding star who grew up in Antioch. (Side note: When I turned onto Ostrander’s street in a well-maintained subdivision, I noticed exactly one beat-up sedan covered in skate stickers. Ah, I thought, this must be the place.)

Though Ostrander is Nashville’s highest-profile skater, he is not the first Middle Tennessean to achieve international renown within the skateboarding world. That distinction belongs to pro skater Raymond “Ray” Underhill, who grew up in Hendersonville and went on to join the 1980s skateboard dynasty The Bones Brigade, a super-team notable for nurturing the career of Underhill’s close homie Tony Hawk, among other stars.

Throughout the ’80s, Underhill toured the world, and while in Britain with the Brigade, even wound up taking an epic trip to George Harrison’s mansion. (Harrison’s son loved skateboarding.)

By all accounts, Underhill, who died of a chordoma brain tumor in 2008, was an extraordinarily talented and super-nice dude — someone with the social finesse to navigate California’s treacherous skateboard subculture while staying true to the better angels of his small-town nature.

Some fun facts:

• Though the extravagantly ponytailed Underhill sometimes adopted a fluorescent wardrobe, for a time worked at the record store in Hickory Hollow Mall, and he loved new wave bands like Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls.

• He had been a prize-winning banjo player at age 14.

• In the early 1980s, the Hendersonville skate scene revolved around a ramp and skate shop run by a mystic figure from Hawaii named Kokomo. (Kokomo!)

• This bygone era also begat the Mid-Eastern Skateboard Series (MESS), a kind of semi-formal league (started by Smyrna native Britt Parrott) in which skaters from states such as Virginia, Texas and Tennessee competed against one another and often exchanged “skate ’zines,” the Xeroxed periodicals beloved by skaters in a pre-blog era. Tennessee’s own Skatenn and Altered Skates were local favorites. Ray was a MESS standout, and that scene helped propel him westward.

After retiring from professional skateboarding, Ray went onto to become an art director at Eastern Skate Supply, a major distributor based in Wilmington, N.C., where he also started a family. It was no small achievement, when so many of his more flamboyant peers were falling victim to drug problems and other dysfunctions.

Underhill is survived by his wife, Kerry. “Everyone said he was a very nice man," she told me, tearing up. She recalled the idyllic early days of her relationship with Ray: mornings spent on the beach, long afternoons at Hawk’s backyard ramp listening to Jane’s Addiction. The video at the top shows Underhill engaging in quintessential 1980s-skate-dude banter with Hawk, and musing on the differences between Tennessee and California.

Underhill also went onto to star with Hawk in a Mountain Dew commercial whose tagline was, fittingly enough, “country cool.” Check it out below. And after the video, a photo of a 1981 Thrasher magazine story featuring Underhill & Co.

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