Music has always been a place of comfort for Billy Ray McClelland, a US Army veteran who will add a bachelor’s degree in Guitar Performance from Berklee Online to his list of honorable achievements by the end of 2023. Serving the Army from 1997-2008, he remembers playing songs with his comrades even when the stakes were high.
“While I was in Iraq, a couple of folks brought acoustic guitars and we’d get together in the evenings when we had time,” says Billy Ray. “We taught each other stuff, and talked about music, and played any song that we could remember.”
Currently based in Knoxville, Tennessee, Billy Ray is married to his wife of 25 years, Maria, whom he met in the military. They have a daughter and a son who are both in their 20s. After leaving the military in 2008, Billy Ray became a stay-at-home dad and was able to fit Berklee Online into his life while he took care of his kids. He first earned two advanced certificates, and then transferred the credits into the guitar degree program using his GI Bill.
“It’s been a great experience and humbling to start later on,” says Billy Ray, who first enrolled in a Berklee Online course—Music Business 101—at the age of 37. “It also helps with realizing that you can still learn. Later on in life fear comes into play like ‘I can’t do that. I could never do that.’ Well, you gotta try because although you’ll be humbled, you get to learn and meet great people too.”
Although Billy Ray’s formal music education began later in life, he’s been playing guitar for as long as he can remember. His musical upbringing started at his grandmother’s house in Coushatta, Louisiana. He says she would calm him down by playing Tom T. Hall records and other country tunes. His grandmother also played the fiddle and had lots of instruments around the house. Billy Ray always gravitated toward her guitar, until his mother gave him one of his own.
“I was given a guitar around five or six years old that I probably broke every string on, but it was housed at my grandmother’s,” says Billy Ray. “Every time I went there, I’d pluck on those couple of strings and make some type of music out of it.”
Billy Ray’s parents were also supportive of his music when he was growing up. In the early 1990s, Billy Ray played with a band called the Hired Gunz, who were known regionally for their ’80s hard rock and Southern rock sound. They had the opportunity to tour around the Southern US and record an album, but the project began in his bedroom.
“I give much credit to my mom for letting me be me and play the music I felt—and for letting me cram a four-piece band in my bedroom until late hours of the morning,” says Billy Ray. “My father was good with us playing as long as we would play a couple country songs that he liked.”
His father, along with several other family members, was a World War II veteran and inspired him to want to join the military in the first place.
“My father and his two brothers and four cousins went over during World War II,” says Billy Ray. “There were seven of them, and all seven of them came back. But my father talked about being in the military, and the one part of it that I can remember was the camaraderie in the brotherhood and sisterhood. And I felt like that was a possibility in my life.”
His father passed away in 2000 and Billy Ray (pictured on the left) says he felt the time was right to re-enlist in the Army (he had taken two years off to help care for his father). Within 90 days, he was sent to Iraq, where he trained as a communications specialist and was responsible for putting together computers, running communication wires and cables, often in dangerous situations, and establishing the localized intranet connection.
In addition to discipline and focus, he says that the military has helped him with his timing and rhythm in his music studies.
“I’m gonna tell you, one of the great skills is marching,” says Billy Ray. “That was a timing thing. Not only do you learn to march, but as you progress in rank, you learn how to march with groups of 60 to 160 people. It could be a whole platoon or two platoons. And so to dial that in—1, 2, 3, 4 on the left foot—it helps with timing. So anybody who wants to learn timing, go join the military.”
After graduating from Berklee Online, Billy Ray says he’d like to do more songwriting and put together a band to play locally. But most importantly, he would like to give back to the community by teaching music. In 2017, he had the opportunity to volunteer in New Zealand teaching guitar to seventh and eighth grade students, which he says fueled his desire to be an educator.
“The world needs us all to give our time and to help young adults realize their aptitudes and strengths and to pursue dreams even if they seem out of reach,” he says. “I’m still a fledgling when it comes to teaching but I’ve been told that it never gets easier because the changes are often and many. I’ll keep my patience cap on and learn as much as I teach.”
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