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Every now and then, you run across someone with a library’s worth of stories to tell. But unlike the raconteurs who regale friends with well-embellished versions of their exploits, these storytellers have lived so much, they reveal chapters of their hard-won wisdom slowly, carefully, like layers peeled from an onion.
Ray Bonneville didn’t even open his storybook until his early 40s, some 20 years after he started performing. But with a style that sometimes draws comparisons to JJ Cale and Daniel Lanois, this blues-influenced, New Orleans-inspired “song and groove man,” as he’s been so aptly described, luckily found his rightful calling.
On his fourth Red House Records album, Easy Gone, Bonneville delivers 10 reasons why patience pays off. In each, his guitarwork shimmers like stars emerging at dusk. His voice carries the rich, natural timbre of time, though underneath that pearl-like smoothness, one hears its gritty core. His harmonica rhythms add even more texture to his sound.
Produced by Bonneville and Justin Douglas, Easy Gone wears the faded denim of a man who knew when he “said I do to a highway,” as he sings in “Who Do Call the Shots,” that it wasn’t going to be an easy marriage. But he also knew divorce was not an option, and affirms his vows in soulful lyrics that balance thoughtful observation, impassioned emotion and the restless soul of a wanderer.
Bonneville’s highway life began, more or less, at 12, when his parents moved their nine French-speaking children from Quebec to Boston. He learned to play a little piano, then guitar, but language and cultural challenges made school uninviting. But before getting expelled, he played weekend in New England with a young band that travelled in a 57 Cadillac ambulance.
At 17, he joined the Marines, mainly to escape his devoutly religious, oppressively authoritarian father. That was just before Vietnam began showing up on the nightly news. He wound up there for more than a year. Post-discharge, he discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield, James Cotton and other bluesmen, and taught himself to play harmonica in-between fares while driving a cab in Boston.
Bonneville spent the ‘70s in Boulder, Colo., where he formed the Ray Bonneville Blues Band, an electric five-piece, and got over his fear of flying by earning a commercial pilot’s license. “I was hooked bad right from the start,” he says. “When I was flying, I felt completely at home, like the plane’s wings were part of my body.”
He headed to the Pacific Northwest — first Alaska, then Seattle — flying wherever he could and playing rowdy rooms where listeners wanted to get their groove on, which helped him evolve a delivery that covered all bases. “My thumb became my bass player and my index finger became my lead guitar and rhythm player,” he explains. “My feet became my drums and with my harmonica and my vocal, made for a four-piece blues band.”
In Seattle, he got hooked on something else: his old friend, cocaine. Escaping to Paris, where he knew the language and could avoid temptation, he busked and played for boozy late-night revelers, but for the first time, Bonneville also encountered audiences who sat in silence, truly listening.
“It scared me,” he admits. “I realized that you’d better have something to say if you’re going to play in front of this kind of crowd.”
Returning stateside in ’83, he moved to New Orleans. Training pilots by day and playing at night, he was stirred by the city’s hypnotic undercurrent of mystery and magic, which hangs in the humid air like a voodoo spell. In his six years there, it seeped into his sound — and still ripples through it today.
His post-Katrina ode, “I am the Big Easy,” was folk radio’s No. 1 song of 2008 and earned the International Folk Alliance’s 2009 Song of the Year Award, but Bonneville wasn’t yet ready to write in New Orleans. That would take more living.
The romantic notion of becoming a bush pilot took him to northern Quebec’s wilderness, where he shuttled sportsmen via seaplane and played Montreal clubs in the off-season. That is, until, flying in fog, he almost hit a power line, and with no fuel left, barely found water to land on. After a nerve-calming whiskey, he decided his bush-pilot days were done. At 41, he moved to Montreal and began to write. He also began touring and recording; his 1999 album, Gust of Wind, won a Juno Award.
In 2003, Bonneville moved again, this time to Arkansas, where the fly-fishing was good. He began recording for Red House Records, and adding his talents to albums by Mary Gauthier, Gurf Morlix, Eliza Gilkyson, Ray Wylie Hubbard and other prominent artists. Bonneville also has shared songwriting credits with Tim O’Brien, Phil Roy and Morlix, among others. Slaid Cleaves placed Bonneville’s “Run Jolee Run” on his lauded 2009 album, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.
Bonneville headed to Austin in 2006, and released Goin’ By Feel, his second Red House album. Allmusic.com gave it four stars, the same as Gust of Wind, Roll It Down and Bad Man’s Blood — which it calls his “magnum opus,” noting, “With darkness and light fighting for dominance … he’s stripped away every musical excess to let the songs speak for themselves.”
“I have roughly 12 lines to make a story, so every one has to trigger the listener’s imagination,” he explains. “I want my songs to be believed, so I work on them until I believe them myself.”
On Easy Gone, songs like “When I Get to New York,” “Mile Marker 41” and “Love is Wicked” percolate with hints of something sinister and sexy. In the bluesy “Wicked,” you can almost hear the finger-poppers lurking in the club’s corners — the ones who might get a little wicked themselves later on. Even the album’s lone cover, of Hank Williams’ classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” carries a groove and momentum that’s Bonneville’s alone. It’s haunting, like many of his songs. He populates a lot of them with society’s fringes: the desperate and dangerous, damaged and vulnerable.
“I like the criminals and the lost people,” he says. “That’s why I love Flannery O’Connor and those kind of writers. ’Cause I’m lost myself.”
Whether that’s true or not, he knows how hard it can be for our internal compasses to lock on the direction in which we might need to go. That’s the subject of “Where Has My Easy Gone,” written with drummer Geoff Arsenault. In it, he sings, In the heart of a seeker a needle swings/homing on some elusive thing/I looked in the endless sky down along the sea/I could not find my easy.
With just a few simple words, Bonneville clearly expresses his thoughts, while allowing space for multiple interpretations. Which, of course, is the essence of great songwriting, the kind that earned him an International Blues Challenge solo/duet win in 2012. He doesn’t pretend to understand how he finds that essence, however.
“The whole songwriting thing, to me, is mysterious, and I want to keep it that way,” Bonneville says.
Ultimately, what matters is knowing how to translate the mystery into music, and that, he understands perfectly.
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