“Ray Bonneville creates an instant narrative as if the stories are unfolding before your eyes as he sings in a nicotine tone. The groove is laid back, contributing to the sinister elements in his songs that scratch and claw at the casket’s lid. Musically, it’s more than the blues; somewhere between roots and lyrical oblivion, even though that blues tag sticks. It’ll get to you. Trust me, you’ll hang on to every word as Bonneville resurrects ghosts, like Tom Waits without the carnival.” – Frank De Blase / City Newspaper (Rochester, NY)
“Like gunpowder and opium.” – Ray Wylie Hubbard
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 with a style that sometimes draws comparisons to JJ Cale and Daniel Lanois.
On his fourth Red House Records album “Easy Gone”, Bonneville delivers 10 reasons why patience pays off. In each, his guitar work 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.
Bonneville spent the ‘70s in Boulder CO where he formed the Ray Bonneville Blues Band. He then headed to the Pacific Northwest — first Alaska, then Seattle — 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, then northern Quebec, then Arkansas, and finally to Austin where 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”) and calls it 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.”
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. 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.
No one does what Ray Bonneville does. Hope to see you there!