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.
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