Next, like any great author, he just sat with it. Listened deep within.
Until the songs, like a great novel, finally emerged. When they did, they were born fully grown; mature, graceful, and familiar. That’s when Ray Bonneville, now in his forties, began performing.
With that rare combination of poetry and groove, like Greg Brown or Bruce Cockburn, Bonneville brings you more soul than a 12-piece funk band. With little more than the alternating bass of his thumb and a harmonica like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Bonneville will lull you to sleep in a land of rhythm and blues.
His latest LP, “Easy Gone,” is an ode to the marriage a travelling man to the road. He sings he knew when he “said ‘I Do’ to a highway” that it wasn’t going to be an easy marriage. But he also knew divorce was not an option.
Bonneville’s highway life began 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.
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.
“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.”
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…The whole songwriting thing, to me, is mysterious, and I want to keep it that way.”
“Like gunpowder and opium.” — Ray Wylie Hubbard