By Blair Jackson
Blues-influenced singer-songwriter Ray Bonneville received a first-place prize at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis earlier this month.
Bonneville, who was sponsored by the Ozark Blues Society, was also the winner of the solo/duo act for the regional competition. With a voice that marries the twangy rasp of Bob Dylan and the deep tremor of Johnny Cash, Bonneville does great justice to the tradition of American folk and blues tradition. In addition to his skill as a musician, his singing-songwriting techniques are rooted in storytelling, creating songs that are not simply soulful, but that seem to have souls of their own.
As a teenager, Bonneville moved from Canada with his parents. His music career began in high school with a band that made money on the weekends by playing at fraternity houses in the Boston area.
When Bonneville’s parents returned to Canada, the budding musician, who was also in the military, opted to stay in the United States. It wasn’t until after he had returned from the Vietnam War that he first heard the music of Delta bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” says Bonneville, referring to life after war. “I was attracted to the simple, deep soulful music. It was music that had no bullshit — straightforward and truthful with a lot of emotion.”
With no set direction, Bonneville picked up a harmonica and a taxi-driving gig, and taught himself to play while driving around Boston. He taught himself the language of the blues, listening to records and picking up standard blues progressions and chords.
“I learned by copying them and then made myself forget those licks,” Bonneville says.
It would be many years after Boston that Bonneville’s style would fully develop.
Across his early career, Bonneville played on the same bill as Muddy Waters. Eventually, he grew tired of playing in a band.
“I have a very adventurous, nomadic spirit,” says Bonneville, “so I went off alone to do my solo act. I went to Alaska because I thought I wouldn’t have to be very good to make a living, and I was right.”
Bonneville’s music is incredibly layered for a solo act. Using a technique similar to that of Delta bluesmen such as Junior Kimbrough, he strums the bassline while simultaneously playing rhythm and lead guitar. He brings percussion with his feet, using a strip of plywood with mics built in. Then, of course, there is the harmonica.
While Bonneville honed his craft as a solo artist, he also worked as a pilot.
“I wanted to wear a baseball hat and blue jeans to work, and I wanted to fly as low to the ground as I could go and as fast as I could,” remembers Bonneville. He worked for 10 years as a pilot instructor, aerial photography pilot and bush pilot.
It was while working as a bush pilot in Canada that Bonneville gave up flying: “I had a couple of close calls and decided it was going to kill me.”
Living in Montreal at the time, Bonneville sat down and began to write for the first time. Having lived in Alaska, Washington state, New Orleans, and Boston — the American influences that came from that Montreal apartment are undeniable.
“In this music, there’s not just musical roots, but hot humid air and dirt roads and trees and rain and wind. It’s subtle, but it’s there.”
Songs like “Good Times” on Bonneville’s most recent album, “Bad Man’s Blood,” carry the distinct swampy trembling of the harmonica. Bonneville admits that living in Louisiana for six years had a powerful influence on his music.
“I got around these people, and they bled into my blood,” he says.
For Bonneville, the craft of songwriting is also the craft of storytelling. He says that, when he writes a song, there is a sense of theater, containing scenes and characters.
“Each line has to be a catalyst for the listener’s imagination,” he explains.
Bonneville purposely reveals only a few details in his sketches in order to allow listeners to create their own meaning. “I let them decide a lot of things about it so the story can have many different ways of being heard.”
The Ozark Mountains and its people also have a place in Bonneville’s music. Owning a house in Cotter, between Harrison and Mountain Home, Bonneville has gathered inspiration from the locals. “The people who live around there are pretty colorful, and that colors my stories too.”
For all its colorful characters, Bonneville captures the darker side of Arkansas in his song, “Run Jolee Run,” one of the songs he played during the International Blues Challenge. The song portrays a woman who is running from an abusive relationship. In Bonneville fashion, the song ends on an ambiguous note, where it is unclear whether Jolee is running from having committed murder in self-defense, or if her fear is keeping her on the move.
“I’m attracted to people who live on the edge and in the darkness and in the shadows,” explains Bonneville. The dysfunctional and dark parts of humanity are especially intriguing to the songwriter. “I find it interesting that humans can be so loving and kind and go on the other side …”
It was in Fayetteville, after a show at Good Folk, that Bonneville connected with the Ozark Blues Society. After expressing an interest in the International Blues Challenge, President Roger Plourde invited him to compete in the regional contest in Northwest Arkansas. Bonneville explains that the International Blues Challenge was an opportunity to meet other musicians and to otherwise be immersed in the blues scene.
“I’ve been playing the Americana and Folk world for some time, and I wanted to get more involved in the
blues world,” he says. So, he drove from Minnesota to play a 20-minute set in October for the preliminary contest at George’s Majestic Lounge. He was on his way to St. Louis for another show when he received the call notifying him that he had won the regional solo/duo challenge.
After playing three songs in the finals of the IBC, he was named the winner of the solo/duo division.
“I didn’t think I’d get very far because I don’t play blues songs,” says Bonneville. “I play Ray Bonneville songs, and when they announced the winner, it sounded an awful lot like my name.”
Bonneville was awarded a cash prize, advertising and interview perks as well as guaranteed spots with prominent blues gigs in the U.S. and Europe. Bonneville says he will try to make as many of the gigs as he can, but he doesn’t plan on canceling any prior commitments.
True to his nomadic spirit, Bonneville says he plans to just go “down the road and see what happens.”