It’s one thing having the songs and sound, and the flair to deliver them live. Not bad for starters, but hardly enough to shift units and fill venues, competing with the multitudes of artists ticking the same boxes. The missing ingredients are old fashioned graft and energy. Enter Boo Ray. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, the North Carolina born artist has the hallmarks of one in a constant state of motion, both in body and mind. Five albums under his belt, his fifth release Tennessee Alabama Fireworks is certainly a career highlight. Time to sit back, put the feet up and drool over the stirring industry reviews the album has earned? Quite the contrary for Ray, who spends his time equally between Nashville, Los Angeles and Athens Georgia these days. It’s all about that ingrained work ethic of keeping the tap flowing and getting those songs out on the road and into people’s antennas. It’s often a long road to overnight success and Ray continues to travel that thoroughfare without ever looking over his shoulder.
Did your appreciation of music and its influences on your recording career as an artist evolve greatly while journeying from North Carolina to Georgia, The West Coast and eventually to Nashville?
Yes absolutely, each geographical move led to immersion in the music and music history of the region. In Georgia, I got to soak up the mythology of the Macon scene by first-hand accounts from engineers and guys who were in the bands, and I became aware of producer Tom Dowd and his work in the genre. Extended runs and stays on the Gulf Coast were a big influence on me too. Something cool happens to a two-step when it travels south from Appalachia down to Louisiana, Lower Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. It gets a little bit relaxed and starts to swagger down there; Texas Hill Country and south of there too. In Los Angeles I discovered that the path I was on was well worn by the southern troubadours before me: Tom Petty, Jerry Reed, Don Felder, Gram Parsons, James Taylor, Sheryl Crow, and Lucinda Williams are all southern troubadours who went out to Los Angeles and found the phenomena of an indigenous sound of country music in Southern California. It embodies the spirit of the American pioneers who made the nearly impossible journey west and settled there, the first person playing a stringed instrument while they were standing in the rolling hills looking at the Pacific Ocean, the cowboy culture, Hollywood, the cowboy singers and the inseparable bond of movies and songs.
Artists often refer to their creativity becoming unlocked and heightened by relocating to Nashville. Was this your experience?
Yes absolutely. The bar's high as hell in Nashville. It's definitely the centre of the guitar universe and probably the biggest pile of songwriters in one spot. Then there's the entire production world of top-notch engineers, great producers, legendary studios, and musicians of all kinds. It takes a minute but you find your kind and navigate. Before relocating I'd been traveling to and working in Nashville as a songwriter for a few years, written Bad News Travels Fast with Colin Linden and written Six Weeks In A Motel, so I had a little bit of information. I was already 100% committed and set on the mission of building a catalogue of real, useable, high-quality songs that I can make a living with as a troubadour, and being in Nashville I can stay immersed in the nuts and bolts of that mission continually building my catalogue. I've done 3 co-writes this week with an outstanding guitar player/singer/songwriter named Mike Mizwinski who's new to Nashville from Pennsylvania and the NYC scene. Mike and I've got Appalachia in common and have been writing about the big brick buildings cast against the mountains and mouths of rivers. My buddy, guitar virtuoso Guthrie Trapp and I surmised the other night like a couple of crows, that Nashville right now might be the greatest convergence of musical talent ever in the world. Including Venice in the late 1700's, ha-ha!
East Nashville is generating non-commercial music by exceptional artists of a greater quality than ever. Unfortunately, the pickings seem continually to be meagre and unsustainable in terms of survival for many. How do you come to terms and attempt to overcome this?
I think what you’re talking about is the incredibly high degree of difficulty of being an independent musician anywhere in this country right now. The Texas and Red Dirt guys who're often treated like red-headed step-kids by the East Nashville clique clearly illustrate that if you have a catalogue of songs and a live show that can be realistically booked at blue-collar events like state fairs, car shows, biker rallies, rodeos, and corporate events, then you can offset some of the income that's barely there anymore. I think some of the retro/recreation type country acts could have some of that income too. Barter, trade, partnerships, and being willing to mine the silver has been essential for me. I've been working with Olathe Boot Company since 2010, I've got a western shirt line with H Bar C Ranchwear, I'm working with other independent artists like painter James Willis, Chef Sean Brock, photographer Price Harrison, and boutique companies like Vinyl Ranch, Kindercore Vinyl Manufacturing and Soundly Music.
Is a part-time career a realistic option for artists or are you horrified by the prospect?
In my answer to the previous question, there might be a few different part-time careers outlined beyond singer/songwriter. It's all just an unbelievable damned hustle and scarp these days. Maybe akin to the kind of hustle Ralph Stanley and them encountered when they played baseball games to solicit audience attendees for their show that night. I did a few thousand dollars’ worth of leather work over the holidays to get by and I've got my forklift license in my pocket right now if I need it.
You, like so many other artists appeared on The Billy Block Show in Nashville. Is there any suchlike outlets available in Nashville at present for artists like yourself?
Billy Block was a wonderful and generous talent who shined like a crown jewel in Nashville. Derek Hoke's $2 Dollar Tuesday is an excellent ongoing songwriter series that carries that same intelligent, kind Nashville hospitality and quality.
Bad New Travels was your first album to get labelled Americana and the attendant exposure. Was that noticeably valuable to your career?
Absolutely. SiriusXM Outlaw Country picking me up in 2010 is one of the most important things that's happened for me.
A number of decades back your sound would be simply classified as rock and would get any amount of music press coverage and radio play. The Americana canopy continues to widen and embrace many sub-genres. Has it been generally helpful to your career in terms of exposure or is it smothering artists like yourself?
In 2010 I was able to release Bad News Travels Fast officially to Americana radio out of a halfway house for the cost of CD's, printing one sheets, Moonpies & postage. I've since had 2 Top 40 records Six Weeks In A Motel and Sea Of Lights. Each package got a Moonpie. That's still theoretically possible today though the format has now become dominated by major labels and major Indies.
Your most recent release Tennessee Alabama Fireworks is a great listen, being enjoyed by us all at Lonesome Highway. In personal satisfaction terms, how does it rate with your back catalogue?
Thank you a ton, I'm real glad you dig it. This album is a result of a series of decisions over a period of years that was defined during the recording of the previous album. Producer Noah Shain, told me while we were recording Sea Of Lights with Steve Ferrone and an amazing all-star band, "When we record the next album in 12 months, I want you to make the playing you're doing with your East Nashville band so important that I'll have to record you guys." With the benefit of executing a plan over a period of time to develop a sound, this new album is the most fully realized and best album of mine yet. The songs are passing the acid test and proving to be great live and the production of the album continues to be interesting to me. This batch of songs, the band performances, Noah Shain's production and mix, Pete Lyman's mastering, James Willis's album cover painting, Price Harrison's photography and art direction, Kindercore's amazing expert manufacturing, I think this is my best album yet.
I believe A Tune You Can Whistle was the last song written just before the album was recorded. A breezy and instantly addictive sound which might mask the inherent social comment. Inspired by despondency and frustration by the worrying absence of empathy that surrounds us at present?
"The worrying absence of empathy" Great writing! Yes, actually wrote that song on the 3rd night of the recording sessions and recorded it the next day. Not to go black on things, but it's just damned overwhelming and hard to believe, isn't it? Mike Judge's "Idiocracy" plays like a five-card flush right now, doesn't it? And I'm not an outside lookin' in guy either you know. I'm struggling to try to figure out how to respond to this crazy-ass world. There are a few things that I thought we really had in the damned bag, and I considered completely figured out and known around the globe as standard operating procedure for all civilized nations. Separation Of Church And State, Separation Of Business And State, Roe vs Wade, Civil Rights. Shoot man, I thought that Gospel and considered to be sacred advances in our humanity.
It also features the album title in the lyrics. Tell me the story behind that?
There was this huge sign for a fireworks superstore called "Tennessee Alabama Fireworks on the side of Interstate 24 between Chattanooga and Nashville. You'd come around this bend right as you began to climb the Cumberland Plateau and this enormous sign appeared like a southern gothic effigy carved in the hillside. Maybe it was kind of like Middle Tennessee's Mt Rushmore. Anyone who's driven past the "TAF" sign on I-24W can attest to the southern gothic nature of it. The other day this writer tried to compare the "TAF" sign to the "south of the border fireworks" sign near the NC/SC line and completely missed the subtlety, significance and context of the "TAF" sign for being distinguishable as a uniquely regional phenomena because the sign celebrated its location by name, giving it a literate title connected to its literal location with a lyrical phonetic sensibility. To not recognize that difference is to not understand the importance of phonetic in the name Huckleberry, or miss the entire point, style, and wit of Minnie Pearl's hat with the price tag hanging off the side, or to not understand the fellowship of humour and swagger embodied in a Nudie suit, or not know the difference between Harry Crews and Malcolm Lowry. In culinary terms, it'd equate to not being able to tell the difference between country ham and speck, or zipper peas and black-eyed peas, or chicken wings and chicken Versailles. But I digress. The "TAF" sign was a fun landmark and cool regional culture oddity that bordered just on the brash marketing side of folk-art, as does much of the visual imagery created in and around some of my favourite country music of the 60s and 70s by artists like Don Williams, Eddie Rabbit, JJ Cale, and Jerry Reed.
You brought producer Noah Shain back on board for the album, having worked previously with him. He has a reputation for not ‘overcooking’ in the studio. Did you have a particular sound and mix in mind getting him on board?
Yes, Noah and I planned the approach and sound of this new album while we were recording the previous record. Like you said, Noah's known for that great intersection of classic vintage top end and contemporary hard hittin' bottom end. So, we knew we weren't going to follow any hipster trends of records- no ass on 'em, you know? Our approach is experimental and our aim is a dramatic sonic experience as the setting for the songs.
You brought Noah to Welcome To 1979 Studio in Nashville, rather than record in his studio in Los Angeles. Logistics or did that hometown studio had a particular appeal?
Both, and Noah's the one who wanted to record at '79. Since we were recording my East Nashville band it was more efficient to bring Noah to us. And Paul Ill came in from Los Angeles to play bass. But '79s an excellent studio with a warm utilitarian vibe that makes for a great creative environment that has the ability to record the performances in the best way possible...
I get the impression of Boo Ray as an individual that does not believe in downtime! I believe the album was completed in five days?
Yeah, we considered five days a luxury. The previous album was done in two days.
The album is packed with big songs that draw the listener in, hook, line, and sinker. Gone Back To Georgia has an absorbing melody and a killer video on You Tube to accompany it. I loved the film noir connotations and half expected a gruesome and bloody finale. Fun to make?
Thanks, that one's a keeper, right? Yeah, it was a bunch fun shooting that video. I dig production and love noir too. Unfortunately, we didn't have any fake blood for the big finale! Ha!
Filmed at Bettys Bar & Grill I see. A genuine dive bar, I love it. Do you gig there?
Yeah, I love Betty's too. My buddies Patrick Sweeney and McKinley James have an ongoing Monday blues night at Betty's.
Are there, in fact, many opportunities for you to get gigs in Nashville or is that a case of preaching to the converted rather than wider exposure?
We might play Nashville once or twice a month at Martin's BBQ and a few times a year at The 5 Spot and a couple of times a year at 3rd And Lindsley. As far as getting the work done of growing an audience though, we're out of town in a 9-hour radius Thursday through Sunday as much as possible.
Back to the album. Were the bulk of the remaining songs written and tested while on tour?
Yes, in bits and pieces I tried out different beats and different movements as I was writing the album.
Music and its offshoots appear to be a way of life to you, not merely a career. Much more than simply a recording and touring artist, you seem to be passionate about continuity in both musical and fashion terms. Keeping the flag flying for authentic country, blues, and soul against the tide of mediocracy flooding the market. Do you feel it’s possible to stem that flow?
As standoffish as I am of platitudes, my friend Aaron Lee Tasjan's song rings true here; "Success ain't about being better than everyone else It's about being better than your self," and he continues digging in, fighting the good fight, writing and singing real songs. And no, I don't think there's any way to stem that flow. I think there are still a few spots left in the classic American songbook and I'm aiming at that. And I know that "drug" reference songs are low blows, but I'll write one if I ever happen to come across it naturally. I think all my songs might be drinking songs though.
Diligence and zeal seem to keep you in top gear, constantly on tour or recording. Are you recording to tour or touring to record and which gives you the greatest buzz?
Cool question. I see them as two different interconnected and interdependent endeavours, maybe akin to laboratory work and fieldwork. I write the songs as blueprints for the studio environment and consider the studio to be the "casting" process or the "photographing"/"filming" of the work, or the documentation. Once it's mixed and mastered on a record I consider that document to be the blueprint for the live performance piece that's then interoperated, arranged for live performance with alternate intros, extended outros, extended solos, dynamic changes, and/or breakdowns, and integrated into the show. It's a little bit of circular process.
And ‘after tour’ chill out methods. What do you recommend or is there such a thing?
Most recently I'm becoming more and more interested in "unplugging" and not being engaged in digital communication, using Google, social media or digital screen. I think I've discovered that being "logged in" compromises/interrupts/interferes with my natural ability to hold, work with, observe, and manipulate the long form narrative.
Jerry Reed appears to be an artist much admired by you. Was the regard strictly based on his musical output or his versatility across the arts?
I was a fan of Snowman way before I knew Jerry Reed was the coolest picker to ever come to Nashville. The joy of his songs and performances are what strikes me. He's not singing about social order but you know without any shadow of a doubt that Jerry Reed stood for equality among all me and women, of all races, religions, and sexual orientations. I've heard from numerous first-hand reports that he was the real deal; kind, sincere, humble, full of himself, ornery, had a vocabulary that was not PG and was extremely funny and generous.
Legendary as Merle Haggard is, do you feel history somewhat unfairly overshadows Reed’s output in favour of Merle?
Aw shoot man, I wouldn't presume to know such a thing or have the expertise to split such hairs. I admire them both so much. Hagg and Reed mean the world to me. I think I got my taste in hats and contemporary writing from 'em.
Finally, you’ve recorded a couple of duets with both Elizabeth Cook and Lilly Winwood. Any intentions for further recordings along those lines?
Yes, thanks for asking! Those are part of a 7" vinyl collaboration series called "Boocoo Amigos". My buddy Chef Sean Brock and I wrote and recorded A and B-side singles called Saint Mis Behaving and Soul Food Cookin’. There are some exciting collabs currently in the works.Great questions! Thanks for taking the time!
Interview by Declan Culliton