Listening to Ray Bonneville’s spartan lyrics evokes images of freight yards, open prairies and empty dwellings. His masterful, moody songs on At King Electric embody the spirit of the North American continent he has wandered for decades.
Born in Quebec, Bonneville learned English when his family moved to Boston when he was twelve. Though his family returned to Canada, Bonneville served as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam. After returning home, he worked odd jobs as he perfected his musical skills, including practicing harmonica on his breaks as a taxicab driver.
Over the years he worked as an itinerant musician and, among other things, a bush pilot in Canada and Alaska. Bonneville has been recording albums since 1992 and won a Juno Award (Canadian Grammy) in 2000 for his third album, Gust of Wind. His song honoring New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, “I am the Big Easy,” off of Going By Feel, won the International Folk Alliance’s song of the year award in 2009. In 2012, he won the solo/duet category in the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis. For the past 10 years, Bonneville has been based in Austin, Texas.
At King Electric, his ninth studio album, is a collection of bluesy folk songs whose sparing, haunting lyrics might draw comparisons to Guy Clark, at times Tom Waits and at others Johnny Cash. He also brings to mind Twangville friend Kevin Gordon (and looks like what Gordon might look like in 20 years). Bonneville has some really nicely written songs on At King Electric, including “Next Card to Fall,” “Codeine,” “Tender Heart,” “South of the Blues,” and “Papachulalay.” One gets the feeling there are a lot of miles behind these songs.
Bonneville, as the clips below show, is comfortable working alone, but he has a full band on At King Electric, with Richie Lawrence on electric piano and accordion, Andre Bohren on percussion and piano, and guest appearances by guitarist Gurf Morlix and organist Stefano Intelisano.
If you’ve got some time, check out a full performance below from Wyoming Public Television.
About the author: Bill Wilcox is a roots music enthusiast recently relocated from the Washington, DC area to Philadelphia, PA and back again.