By David Rolland
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It seems we have earned Ray LaMontagne's eye contact.
Looking back at his past album covers, not until his third do we get a glimpse of Ray's face. The mustache and beard deny us the opportunity to get too close to the man, whose reticent gaze appears fixed to the floor. Even the record's title, Gossip in the Grain, implies the only talking worth doing should happen in some far-off desolate pasture, free from the grips of prying conversation.
Now, deep in the liner notes of album number four, God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise, he's pictured with the Pariah Dogs, his pack, outfitted in vests and hats in a still that could have easily been captured a century ago.
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The timelessness of this new photo translates to the music behind it. Songs like "Beg Steal or Borrow" and "Old Before Your Time" explore themes of solitude, faith, regret, discontent, and utopia. The mood of God Willin' swings like a pendulum, from the piss-and-vinegar howl of "Repo Man" to the desperate and chilling "For the Summer."
Lap and pedal steel guitars have replaced the layered horn and string arrangements present throughout his last three albums, Trouble, Till the Sun Turns Black, and Gossip in the Grain. We're hearing LaMontagne's first stab at producing and his first record with his four-piece touring band.
Before the band ever arrived at his secluded farmhouse on a rainy Sunday in March and before he even considered how the acoustics would respond to the barn's walls, LaMontagne already had the new record finished. All of it, every note and arrangement, was in his head. With a little direction, the group formed a circle and cut the bluesy "Devil's in the Jukebox" in three takes. By Friday, Ray had his album, and the Dogs were free to go.
LaMontagne will bring the Pariah Dogs along to the Pompano Beach Amphitheatre on Thursday for one of only eight scheduled performances with the Levon Helm Band. It's only fitting that Helm — whose soulful twang turned Band tunes like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" into classics — approached Ray to hit the road. Each songwriter reflects something authentic and authoritatively American in the other. LaMontagne embodies the roots of the folk family tree, which sprouted from Woodie Guthrie's protest songs and branched out to include the fruits of Dylan, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, and Helm, the Band's lone American member.
"I just find him hugely inspiring because he's been through the wringer," the soft-spoken LaMontagne says on the phone from his home. "And that's what I think is just so amazing and admirable about the man — he's been through it all, and he's gracious about it."
Last year, doctors removed a noncancerous lesion from the 70-year-old Helm's vocal cords, and he's since given no interviews. "Levon has great respect and admiration for Ray as a person and as a fellow musician," his manager offers.
Born Raycharles LaMontagne in 1973, he lived the first half of his life in transit, drifting in and out of several small Maine towns until he discovered a passion for music in his early 20s. In 1998, LaMontagne took his guitar into a local studio and made a demo of songs he'd never played for anyone. It was his voice, that robust, gritty vocal of hurt and hope, that earned him his first gig. "He was so self-conscious that he would leave the stage the second the song was over and not wait for the applause," remembers Mike Miclon, executive director of Buckfield's Oddfellow Theater. Over the next five years, LaMontagne grew more comfortable playing the venue off Route 117 but never shook his stage anxiety — he often performs in the dark, a quirk not unusual for a man who went without electricity for much of his life.
LaMontagne's record contract came in late 2002, when a friend introduced him to Jamie Cerreta, vice president of A&R at Chrysalis Music Group USA. The executive signed the songwriter after hearing him belt out "Lead Me On" and helped LaMontagne finance and shop his debut album, Trouble, which RCA picked up in 2004. "The only question I ever had about Ray was how to market him," Cerreta says. "A lot of artists you meet are very outspoken, promote themselves. Ray was very inhibited, and he did all his talking with his songs."
This about a man who's never warmed up his vocals prior to a recording or performance and never fully embraced his keen ability to conjure up heavenly images by singing about hell.
"It took a while for me to feel good about my voice," LaMontagne says. "That's just a God-given thing; you're given a tone to work with. I tried to be not so hard on myself about what I had no control over. But I was initially very critical of that and initially very disappointed with what God had given me. But I'm not so much anymore. Now I feel like it's a blessing. And now I'm working all the time just to be a better singer."
LaMontagne's gradual popularity has tested his patience with the media. The health-conscious songwriter often unwinds by smoking pipe tobacco but avoids booze, cigarettes, and pot ("At a certain point in my early 20s, it just stopped working, so I stopped using it," he says).