Boo Ray’s a rambler. He’s a yarn-spinner, a character, a tumbleweed blowing across the country. He’s an explorer of Southern music, and he’s happy to have you along for the ride.
The North Carolina native headed for Athens in his teens, and rarely looked back. Boo Ray splits his time between the distant and distinct music hubs of Los Angeles, Nashville and Athens—a year in one, two in another—but more often than not you’ll find him cultivating his roots here in Georgia. It’s where he comes to remind himself of what he loves about playing country and rock ’n’ roll tunes: the honesty.
“I’ve got some wonderful friends here and I’m always glad to spend time with my friends here,” he says, and adds that he comes to Athens for its gritty “realness.” The hunt for that intangible quality is at the root of Bad News Travels Fast, Boo Ray’s new album.
“The stuff I did in L.A. isn’t straight-up hillbilly Southern stuff. It’s eclectic and cool,” he says, “but it’s not mean like that, it’s not quite mean like that like how my Georgia friends and them played on it, so I had to get to Georgia for some of that mean sound.”
A lanky kind of dude, he’s the type who wears sunglasses indoors, in a basement, when it’s nighttime. Boo Ray’s a teller of tales, and whether they’re tall or otherwise, well, that’s one thing he’s not telling. But storytelling, that’s Boo Ray’s love. His tunes are miniature romances and miniature travelogues. Don’t believe the guy loves to spin a yarn? Check out the name of his prose writing’s online home: booraystories.blogspot.com.
Songs and sidemen
Bad News Travels Fast is Boo Ray’s latest disc, a follow-up to his R&B-and-gospel-tinged album Flow. Right from the start it makes its purpose known, with its rollicking title track opening with the twang and keen of a steel guitar. Boo Ray wrote the tune with musician Colin Linden, a music vet who co-produced the O Brother, Where Are Thou? soundtrack alongside T Bone Burnett.
“I realized what I had on my hands,” Boo Ray says of the tune. “Colin took me to his house and we sat in his kitchen and wrote that song in about an hour. And right away I realized what I had on my hands. An uptempo, swingin’, catchy track. I knew it was the damn title track—I just knew it was!”
“Bird on a Wire” plays around with lyrical clichés—“out of the frying pan into the fire,” “fools rush in,” “better the devil that you know”—but there’s always a sly grin audible in his singing. He relied on a number of musical pros for assistance on the album, recruiting and recording in L.A. and Athens alike. For instance, the Circle Jerks’ Zander Schloss contributed instrumentation and production, while Athens’ William Tonks (Workhorses, etc.) loaned his considerable talents to the sessions.
The acoustic guitar and mandolin out of which “Allez Allez” is woven are matched up with a fluid electric guitar solo. Boo Ray says he enjoys playing around with arrangements in the studio, and tries to give his backing musicians clear direction. “Here’s the deal with that,” he says. “I am real lucky and fortunate that these great players that I’ve met like to play music with me. If there’s something that I’ve learned out of this whole thing, it’s the value of showing up with a well-written, coherent song. And then also the power of letting players do their thing, not [messing] with the players too much. You know, ‘hey man, here’s the song.’ Good players will play the right damn thing if you don’t [mess] with them too much.”
Keeping it simple
While onstage in Athens, Boo Ray kicks around with a gang of guys he calls the Bad Beat Kings, and when Boo Ray & the Bad Beat Kings take a stage, it’s an uncomplicated, energetic and sweaty rock ’n’ roll throwdown. “I’ve got my band I’m real proud of out of Athens, and we’re tight, you know, we’re slick. Real good band. Tight, intricate. It’s just full-tilt, ornery Americana!” he says. “It’s a killer band, I love this band. You know, my take on this band is it’s halfway between Steve Earle and Dire Straits.”
Boo Ray loves to put on a solid show, too, and sees performing as a different animal than recording in a studio. “There’s an art to recording. The art of recording and the art of playing live music are two damn different things. I really have different approaches to them. One big factor for me in playing live music is if I have to change guitar four times, or change from guitar to banjo to mandolin, the damn soundman never gets a chance to relax and catch up, and he’s constantly turning knobs. That works if you’re Mike Campbell from Tom Petty, but for working stiffs like you and me it’s hard to talk your soundman into caring that much. So we plug in our guitars, I play a brass-body resonator on a big part of the set, and Daniel Marler plays electric guitar.”
Boo Ray, incidentally, may or not be his real name, but either way, Boo’s not telling. Not that story. Not yet.