If you want the fast track to establishing yourself, onstage, as a country artist neither of the Keith Urban ilk, nor fully of the outlaw ilk — yet accessible as the former and authentic as the latter — starting out with a Billy Joe Shaver cover makes sense. That’s what Boo Ray did on Friday night at The Grey Eagle, leading his band through Shaver’s down-to-earth “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” before shifting gears into his original song, “Four Letters and a Heart.”
Ray is no stranger to Asheville — he’s spent time here, lived down the road in Athens, and launched his current career trajectory at the Town Pump a few years back when he was touring his Bad News Travels Fast album. That title track, swaggering, driving and full of attitude, also appears on his new record, Sea of Lights. It’s a good fit, too — the new record is full of that same kind of assurance, edge and self direction.
“It ain’t the luck you got, it’s the luck you make,” Ray sings on the song “Sea of Lights.” It’s a track about a trip to LA; kind of autobiographical as Ray, who now lives in Nashville, made the trek to California to record. Onstage, though, neither he nor his band seem affected by Hollywood glitter or Nashville hype. Pedal steel whines prettily; the drummer plays like he’s jazz-trained (but looks, under his curve-billed trucker cap like he just hopped off a John Deere).
And, though the new album — and Ray’s live set — contains the infectious, anthemic “Redneck Rock & Roll” (“I don’t like newfangled damn skinny-leg jeans”), the band also powers through a countrified cover of Hot Chocolate’s “Emmaline.” Ray says he found the song on a cassette tape in a shoe box under his bed. At once glam and gritty, with three-part vocals, the song manages to feel intense without taking itself too seriously. It’s possible that Ray is the missing link between country’s roots and its modern televised pop iteration.
While Ray is a fine songwriter in his own right, his list of collaborators is impressive (and his onstage offhandedly gossipy telling of those friendships only serves to enhance the show). The haunting “Like a Cigarette” from his 2013 album, Six Weeks in a Motel, was pitched to Ray by noted songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick. Live, it throbs in space. The guitars are crunchy, the bass is thick and the drum is little more than a thump and a flourish of cymbals.
The whole band is seasoned and flawless — never too showy, but with the kind of chops where they could really pull it out at any moment, and you feel it even as each musician remains tasteful and dynamic, finessing each song with a care rarely applied to boot-stomping country. But because of that subtlety they shift easily from the softness of Little Feat’s “Willin’” (with a chilling peddle steel solo) and the moody coolness of Ray’s original, “One More Round,” to the roots-raucousness of “Johnny’s Tavern.”
The latter was inspired by a video shoot for Ray’s song “Boots and Blue Jeans.” It was filmed at a legendary Nashville dive bar that deserved a song of its own. The result: a two-stepping, swaying, beer-soaked, feel-good encapsulation of a Friday night. A really good Friday night.