It takes about 38 seconds to realize Boo Ray isn’t your normal East Nashville country antihero. That’s not to say the gritty singer doesn’t fit in the corner of the country that brought us singers like Todd Snider, David Rawlings and Jason Isbell.
But after the first verse and chorus of Sea Of Lights album opener “Redneck Rock & Roll,” there’s something inherently carefree (if not nearly careless) about Boo Ray’s style. From his whoopin’ and hollerin’ on the opener to the beer-soaked honky-tonking sway on “A Melody, Some Guitars & A Rhyme,” he just doesn’t quite let you pin him down.
But Boo Ray isn’t making his music because it’s cool. He’s making his music because he doesn’t really have a choice. “You know man, I’m not really trying to sound like anything, it just kind of comes out the way it comes out,” he tells Wide Open Country. “I’m not necessarily a guy who’s gonna be playing a hit that was released last week on the radio. I’m more likely to be playing a Billy Joe Shaver song. Or that Hot Chocolate song.”
He’s talking about “Emmaline,” a 1974 song from pop group Hot Chocolate, which he discovered on cassette in a shoebox under an old girlfriend’s bed. “We got ahold of the tape, and I just fell in love with that song,” he says. That was back in 2005, around the time he first met producer Noah Shain in Los Angeles.
It took about 11 years to get his version on record, but the tune clearly gets better with age. The song presents a standout among the blazing 35-minute Sea Of Lights, which Boo Ray released in late 2016.
The record is a product of years of hard work, travel and relationship building. How long did it take? “Well, there are two ways to answer that question,” Boo Ray says. “On the one hand, we tracked all 10 songs straight to tape in two days. On the other, Noah and I wanted to make a record like Sea Of Lights since 2005. From the moment he heard me, he was like, ‘Yeah this is how we need to make this music.'”
Before they got to that point, Shain and Boo Ray maintained a good relationship by trading gear and working together here and there. Boo Ray traded Shain a Mesa Boogie guitar amplifier in exchange for recording two songs on his 2010 album Bad News Travels Fast.
Shain and Boo Ray finally pulled the trigger on Sea Of Lights when Shain acquired an old Ampex tape machine used on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline sessions, as well as all of the Nashville-era Johnny Cash records. Boo Ray immediately headed out to Shain’s Los Angeles studio to cut the record straight to tape. “I took my publishing money, didn’t pay rent and threw it all at recording,” he says.
“Straight to tape,” for many, presents an opportunity both ripe with nostalgia and ripe with vibe. Nowadays, a vast majority of music utilizes digital technology. It’s cheaper and easier to work with. But analog 2″ tape — like the old days — provides for a certain sonic quality that most classify as “warmer” or rounder.
For Boo Ray, it also meant going about recording in a “garage band” style format. One that usually creates an energy and performances that just feel more energetic and natural.
All of the players already had a good relationship with each other from years of various projects. They got in a room, put up some large baffles and threw some big Persian rugs over the guitar amps to isolate the sounds and let it rip. “If you turned up the kick drum mic, you could hear the guitars and vocals in it,” Boo Ray says. It can be almost unhinged and the opposite of careful. In many ways, it’s controlled chaos.
Which, when it comes to Sea Of Lights, is really the best way to honor the tunes. And it allows for some special moments, too. Like on the three or so songs when the band got together, rehearsed for 20 minutes and laid down one take — and one take was all it took.
There’s a clear love affair going on with Southern California in Boo Ray’s sound. “I stay in Tennessee, and don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy about Nashville, but there really is something to the L.A. thing.”
For Boo Ray, Los Angeles means time-honored tradition. “Once I got out there, I discovered there’s a well-worn path of Southern troubadours making their way through Los Angeles,” he says. “From Jerry Reed and Tom Petty and all the Hollywood cowboy singers.”
Boo Ray played many of the hot spots around town, like Silverlake Lounge and Hotel Café. The scene has a tendency to toughen you up or kick you out, and for Ray, cutting his teeth out there helped define some of that edge he brings to his performances. Sometimes, it comes out in that classic rockabilly vibe.
“On a Saturday night we’re liable to have a cuff in our jeans and our hair slicked back, wearing a white t-shirt or something like that,” he laughs. “It’s possible.”
Boo Ray and company plan to release “Redneck Rock & Roll” as the third single off the album, complete with a new video. And while there’s still plenty of legs on Sea Of Lights, Boo Ray already has the next album loaded up in the barrel.
Noah Shain traveled to Nashville this time to capture more of the magic. They recorded at Welcome To 1979, the “tape studio” in Nashville. And though he can’t give any specifics, Boo Ray will say one thing: “I think it’s Jerry Reed as hell.”