Even to a sharp observer of popular music, Ray LaMontagne’s superstardom may seem to have come from out of nowhere.
But it’s not hard to understand why people have taken a serious liking to the Maine-based singer-songwriter.
LaMontagne is ruggedly handsome, and his rustic brand of folk-blues is warm, soulful and heartfelt. His voice comes with a weathered rasp, his guitar playing is exquisite, and his songs timeless. The man just seems to have it all, except a smile. (Seriously, try to find a picture of him smiling on the Internet.)
But most importantly, LaMontagne’s face holds an all-time classic beard, one that perfectly bisects the space between a scraggly “I can’t really grow a beard” beard and the yak-chin look of Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam.
So when LaMontagne declined to be interviewed ahead of his show Tuesday in Bend (see “If you go”), I asked to speak with his beard instead. What follows is a transcript of that interview. (Note: Not really. I did not talk to Ray LaMontagne’s beard. It declined an interview, too.)
GO!: So ... what kind of beard are you?
Ray’s Beard: Technically, I’m a Northern New England Bushy Brown Beard because Ray was born in Nashua, N.H. But we moved around so much when Ray was young, I’ve got a little bit of everything in me.
I’m a mutt, I guess. But a sophisticated mutt!
GO!: And how long have you been attached to Ray’s face?
RB: I’m his beard, not his brain, so math isn’t really my thing. But I’m told he was a pretty hairy baby, so I figure I’ve been with him all of his 38 years.
GO!: When did you realize that Ray had a gift for music?
RB: Well, as you probably know because every article ever written about Ray includes this anecdote, he just decided one day that he wanted to pursue a career as a musician after he heard Stephen Stills’ “Treetop Flyer” on the radio. So he quit his job and did just that. I thought that was irresponsible and encouraged him to stay at the shoe factory. I felt he had a gift for making shoes. So I am probably not the best person to ask about his gift for music. He was right, I was wrong. Whatever.
GO!: But what about once he started writing songs? Did you realize then that he was going to go far?
RB: I thought he sounded like a rip-off of Van Morrison or The Band and told him he should go back to the shoe factory. Strike two. Now I just keep my mouth shut lest I meet the razor’s fate.
GO!: To a casual observer, it seems like Ray’s stardom came out of nowhere. Does it feel that way to you?
RB: Not really. It’s felt more steady than that. I mean, certainly there was a big bump after some of the songs on his debut album, “Trouble,” found their way into popular TV shows and films. And I think we were a little surprised when “Gossip in the Grain” debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s album chart in 2008. And then there were the three Grammy nominations for last year’s “God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise.” So ... OK, yeah, I guess there has been a real surge, and it’s happened pretty quickly. But I’m just along for the ride.
GO!: Have there been any low points in Ray’s career so far, in your opinion?
RB: I don’t know about low points, but did you see Taylor Hicks sing “Trouble” on that “American Idol” show? What is up with that dude? How did he win? Better yet, how did he beat Daughtry, Kellie Pickler and Katharine McPhee?
GO!: I don’t know.
RB: Me neither. I just know I don’t trust him. No facial hair.
GO!: So what musicians do you like?
RB: Hmm ... well, I dig Hairy Belafonte. Whiskertown. Tuft Merritt. Aesop Locks. And also actual artists like Bush, Grizzly Bear and Shaggy. ZZ Top, obvs.
GO!: Hey, when you hear “Trouble” in that Travelers Insurance commercial where the dog is worried about his bone, do you ever wonder why Ray is singing and you’re not moving up and down?
RB: Yes, all the time. Like I said, I’m a beard, not a brain.
GO!: Why can’t I find any pictures of Ray smiling?
RB: I don’t really want to get into that. Let’s just say that his teeth and I have had some tussles in the past, so it’s good to have his lips as a buffer between us.
GO!: Whoa ... are you saying that Ray LaMontagne’s teeth are a bunch of jerks?
RB: No comment. Next question.
GO!: Who would win in a fight? Ray’s teeth, Ray’s beard or Steve Earle in the late morning if he hadn’t had his chai latte?
RB: Come on, man. Next question.
GO!: Testy, testy. OK, last one. What would you say to, oh, I don’t know, a music writer in a medium-sized town who has listened to Ray’s music but struggled to fall in love with it?
RB: I would say that person should stop writing about music and go work in a shoe factory.