Have a casual conversation with Ray Mason, and it’s unlikely you’ll have any clue that you’re talking with one of the most beloved and prolific songwriter/recording artists ever to call Western Massachusetts home. During a career that began in the late 1960s and has continued unabated for five decades, Mason has recorded 28 albums and juggled parallel lives with The Ray Mason Band, The Lonesome Brothers, Opal Canyon, and as a solo performer. He’s one of the most knowledgeable and affable musicians you’ll ever meet, with an encyclopedic expertise of rock and soul music from New England and beyond.
Born in Holyoke, MA in September 1950, Mason spent his early years living in the city’s Lyman Terrace public housing. There were always records in his apartment, and while in elementary school, Ray was drawn to the music of Sam Cooke, the Everly Brothers, and Duane Eddy. Nearly six decades later, Ray, an ardent record collector, still remembers the name of the woman who ran the record department (Shirl) at the nearby Grants department store, where he spends his allowance on brand-new 45s that cost 77 cents.
Just around the corner, there’s a Sears and Roebuck with a music department, and it’s here in 1964 where Ray’s maternal grandmother invests $69.95 and buys him his first electric guitar, a graduation gift upon completing 8th Grade at Sacred Heart School. All dressed up that day, Ray and his cherished Silvertone are immortalized on the cover of The Ray Mason Band’s 1999 CD, Castanets.
Ray plays rhythm guitar in his first band, The Gladiators, doing covers of Stones, Rascals, Dylan, and Beatles songs, and everyone plays Silvertone equipment. “We were all friends from Holyoke, and really loud. We’d play these Battle of the Bands and come in last. Then one time, we came in second-to-last and celebrated for a week!” It’s with The Gladiators, in 1967, when Ray first takes the songwriting plunge (writing lyrics for “Nothing Seems To Happen”). But it’s working at the local doughnut shop, Duncan McLean’s Bakery, that puts the jangle in his pocket ($1.25 an hour, to be exact).
After graduating Holyoke Catholic High School in 1968, Ray is approached at the shop, mop in hand, and asked by a guitarist friend if he’ll consider joining The Buck Rogers Movement, a regional band with experienced players in their late-20s and a calendar full of gigs. (Buck himself had already released several indie singles, and “Would You Believe,” went Top 5 on Springfield’s WHYN-AM.) They’re looking for a bass player with no commitments, and young Ray, a guitarist, is sold when told the band is booked for a week in Plattsburgh, NY (four sets a night), and he’ll make 200 bucks for the week. Ray passes the audition, and Duncan’s loss is the music world’s gain. Ray is still a teenager when he trades in his apron for a lifetime of music.
The Movement work regularly as Ray hones his bass-playing chops working five or six nights a week, four (or more) sets a night, all over the eastern U.S., eventually doing USO shows as far away as Greenland and Labrador, Canada. Playing non-stop is an education, not just musically, but “all about life,” reflects Ray.
After the Movement, Ray plays bass in several Connecticut and Western MA-based bands during the 1970s and early-1980s, including Seagull; The Sail Cats (with whom he meets the J. Geils Band when they record at Long View Farm Studio in North Brookfield, MA); Yankee Rhythm Band (meeting Jim Armenti there); Rohlehr, Groves, and Colby (John Colby soon embarks on a career at ESPN), with Ray playing electric bass on their acclaimed 1983 album RGC; and The Chills (who morph into The Ray Mason Band).
It’s at Long View—Ray records there with Michael Gregory Jackson and Signal (Walter Becker producing) and Ware River Club and later lays down tracks for much of his own debut CD, Between Blue & Okay—where he meets Jesse Henderson, chief engineer at the studio. This is a particularly big deal for Ray, knowing that Jesse had been the drummer for his musical heroes, the Rockin’ Ramrods, who he’d seen opening for The Kingsmen at Mountain Park in Holyoke. “We were pressed up against the stage and The Ramrods had their Beatle boots on,” Ray recalls. “Beatles haircuts, too, and Jesse was the first person we ever saw hit a rim shot with such authority on a snare drum. We liked The Kingsmen, but it was The Ramrods who totally won us over.” Decades later, with The Ray Mason Band doing mostly all originals, “Bright Lit Blue Skies” remains a staple in their repertoire.
It isn’t their music, though, that ultimately inspires Ray to immortalize the Ramrods’ in song… it’s their cologne! Though Ray and his friends were too shy to approach the band in the Kingsmen days, when they learned the Ramrods wore English Leather, they all went out the next day and bought some. The rollicking song-title-dropping “English Leather” is a highlight of the RMB’s excellent 2006 CD, Don’t Mess With Our Routine. Like so many Ray songs, “Leather” is fun, catchy, and evocative.
In 1983, deep in the heart of the DIY wave, with a growing backlog of original material, Ray begins recording his own songs in earnest, releasing a homemade two-album set on cassette. It’s Time To Captivate a Planet and Who’s Minding The Store? are clever and charming, hinting at his flourishing songwriting chops. A few years later, another cassette, Silvertone Pop! follows, and this one includes the soon-to-be familiar dedication, “For Karen,” whom he marries in 1992. Pop! also includes the original version of “It’s Heartbreak That Sells,” a disarmingly upbeat tune about our peculiar propensity for sensationalizing things. That song becomes the first track on a Ray Mason Tribute album, released on Tar Hut in 1999. A host of Ray’s friends and admirers contribute, including Eric “Roscoe” Ambel on the title cut, The Incredible Casuals, Cheri Knight, and Charlie Chesterman and the Legendary Motorbikes, who turn in a definitive version of “Big Hug” (originally on 1996’s Missyouville), which becomes the long-standing theme song for the popular Sokol Heroes radio show celebrating the music of Western MA-based artists, on WRSI (93.9–The River).
In addition to recording his solo work and Ray Mason Band albums—with longtime members Frank Marsh (drums), Tom Shea (guitars), and Stephen Desaulniers (bass)—Ray has recorded a slew of alt-country flavored albums as one of two songwriters in The Lonesome Brothers, alongside guitarist Jim Armenti, with Tom Shea or Keith Levreault often on drums. Ray plays bass in the Lonesomes, as opposed to Silvertone guitar in his own band, and Ray and Jim divide the songwriting chores democratically, their styles syncing seamlessly. One of the highlights of the Lonesomes’ 1997 self-titled debut album is the original version of Jim’s “Down By The Water,” subsequently recorded by artists including Pam Tillis, Cheri Knight (Ray is the bassist on Knight’s outstanding The Knitter album [East Side Digital, 1995]), and Cry Cry Cry featuring Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell.
Acclaimed Western MA-based producer/engineer Jim Weeks has worked on many RMB and Lonesome Brothers albums. Says Jim, “Ray, he moves forward in life and music with creative happiness and respect for others. That shows in his music. He is very secure in what he does, so he allows others to do what they do. His guitar and bass playing is deceptively simple sounding. He understands the puzzle! When playing on stage with him, you can’t help but feel better about things. He is like a warm pop cookie. Yeah, I’ve done a lot with him and his discography. And his are some of the best recordings I’ve ever been part of. I’m very proud to know these will remain after we are both gone.”
When you need a renowned musical force to interview or photograph in Western MA, who you gonna call? Ray Mason, of course. When glossy Take Magazine does a piece on the region’s vast music scene for its premiere issue, they feature a full-page photo of the man and headline the piece using the title of a Ray song (from 2002’s Three Dollar Man): “Reverb and a Zip Code.” When weekly arts-and-living magazine Hampshire Life puts together “Holidays on the Road,” focusing on how musicians deal with being away from loved ones on meaningful occasions, it’s Ray who graces their cover.
Over the years, Ray has played thousands of shows (100–200 a year), mostly as the headliner but often opening for others, including NRBQ, Fountains of Wayne, Marshall Crenshaw, Graham Parker, Joan Jett, Nils Lofgren, and Joan Osborne. One particularly memorable opening slot was for a well-established Warren Zevon, doing a solo show at Katina’s in Hadley, MA. As Ray is getting ready to go on, WZ politely and with a smile walks up to Ray and asks, “Hey, man, what do you think I should play tonight?” Ray is speechless.
Whether playing to a packed listening room such as the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton or a smaller club, Ray’s a consummate entertainer, talking affectionately with his audiences, as if everyone in attendance is a friend. He’ll riff on fond memories, like listening to records in his room (often before playing the autobiographical “Liner Notes”), with references to everyone from the Lovin’ Spoonful to Thelonious Monk.
Springfield-based Peter Newland, a Western MA musical legend and frontman for Fat, who recorded their debut album for RCA in 1970, has known Ray much of his professional life. Peter tells us, “Ray Mason is one of my heroes. He’s led, I think, an exemplary creative life. As time passes, so many of us get distracted and diverted; striving to remain relevant, looking for the new sound, struggling for success, however we may define it. Ray seemed to know, from the beginning, who he is… his artistic voice, character, and personality, and he’s remained true to himself throughout his career. Seemingly answering to no one but himself, he has continued to steadily build, day after day, year after year, a prolific, consistent, remarkable, and unique body of work. Ray is a relentless creative force.”
Adds David Simons, who recorded vocals on “When She Walks By” (on Old Souls Day) and fronts the popular Northampton-based Muswell Hillbillies band, “Ray’s got an understated Yankee sense of humor that’s obviously a big part of his appeal. I think of a song like ‘I Miss My Loneliness’ (on Don’t Mess With Our Routine), in which he states a preference for his Aunt Lil, who’s always ‘making tea like it’s 1952,’ to the love interest who won’t leave. That concept might be clunky in the hands of a lesser songwriter, but Ray backs it with one of his typically clever pop progressions, and it works.” Veteran writer Jim Macnie, in the notes to the 2003 Paisley Pop compilation CD featuring Ray’s rollicking “Up But So Loose,” goes one step further: “Think Randy Newman fronting NRBQ with a touch of Replacements. Smart lyrics, great eclectic bluesy rockin’ twangin’ good-time music. Ray’s like a teenager with 30-plus years of rock-and-roll experience.”
“Over the years,” Ray concludes, “I’ve been able to play and record with so many immensely talented people. I’m a very lucky person. I have a new song called ‘Lucky.’ I’m just lucky that I get up every morning and put my feet on the floor just to make sure I’m not dead. I feel fortunate to get up every day… and I owe it to all the people who’ve played with me on stage and on the albums… in my band and in The Lonesome Brothers. And the people who produced them. Jim Weeks, especially, who produced so many of my records and brought so much to them. And Frank Padellaro, Thom Monahan, Tom Shea, Danny Bernini, Henning Ohlenbusch, and others. And to all the people, the fans, who come out to see my bands and me perform in clubs and concerts. We love seeing people smiling and having a good time. I can never say that enough.”
(By David Sokol)
Selected Ray Mason Recordings:
- Ray Mason: It’s Time To Captivate a Planet/ Who’s Minding The Store? (Captivating Music, cassette only, 1983, 1984). Produced by Ray Mason.
- Ray Mason: Silvertone Pop! (Captivating Music, cassette only, 1991). Various producers.
- Ray Mason Band: Between Blue & Okay (Bullet CD, 1994). Produced by Dan Bernini, Jim Weeks, and others. Reissued on Ocean Music (1996).
- Ray Mason Band: Missyouville (Chunk CD, 1996). Produced by Thom Monahan, Tom Shea.
- Lonesome Brothers: Lonesome Brothers (Tar Hut CD, 1997). Produced by Jim Weeks and The Lonesome Brothers.
- Ray Mason Band: Old Souls Day (Wormco CD, 1998). Produced by Jim Weeks and Ray Mason.
- Lonesome Brothers: Diesel Therapy (Tar Hut CD, 1999). Produced by Jim Weeks and The Lonesome Brothers.
- Various Artists: It’s Heartbreak That Sells: A Tribute to Ray Mason (Tar Hut CD, 1999). Various producers.
- Ray Mason Band: Castanets (Wormco CD, 1999). Produced by Jim Weeks.
- Ray Mason Band: When The Clown’s Work Is Over (Captivating Music CD, 2000). Produced by Jim Weeks.
- Lonesome Brothers: Fences (SpiritHouse CD, 2004). Produced by Jim Weeks.
- Ray Mason Band: Don’t Mess With Our Routine (Hi-N-Dry CD, 2006). Produced by Frank Padellaro.
- Ray Mason: A Man And His Silvertone (Captivating Music CD, 2006). Produced by Ben Slater.
- Lonesome Brothers: The Last CD (Captivating Music CD, 2008). Produced by Jim Weeks and The Lonesome Brothers.
- Ray Mason: Like Bugs Chewing On Paper (Captivating Music CD, 2009). Produced by Jim Weeks.
- Ray Mason: The Shy Requester (Captivating Music CD, 2016). Produced by Henning Ohlenbusch.
Ray Mason appears on dozens of tribute and compilation albums. Here’s a sampling:
- Various Artists: Hotel Massachusetts (Chunk, 1994). Ray Mason Band: “Falling Down”
- Various Artists: Chooglin’: A Tribute To The Songs Of John Fogerty (Dren, 2002). Ray Mason Band: “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me)”
- Various Artists: A Mess of Our Favorites, Vol. 1 (Paisley Pop, 2003). Ray Mason Band: “Up But So Loose”
- Various Artists: The Q People: A Tribute To NRBQ (SpiritHouse, 2004). Ray on bass, Silvertone guitar, backing vocals on J Mascis’s version of “I Want You Bad”
- Various Artists: Super Hits Of The Seventies (WFMU, 2012). Ray Mason Band: “Come And Get Your Love”