By Mike Dow
edge contributor

A while back, I received a message on Facebook from someone who suggested I check out the music of Chris Ross. It was a message from one of his fans excited to spread the word. After watching and listening to a few performances on YouTube, I found myself saying, "This guy has it." Whatever that intangible "IT" may be. You know ... that special quality that compels you to keep listening. He has it. I have every reason to believe Ross is about to take a giant step with his new album, "The Steady Stumble," released last week on CD and online.

As debut albums go, it's a stunner. This is not a "stare at the floor-confessional singer/songwriter" record. It's bold and confident and was written and sung by a guy who knows where he's going and is determined to do what it takes to get there.

Chris Ross was raised in the Ellsworth area. While he was in his teens, his mother, Renata, promised him $20 for every "good song" he wrote. "What better motivation for a teenager?" he told me. "She has always been as supportive as possible." Ross calls her "literally the greatest woman the Earth has seen." His father, Craig, was a scallop diver who has lived in Quebec for the last 15 years. On his new album, you can hear Ross's connection to family and the strength and character they instilled. Listen again and you can hear heartbreak and escape - a man hopeful for real love. There is a thread of genuineness that runs through his songs. In a time when the top 40 is filled with the opaque, the obscure or the purely fluffy, it's very refreshing to hear songs that are so bare, pure and completely lacking in pretense.

Family is a clear influence on Chris Ross's music. What about other musicians and songwriters? "For me right now - and for the last three years - it doesn't get any better than Ray Lamontagne," Ross said. "He writes perfectly on that line between poetry and conversation - a style I envy." They do have a rootsy smokiness in common, and while Ross may be influenced by Lamontagne's songs, his tunes are in no way derivative.

OK, so he likes that guy who lived in Lewiston, worked at the Dexter Shoe Factory outlet and is currently one of the most popular singer/songwriters on the planet. Who else?

"Bruce Springsteen - especially 'Born To Run' and earlier. Amos Lee, Ryan Adams, Grace Potter, Damien Rice ... I love the mood of Leonard Cohen and the straight up brilliance of Kris Kristofferson. The Band are arguably the coolest bunch of cats ever. I still watch 'The Last Waltz' at least once a month."

For the last six years, Ross has been part of the popular local band Stiff Whisker and The Driftwood Kids. "We played bars, opera houses and backyards for almost five years," he said. "We called it 'tribal acoustic folk fun,k but that's just because we couldn't classify it. Our fans are great. Very loyal and extremely supportive."

Has the band broken up? "We still have a couple of dates booked for this summer. We got a little tired last year and had to take a break. I love Stiff Whisker and everyone who was part of it. I just needed to sit in the dark and write songs."

Those "sitting in the dark" songwriting sessions paid off. Most debut albums are the result of years of collecting a repertoire of songs and cherry picking the best ones for a big splash introduction. Most of these songs were written between December 2010 and February of this year. During that time, Ross came up with eight wonderful songs that form the body of "The Steady Stumble." Two others are well known to Stiff Whisker fans and the album closer "Stay a Little Longer" was "written in the car over a period of a year during two trips to visit my father."

"The Steady Stumble" was created in Nashville in "three 11 hour days," Ross said. One day was spent recording his vocals and guitar. A second was consumed with capturing the backing musicians whom Ross described as "Amazing - freakishly talented, completely professional, super efficient and wicked cool on top of that." The final day was spent mixing and mastering. The album was recorded in the home studio of Ben Strano, "a very cool dude" (Ross's words). He has engineered sessions for ZZ Top, .38 Special and myriad "name" artists but his specialty seems to lie in recording newcomers. The duo hit it off and found the process of working together a fun and comfortable fit which Ross partially attributes to Ben's New England roots and "because he's the only other person I saw in Nashville with facial hair."

I heard a rumor. "When you were in Nashville, is it true that you stayed at the home of (Legendary Rock Star-name deleted) ?" Ross reluctantly responds: "One of the things I learned in Nashville is that name dropping is uncool." While most people in his position would probably begin an interview with this sort of news, Ross asked that I either minimize it or leave it out entirely. That lack of pretense I mentioned earlier? There it is again.

For the last 10 years, Ross has been a fixture at Pat's Pizza in Ellsworth. "They are very much my second family," he said. "I put in my notice last week. It's the end of an era for me."

And it's the beginning of a new era. Ross is ready for what happens next. "It's taken me nine years to feel like I'm skilled enough not to be pulling the wool over people's eyes," he said. "I had to cut my teeth playing bars. I had to fall in love and I had to have that love taken away. I had to see death and poverty and addiction with my own eyes before I felt like I could write about it. I always write from truth, which is the only way I've ever known how to do it. Sometimes I wish I could just fabricate a song or story from thin air, but I can't. This record just came out so good, I can't 'half-ass' it anymore."

I asked him to look five years into the future. "It's 2016. Where do you see yourself?" "Coming off a tour," he said. "Hopefully with a good woman and a little scratch in the bank. Or treasure hunting in the Caribbean with Brazilian models ... either way." Wherever he goes, Maine won't be far from his mind. "This will always be the place I call home, the place I can stop running. To tell you the truth, I don't know where I'll be, but I'll always be trying to get back here."

"The Steady Stumble" by Chris Ross is available at Bull Moose stores, Pat's Pizza in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, Chummies in Ellsworth, CD Baby, iTunes and Rhapsody. You'll find links and more information at www.chrisross.net. Get the scoop on upcoming shows by following Chris Ross on Facebook. He will appear live on The Mike and Mike Show on Friday, May 6.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Check him out at www.facebook.com/mikeandmike and www.mikedow.net.

 

Chris Ross saved up his pennies for the better part of six months, and in March, he flew to Nashville, Tenn., to record his debut solo album, “The Steady Stumble.” Though he had only parted ways a few months before his old, still much-loved band, Stiff Whisker and the Driftwood Kids, the time was right. The songs were there. And they don’t call Nashville “Music City” for nothing.

“The Steady Stumble,” a collection of soulful acoustic folk-rock songs, comes out of a period of intense creativity for Ross, culminating in that week in Nashville last month. Ross will have a record release party starting at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Ipanema in Bangor, and will perform and sign records at 6 p.m. Friday, May 6, at Bull Moose in Bangor. He also will perform at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, at Chummies in Ellsworth.

Ross, 26, is a soft-spoken Hancock County native, with a scruffy brown beard and a lonesome, gravelly voice reminiscent of Ray LaMontagne. With Stiff Whisker, he had achieved a level of success as a popular local band. But by September 2010, he was feeling burned out.

“I was burnt out in a way that comes from making great music for three years nonstop,” said Ross. “I decided back then to take a break and reassess. And then I started writing. I wrote more songs in five months than I had in five years.”

For the first time since high school, Ross found himself totally on his own; no band, no girlfriend, just himself and his music.

“It was a moment of looking at yourself and asking ‘What are you going to do next?’,” said Ross. “I felt like I had to do something big. Maybe it was kind of a gamble, but I’m glad I did it.”

After mulling over taking off to Asheville, N.C., or Austin, Texas, both small cities renowned for their music scenes, he decided on Nashville. Ross isn’t exactly a country musician, though there are country elements in his music. But Nashville is home to far more than just country musicians, and it’s also home to countless gifted studio musicians, who can take an album from amateur to professional in a matter of hours. Producers Jack Sundrud and Ben Strano made Ross’ songs sound warm, deep and nuanced.

“I was only there for a week, and we recorded the entire album in three days, and it was incredible,” said Ross. “The level of professionalism there is just unbelievable. It’s a city of hired guns. You can say, ‘Hey, I think viola would sound great on that song.’ And then two hours later, a viola player is in the studio. I learned so much.”

“The Steady Stumble” brings to mind Ray LaMontagne, certainly, but also the ragged, country-influenced grace of songwriters like Ryan Adams and the sensitive side of Steve Earle. Despite the raspiness of Ross’ voice, he can belt like no one’s business, as on songs such as “The Right Thing” or album opener “Singin’ To Find You.” He’s also a remarkably good lyricist, like on the candid, emotionally raw “New Years.” It’s an excellent first solo effort from a talented Maine musician.

Ross plans to play as many shows as possible this summer, throughout Maine and New England. He has taken the big step of having his music be his full-time gig — he quit his job at Pat’s Pizza in Ellsworth, with a friendly handshake and a promise to sell his album at the restaurant. Though he knows he has lots of miles to travel, he is feeling more confident about his music every day.

“The best feeling in the world is when someone knows your music, and can sing it back to you. That happens sometimes, now,” said Ross. “It’s a huge thing to know that you might not have to hear anybody yell ‘Freebird’ anymore. That’s big.”

“The Steady Stumble” is available on iTunes and at Bull Moose Music stores. For more information, visit http://www.facebook.com/songwriterross.

Follow Emily Burnham on Twitter at @rockblogsterbdn.

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