An Open Letter 

Nashville singer-songwriter processes fear and loss on soulful comeback album

Nashville singer-songwriter processes fear and loss on soulful comeback album

Ron LaSalle

Too Angry to Pray (PHQ Records)

Performing Apr. 25 at Douglas Corner Cafe & May 5 at River Stages

Back in 1989, Ron LaSalle rolled into Nashville on a Harley, long hair spilling down his back, new wife by his side, and a pledge to quit drinking clouding his mind. He had spent the previous two years in Toronto, recording an album for CBS Canada, a label that was bought by SBK soon after he arrived north of the border, only to be sold again to EMI. When the corporate restructuring was finished, LaSalle’s album was sitting on a shelf, and he was offered the chance to move to any one of a handful of cities to continue writing songs under the conditions of his development deal. LaSalle chose Nashville.

Less than a decade later, LaSalle had quit performing and had gone into the management side of the music business. A contract dispute with EMI had soured him on songwriting, but there was something else holding LaSalle back. The man who once toured North America year-round—playing upward of 300 gigs per annum—could not get on a stage. He was, he says now, “riddled with fear. I couldn’t perform.”

LaSalle’s freshly pressed, self-released album Too Angry to Pray opens with a track called “Fear”—a spoken poem that confronts the artist’s problem head-on. Over a bluesy acoustic guitar, LaSalle whispers a confession, muttering that the only way to overcome a fear of rejection is to trust oneself. The track segues directly into the title song, a country-inflected anthem that relies on a wash of organ and twin guitars—one shimmering, one stinging—to put across a detailed, deeply personal examination of the appeal of the bottle. The record’s remaining 11 cuts continue the rolling rock sound, calling to mind Bob Seger at his most raucous and Van Morrison at his sweetest; but while the music is joyous and full, the words are full of sorrow, loss, and regret.

LaSalle wrote the songs that comprise the album back in 1997, a year in which he suffered the loss of his wife’s parents, one of his best friends, and—most crushing—his infant son. “It was a rough year,” he says now, and one he acknowledges with dedications to the departed on the back of his CD booklet. With the help of friend and producer Brent Little (who also plays guitar on Too Angry to Pray), LaSalle assembled his album through casual recording sessions, held every Tuesday and Saturday for roughly three years. Backed by local musician friends—“I’m a pretty rich guy, friend-wise,” LaSalle says—the veteran rocker and Little set out to make a record that reached back to the sound that prompted each to pick up a guitar in the first place.

For LaSalle, those roots stretch back to Niagara Falls, where he grew up and began performing six nights a week in an all-black blues band at age 14, playing bass and writing songs. By 1980, at age 26, he was fronting a band of his own, beginning the slow grind toward rock stardom that ultimately hit a dead end when his soulful, rugged music fell out of fashion toward the end of the decade.

But lessons were learned. During his sojourn to Canada, after CBS became SBK, LaSalle spent countless hours at the home of his new label, housed in a facility that he says had “everything in one building, from manufacturing to A&R.” He took mental notes, which helped immeasurably with the do-it-yourself production of his current record. And he was toughened by the process of making his tabled major-label debut, which had too many cooks spoiling to change the recipe as popular tastes were shifting from Springsteen-Mellencamp heartland rock to Poison-esque hair metal. “By the time I got done with everybody tellin’ me how to do it, it sounded too Bon Jovi-ish,” LaSalle admits now.

Too Angry to Pray was recorded in Brent Little’s living room, on an eight-track. According to LaSalle, the songs were committed to tape with “no Ping-Ponging. There were seven people around a single mic at one point. It was like, ‘We need a better balance, take a step backward.’ ” The album has rollicking sax lines courtesy of Stan Kubacki, warm piano and organ from Jack Irwin, and call-and-response background vocals from a core group of LaSalle pals that includes Shawna Hulse and Tammy Dodge. The backbone of the songs is drummer Mike Galusha, who shades the ballads and drives the boogie. Galusha, like LaSalle, has done the 300-gigs-a-year scene, and LaSalle says he’s “like an old Vietnam buddy” because of their shared background.

According to LaSalle, the governing principle for the laid-back sessions was to create something heartfelt and, above all, fun. “We always said, ‘If it isn’t fun, let’s not do it.’ ” The overt nod to rock ’n’ roll tradition is partly meant to entertain, and partly meant to hook an audience that might otherwise not have much use for lyrics so steeped in despair. LaSalle says that he “wanted to use a backdrop of things that are familiar, to say what I wanted to say.” Put the two approaches together, and what emerges is something clearly meaningful to the artist—something intended, he says, almost “like a letter to my friends.”

The low-stakes intimacy of the project is what helped LaSalle overcome his creative paralysis. “I did a record with Gary Tallent that never came out...because of the fear factor,” LaSalle says. Utterly exposing his feelings was the only way he felt he could shake his demons, which is why he lays it all on the line with Too Angry to Pray’s opening poem. “People either love it or hate it, and that was my goal,” he says, chuckling. “I wanted to get over my fear by touching people’s emotions. Even if they laugh at me, that’s an emotion.”

Since finishing the album last year, LaSalle has been hitting the road again, reaching audiences who have been subsequently buying Too Angry to Pray from the Web site The disc is in its third pressing, a success that LaSalle attributes to his ability to “find people.” Among this “found” audience are motorcycle enthusiasts, who attend his sweaty shows and get info about LaSalle from biker Web sites, and a following in Belgium, where Americana is popular and LaSalle’s songs “Take Me Back to Texas” and “I’ve Got It Made” are getting airplay at multiple stations.

Next up for LaSalle are some hometown shows, Apr. 25 at Douglas Corner and May 5 at River Stages. Having lived in Nashville for over a decade, and having experienced harrowing personal struggle and small-but-satisfying triumph, LaSalle has definitely put down roots in Music City. Those roots have had to penetrate hard ground, but the soil they’ve found is fertile.


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