At age 30, Chris Ross has already spent most of a decade playing in bands — for nearly five years with roots rockers Stiff Whisker and the Driftwood Kids and, since early 2011, as a fixture of the eastern Maine live music scene. It sometimes seems as though nearly every weekend of the year you can find him playing somewhere in Maine. The man is nothing if not hardworking.
For his first two solo albums, “The Steady Stumble” (2011) and “Halfway to Wonderland,” (2012) he hightailed it to Nashville, Tenn., to work with the best studio musicians in the world and crank out a full-length album in a week before heading back to Ellsworth. For his new album “Young Once,” he stayed home, recording with Maine producer-to-the-stars Jonathan Wyman at The Halo in Windham, and working out the 11 tracks that comprise the album with his new band, The North, including multi-instrumentalist Zachary Bence, bassist Caleb Sweet and drummer Ryan Curless (grandson of legendary Dick Curless).
Maybe it’s that comfort of being at home in Maine, maybe it’s the three-year break in between albums and the luxury of time, maybe it’s the hundreds of gigs played, maybe it’s the input of Bence, Sweet and Curless and the magic ears of Wyman — whatever it is, “Young Once” is by far the best thing Ross has ever written and recorded. The confidence, the musicality and the maturity on display leaps ahead of his previous work; thematically similar, but with experience and plenty of that hard work under his belt.
Ross has always sung about rough living, troubled women, and regular people, often laced with a good amount of booze, pills and other substances. Sung in a full-throated rasp that is reminiscent of Ray Lamontagne — who Ross does not shy away from saying is an influence — his songs blend country and rock in that same way that Zac Brown, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlisle, fellow Mainers the Mallett Brothers Band and, yes, Lamontagne all do. The world Ross describes in his songs is one that’s probably very familiar to the devoted Maine fanbase he’s developed over the years; hard-drinking, hard-working, honest, wry, and, hidden behind a tough exterior, a well of intelligence and emotional depth. In other words, every charming Mainer you’ve met in a small town bar on the weekend.
Album opener “The Long Way” is powered by a sing-along chorus, and is followed up by the moody kiss-off “Burns” before launching into the three best songs on the album: the tear-in-your-beer power ballad “Drunk Women,” the propulsive, radio-friendly roots-rocker “Annabelle” and the soulful, danceable “When the Dark Allows,” featuring Portland vocalist Kenya Hall. Those three songs alone could help Ross make a crack on the Triple A charts nationwide — let’s hope the right person hears him this summer.
Ross is helped enormously by the contributions of Bence, Sweet and Curless, who add a lot of stylistic diversity to the mix. All three cut their teeth playing everything from jazz and Celtic to hip hop, so their musicality brings much-needed energy to the songs and prevents the album from dragging. Ross is a verbose man when it comes to his songs, and his previous albums needed some musical sparring partners to rub up against and make him a leaner songwriting machine — which, clearly, he got and did with “Young Once.” Now, to hear these songs live, in their natural element.
Chris Ross and The North will perform at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 6 at 4Points BBQ & Blues in Winterport; at the pre-party for the Zac Brown Band at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion at 3 p.m. Sunday, June 7; an in-store performance at the Portland Bull Moose at 6 p.m. June 10; and at Rock the Boat at the Boatyard Grill in Blue Hill, with the Mallett Brothers Band, Trisha Mason and the Junkyard Cats, all afternoon on Saturday, June 20. “Young Once” can be purchased at Bull Moose and on iTunes and Amazon.