From small town New Hampshire, singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne was raised by a single mom, and has always preferred living the quiet life of a devoted family man as opposed to a chart-topping folk romanticist. Holding down eclectic jobs like that of shoe factory worker, he eventually jumped into music full-time after becoming inspired by the work of Stephen Stills (after waking up to Stills’ song ‘Treetop Flyer’ on his clock radio, the story goes).
His debut album Trouble made such an impact, LaMontagne would have to work hard at maintaining the private lifestyle he held so dear. With almost 20 years of album releases under his belt, he’s racked up hits, had his music featured in many hit films and TV shows, and has spent a good portion of his time on the road touring.
Despite his success, he’s kept an “everyman” quality about him that’s remained authentic and pure. One of America’s most humble and adored hit songwriters, check out the best Ray LaMontagne songs below.
A gentle, shuffling, acoustic ballad, ‘Shelter’ weaves an at times complicated romance story with devotion to love at its core. LaMontagne’s lyrics often feel like a stream of consciousness, evoking raw honesty, almost as if you’re getting a peek inside an unpublished poetry book while listening to his music. In this case, the couple in the song has been through their share of hard times, but the singer promises to shelter her from bad weather just as she shelters him from incoming storms as well. The beautiful, pensive tune is one of his most stirring tracks. It has been covered many times by artists and performed live during benefit concerts by stars such as Kelly Clarkson.
9. Beg Steal or Borrow
A gem from his 2010 album God Willin’ & The Creek Don’t Rise, LaMontagne sings about a young man yearning for much more than his small town has to offer with ‘Beg Steal or Borrow.’ The single received critical praise after its release, and the reflective track became one of the album’s signature inclusions. LaMontagne is a notoriously private person, rarely granting interviews or making public appearances. An article in a music magazine once described the musician’s life as one of a “hermit.” However, with the release of this album and the subsequent success of ‘Beg Steal or Borrow,’ LaMontagne found himself having to agree to a few select media appearances, which included a welcomed Letterman performance. The song was ultimately nominated for a Grammy in the Song of the Year category.
8. I Was Born To Love You
With the release of his intimate, bluesy folk ballad ‘I Was Born to Love You,’ the singer hit the open road with opening act Sierra Ferrell, who sang alongside him while LaMontagne recorded this track among others for his Monovision album. The moving single tells the story of a couple’s life spent together, through ups and downs, Ray repeats in the chorus lines, “I was born to love you.” Ferrell’s harmonies add something special to the chorus. While LaMontagne’s voice is breathy and weathered, her tenor vocals give the chorus depth and just the right amount of punch. One of his later self-produced releases after more than a decade in the business, ‘I Was Born to Love You’ shows he’s still an ace at writing some of folk’s most soul-stirring love songs.
7. Strong Enough
A spirited story about adventure and experiencing the world for the first time, LaMontagne was inspired to write this upbeat hit after overhearing a conversation in a coffee shop with a patron regaling his friend with stories about growing up while his mother worked hard to provide for her family as a single mom. The conversation stuck with Ray because he grew up the same way, but had always felt a sense of isolation, never realizing just how common it was to grow up in a house with an absentee father these days. All of these thoughts helped him work out the lyrics to ‘Strong Enough.’ The uplifting folk-rock tune, which has a Creedence Clearwater Revival flare about it, scored Ray a number one hit on Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart.
6. Let It Be Me
It’s possible that ‘Let It Be Me’ is the best track out of Ray’s entire discography that exhibits what a fine and unique vocalist he is. The folksy crooner has an unconventional singing style. While most singers are taught to sing up and through the nose for optimum range and output, LaMontagne sings from “the gut,” giving his tone a sorrowful but invigorating delivery that has mesmerized audiences since he was discovered in 2004. With bluesy vocal runs and deeply expressive melodies, Ray sings about being the person your one and only can come home to and find shelter in. With ‘Let It Be Me,’ he gets back to his acoustic, naturalist roots and delivers another beautiful song that comes just about as close to a secular spiritual, or hymn, as you can get (Ray has told interviewers before, his official “religion” is nature itself).
Ray’s 2004 debut album is still considered to be his best release by many fans even today. The title track to the album, ‘Trouble’ finds him singing about one of his tried-and-true subjects, love and relationships. His methods he’d go on to use for many hits can be found in this early track, which features him singing about his troubled past and subsequently being “saved by the love of a woman.” Though the single didn’t chart high at first (it did eventually break into the top 25 on a singles chart in the UK), it was used in several commercials and TV shows. Its relatability also made it a beloved song among newly devoted fans. The tune was born from an exercise for LaMontagne, which involved him trying to write in the style of early ’60s soul music, which uses simple lyrics and instrumentation to convey big, meaningful messages. I’d say he mastered the exercise with this composition.
4. Hold You in My Arms
A token of reassurance for anyone going through tough times, ‘Hold You In My Arms’ is a track on Ray’s continuously streamed Trouble album from 2004. A purist at heart, the singer uses nothing but an acoustic guitar, an easygoing backbeat, and his soulful voice to passionately sing to his one and only. Another song that finds him reflecting on the power of love and its vital role in emotional well-being, the dynamic recording remains a solid addition to the critically acclaimed album and a fan-favorite among LaMontagne loyalists.
3. Such A Simple Thing
“My heart is like paper, and yours is like a flame.” The leading single from his album Part of The Light, while Ray often favors a pared-down band setup, he simplifies even more for ‘Such A Simple Thing,’ mainly using his guitar and voice to drive home particularly vulnerable lyrics. The song focuses on a faltering relationship, with two lovers who are trying to find common ground to make things work. It’s hard to do though, when there’s so much history between two people and emotions are running high. Though the album didn’t spark the interest of critics like his debut Trouble record did, Part of The Light became a steady force among LaMontagne’s body of work as a whole.
One of his many signature songs from Trouble, ‘Jolene’ tells the heartbreaking tale of a man in search of sobriety after losing the love of his life due to his addiction. Over the years, it has become one of the tunes most closely associated with Ray’s songwriting legacy. Not only have many artists covered the mournful, elegant track, but it’s been used in movies like the award-winning Ben Affleck directed film The Town. A very private person, LaMontagne rarely gives interviews, so the song’s origin story remains very much so a mystery. But this ghostlike quality the folkish songwriter has maintained over the years has only added to his appeal. Other artists many times abstain from telling interviewers exactly what their songs are about so listeners can take what they need from the track and relate to it individually. Perhaps this accidental tactic Ray has cultivated over the years has helped make his own songs that much more relatable and attractive.
1. You Are the Best Thing
When people reminisce about discovering Ray LaMontagne, many times they say they were introduced to his songwriting genius by way of ‘You Are The Best Thing,’ a distinct track from the raspy-voiced troubadour that utilizes horn work and a rare, purely upbeat feel to it. The soothing single boasts hints of soul and funk with a groove you can’t help but love. With female backing vocals in the vein of ’60s girl groups to round out the chorus, the joyous song proved itself as highly licensable, appearing in several movies including the hit film I Love You, Man and Bad Moms. The tune was no stranger to the charts either. It climbed all the way to number five on the Adult Alternative Songs chart, and remains his only single to appear on Billboard’s Hot 100.