Where the Blues Crosses Over

For more than 25 years, the independent German label Ruf Records has been a remarkable force for blues music

When blogging about music, it’s about the artists and their work first and foremost- seems obvious! Sometimes, I also like to get a bit nerdy and write about gear. What I rarely do is paying attention to music labels with a few exceptions like Stax or Motown. In fact, oftentimes, I don’t even bother to mention on which label an album was released.

One name that has kept popping up for contemporary blues is Ruf Records (pronounced “roof”). I noticed it again just yesterday while compiling my latest Best of What’s New installment that included blues rock artist Jeremiah Johnson whose latest album Unemployed Highly Annoyed appeared on Ruf Records.

Like the majority of Ruf’s roster of current artists, Johnson is an American musician. Yet Ruf isn’t located say in Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. London? Nope. Ruf is based in Lindewerra, a picturesque German village with a whopping 256 inhabitants (as of 2019) in the region of Thuringia, which used to be part of the former German Democratic Republic. I had to look that geographic location.

Lindewerra, location of Ruf Records

Germany and the blues? Not to mention a tiny village? That’s not the most obvious association, in my opinion. Or how about the fact the founding of this independent label in 1994 was connected to Luther Allison? Finally, Ruf got my attention.

This is how the label’s website describes how Ruf came about, from the perspective of founder Thomas Ruf. While they may have embellished it a bit, it’s just a wonderful story that would be perfect for a movie: It all started in the Black Forest, late at night, when it seems all great things begin. There in a small village bar, with the doors locked, window shades rolled down, an after- hours party was happening inside. Blues great, Luther Allison was jamming with a bunch of eighty-year old Black Forest folklore musicians.

I was young, lucky and overwhelmed by the communicating power of music. I left the farm to pay my dues as a concert promoter, agent and manager. Soon I collaborated with Allison, eventually becoming his representative on the European side of the world.

I was a student learning from a man who traveled the rocky blues road for more than thirty years. It became apparent that relationships between artists and record companies can be frustrating for the artists, with companies lacking enthusiasm and understanding of the music. So management had a baby and it was named Ruf Records. Born of the need and love to promote what we believe in… the communicating power of music.

Ruf Records founder Thomas Ruf with Cyril Neville

Based on this March 2012 post from the Blues.Gr, the above events happened in the late 1980s when Thomas Ruf started working in the music business as a European tour promoter. Ruf and Allison became friends and, eventually, Ruf started to represent the blues artist in Europe. In 1994, Allison who lived in Paris, France at the time, found himself without a label and a publisher. Apparently, that’s what triggered the formation of Ruf Records.

Fast-forward some 26 years and you’re looking at an independent label with an impressive roster of artists. Apart from Luther Allison and Jeremiah Johnson, the current and former line-up includes Canned Heat, Spooky Tooth, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Jane Lee Hooker. Following, I’d like to highlight some music by some of the label’s current artists. Occasionally, the label ventures beyond the blues.

Ally Venable/White Flag

Ally Marie Venable is a 21-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kilgore, Texas. She released her debut EP Wise Man in 2013 at the age of 14. White Flag is from her third and most recent full-length album Texas Honey, which according to this Rock & Blues Muse review appeared in March 2019 and features Mike Zito and Eric Gales, among other guests.

Bette Smith/Fistful of Dollars

According to her website, Bette Smith is a rock and soul singer who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her 2017 debut Jetlagger received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, American Songwriter, MOJO and The New York Times. Fistful of Dollars is the tasteful, funky opener of Smith’s new album The Good, The Bad and the Bette released on September 25.

Ghalia/Release Me

Ghalia Volt, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, is a natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask, her website confidently states. Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status. Release Me is a track written by Ghalia, which appears on her sophomore album Mississippi Blend from September 2019. And, yes, that lady is a rock star!

Whitney Shay/Stand Up!

According to Apple Music’s artist profile, Whitney Shay is a blues, soul and jump R&B singer-songwriter from San Diego, Calif. Her debut album Soul Tonic came out in 2012. She has since released two additional albums and received four San Diego Music Awards including Artist of the Year for her sophomore release A Woman Rules the World from 2018. Stand Up!, co-written by Shay and Adam J. Eros, is the soulful funky title track of Shay’s third studio album released in February this year.

Bernard Allison/Crusin for a Bluesin

Bernard Allison, who is based in Paris, France, is a blues guitarist and the son of Luther Allison. Though you’d perhaps think otherwise, Bernard taught himself how to play guitar as a child while his father was touring all over the world. While his old man wisely demanded that Bernard remain in school, he supported his music ambitions. Eventually, Bernard became part of Luther’s band and a musical collaborator. His European solo debut The Next Generation appeared in 1990. His first U.S. album Keepin’ the Blues Alive was released in 1997. Cruisin for a Bluesin is the groovy opener of Allison’s most recent studio album Let It Go from February 2018.

Jeremiah Johnson/Burn Down the Garden

Since it was Johnson and his new album that triggered this post, it felt appropriate to include the St. Louis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, who according to his website merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today.  Here’s another great tune from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed: Opener Burn Down the Garden, written by Johnson, which sounds more like southern flavored country rock than blues.

Michael Lee/Praying for Rain

Michael Lee is a blues guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s more from his his website: Raised around blues music his entire life, Michael spent the majority of his young life in blues clubs receiving an ivy league education from watching and playing with blues legends such as Andrew “Jr Boy” Jones (Freddie King), Buddy Whittington (John Mayall), Lucky Peterson (Willie Dixon). On nights he was not in the blues clubs he was down in the stockyards soaking in the Country sounds which emanated from those honky tonks. Like Delbert McClinton and many Fort Worth musicians before him, Michael’s style of music has the perfect blend of Blues and Country. Praying for Rain, written by Lee, is from his eponymous sophomore album released in June 2019.

Ryan Perry/Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone

Let’s do one more. Ryan Perry, who hails from Mississippi, has established himself as leader of the award-winning Homemade Jamz Blues Band since 2007. According to his profile on Ruf, Although still in his twenties, Perry has the soul, scars and war stories to rival the most hard-bitten road dog. In March this year, Perry released his solo debut album High Risk, Low Reward. Here’s the tasty opener Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone, which like most other tracks on the album was penned by Perry.

Ruf Records’ story looks impressive. Apart from its artist roster, some 300 albums have appeared on this independent label to date. In 2007, Ruf Records received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, they also got nominations for two Grammy Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards, and that’s as of 2008.

In an undated interview on Ruf’s website, Thomas Ruf explained the label’s philosophy as follows: “It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Ruf Records website; Blues.Gr; Rock & Blues Muse; Bette Smith website; Apple Music; Michael Lee website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This week’s Best of What’s New installment brings another nice mix of great new music. From country to blues to soul to singer-songwriter style, it’s all there. Or how about a Boston-based band with a very unique sound they describe as Americana funk? Or a neo soul collaboration’s beautiful cover of a well-known Tracy Chapman tune? I hope I’ve sufficiently whetted your appetite to read on!

Ray Wylie Hubbard/Bad Trick (featuring Ringo Starr, Don Was, Joe Walsh & Chris Robinson)

While Ray Wylie Hubbard has been active for more than 50 years, I don’t believe I had heard of him before, but I simply couldn’t skip a tune featuring Ringo Starr and Joe Walsh among the guests! Hubbard’s online bio states he is the secret handshake amongst those who know, which to me suggests he may not exactly be a household name. Hubbard was born in Soper, OK on November 13, 1946. Beginning in 1965, during semester breaks from his studies at the University of North Texas, he spent the summers in Red River, N.M., where he started playing music in a folk trio called Three Faces West. During that time period, he wrote a tune with the lovely title Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother, which was first recorded by country artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973. It helped Hubbard sign with Warner Bros. Records and release his debut Ray Wylie Hubbard and the Cowboy Twinkies in 1976. Seventeen additional country, folk and blues-oriented albums have since appeared. This includes Co-Starring, which came out on July 10 and features the above tune, which was co-written by Hubbard and his wife Judy. Hubbard told Apple Music he had met Ringo about five or six years ago. When Ringo learned about Hubbard’s new album, not only did he offer to play drums on Bad Trick but also ask his brother-in-law Joe Walsh and Don Was to join on guitar and bass, respectively. The fourth guest is Black Crowes co-founder and lead vocalist Chris Robinson. Check out the fun video!

Black Pumas/Fast Car

Based on sampling a few tunes, Black Puma sound like a really cool, relatively new band. According to Apple Music, it’s a collaboration between producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada and singer-songwriter Eric Burton, who fuse cinematic neo-soul, light psychedelia, and a touch of urban grit. No matter how you characterize their music, it simply sounds great. Quesada and Burton joined forces in 2018 and released their eponymous debut album in June 2019. Their latest single Fast Car is a cover of the Tracy Chapman tune that appeared on her eponymous debut record in April 1988. I’ve loved that tune from the very first time I heard it when it came out. Things around Chapman seem to have been quiet for a long time. Perhaps this great remake will help bring her back on the radar screens of folks who dig but have forgotten about her.

Twisted Pine/Don’t Come Over Tonight

Don’t Come Over Tonight is a track from Right Now, the forthcoming sophomore album by Twisted Pine, a Boston-based band with a unique sound that’s hard to describe. Here’s how a short bio from their web site puts it: Praised by NPR for their “upbeat, poppy vibe; energetic, driving rhythms; and virtuosic solos,” Twisted Pine will release their sophomore full-length Right Now on August 14, 2020 (Signature Sounds). Exploring a sound they call Americana funk, Twisted Pine takes traditional music in exhilarating directions. Bassist Chris Sartori writes, “This album is easier to feel than describe. We’re rooted in bluegrass, continually inspired by explorers like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Sierra Hull. Right Now takes this heritage into a new dimension. Our bluegrass is jazzy, our indie folk is poppy, our grooves are funky.” Twisted Pine [Kathleen Parks, fiddle; Dan Bui, mandolin; Chris Sartori, bass; Anh Phung, flute] grooves with fearless improvisation and intricate arrangements. The band has been around since 2013. Their eponymous debut album appeared in July 2017, followed by the EP Dreams in January 2019. Don’t Come Over Tonight was written by Parks. It’s quite unusual, yet pretty cool, in my opinion. These guys are virtuoso musicians and great vocalists. Check it out!

Ruston Kelly/Rubber

Ruston Kelly is a 31-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in Georgetown, S.C. and grew up in Wyoming, Ohio. He got into music at a young age and, according to Wikipedia, had a full album in high school with songs like “Bluebird” and “I’m Leavin’”. After signing a publishing deal with BMG Nashville in 2013, he co-wrote the song Nashville Without You Tim McGraw recorded for his studio album Two Lanes of Freedom, which appeared in February that year. In 2017, Kelly released his debut EP Halloween. His first full-length album Dying Star came out the following year. Released on June 10, Rubber is a track from Kelly’s forthcoming sophomore album Shape & Destroy scheduled for August 28. In October 2017, he married singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves, who as reported by Rolling Stone also performs on the album. Apparently, they since filed for divorce.

Mick Hayes/Autumn Romance

Mick Hayes is another great sounding artist with relatively little publicly available information, even though the blues guitarist and vocalist has a website and a Facebook page – I just don’t get it! At least his website links to various reviews of his most recent album My Claim to Fame, which was recorded at the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., appeared on May 29 and includes the above tune. According to American Blues Scene, Hayes’ love affair with Muscle Shoals began when he was a young man growing up in upstate New York, where he would browse record shops with wall to wall music from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Duane Allman to Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke.  Rock and Blues Muse notes Hayes and his band have spent the last decade playing up to 200 festival and club gigs a year and have opened for Duke Robillard, Samantha Fish, and Delbert McClinton. AllMusic also lists a 2016 album, Segue, by Mick Hayes Band. The cool thing about My Claim to Fame is that not only did Hayes record it at FAME but, as American Blues Scene pointed out, he also worked with studio musicians who recorded with artists like Ray Charles, Etta James and B.B. King. Oh, and Hayes co-produced the record with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood – sounds like the stars truly aligned for Hayes!

Sources: Wikipedia; Ray Wylie Hubbard website; Twisted Pines website; Rolling Stone; American Blues Scene; Rock & Blues Muse; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s very satisfying to me that since the introduction of this recurring feature two months ago, I’ve discovered newly released music each week that sufficiently intrigues me to write about it. This may sound arrogant, but the reality is most new music simply doesn’t speak to me, especially pretty much anything that’s in the current charts. So it’s been great to see there are exceptions.

This week’s installment includes nice variety, featuring rock, country, folk, Americana and soul. The majority of these artists are new to me, even though most have been around for more than 20 years. There are also two who have been active for 60 years, including one name I had not heard in a long time. Let’s get to it.

Jupiter Coyote/Hungry Ghost

According to AllMusic, Jupiter Coyote is a five-piece band blending bluegrass with traditional rock, which has been around since the early ’90s. Their debut album appears to be Cemeteries and Junkyards from November 1993. In total, AllMusic lists 12 records in the band’s discography, the most recent of which is The Interplanetary Yard Dog from February this year. Hungry Ghost is their latest single, which came out last Friday, May 8. It’s not on the aforementioned album. It was written by co-founding members and guitarist Matthew Mayes. I can hear some Hootie & the Blowfish in the tune, mostly because of the vocals that stylistically remind me a bit of Darius Rucker, though the music has a nice build toward a more edgy rock sound. It’s pretty cool – check it out!

John Frinzi/Used to These Blues

John Frinzi is a country singer-songwriter from Lakeland, Fla. According to his website, he was discovered by Doyle Grisham, the pedal steel guitarist of the Coral Reefer Band, Jimmy Buffett’s touring and recording group. Their working relationship led to Frinzi’s 2003 debut album Into the Dawn. On his second album Shoreline, he co-wrote many songs with Tom Corcoran, a Florida-based mystery novel author who has also been in Buffett’s circle. In 2017, Frinzi recorded Blue Sky View, an EP with songwriter and producer Aaron Scherz. Used to These Blues is Frinzi’s most recent single released on April 27. I like his vocals and the tune’s warm sound and pedal steel fill-ins. Nicely done!

Delbert McClinton/Still Rockin’

Unlike the title suggests, Still Rockin’ actually is a rather mellow ballad and the most recent single by Delbert McClinton, which appeared on March 31. McClinton, which Rolling Stone has called “Godfather of Americana Music”, has been around for more than 60 years. He released his debut album Delbert & Glen together with Glen Clark. While he has since released 29 additional albums, apparently, mainstream chart success has largely eluded him, though since the late 1990s, most of his records reached top positions on Billbord’s U.S. Blues chart. His most recent album Tall, Dark, and Handsome was well received and won the 2020 Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album. Based on the opener I just checked out, this definitely sounds like a record I should check out sooner than later! For now, back to Still Rockin’, which McClinton co-wrote with Bob Britt and Pat McLaughlin.

Gordon Lightfoot/Do You Walk, Do You Talk

Here’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Admittedly, other than If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which were all released in the ’70s and became hits in the U.S. and Canada, I don’t know Gordon Lightfoot’s music. What I do know is I like all of these tunes, as well as Do You Walk, Do You Talk, which is on the Canadian singer-songwriter’s new album Solo that appeared on March 20. According to a Rolling Stone story, it is his first album of newly released material in more than 15 years. Lightfoot who last November turned 81, discovered the material for the album in his home office. Initially, these tunes were recorded in late 2001 and early 2002. But before anything could be released, Lightfoot had an abdominal aortic aneurysm that nearly killed him. After unearthing the old recordings, he decided to re-record the tracks, using his guitar only.  “I thought my fans would be interested in hearing what songs sound like when first written,” Lightfoot stated. According to this fansite, Lightfoot vigorously toured throughout last year and as recently as February. His tour schedule also shows many dates between March and June, which have all been rescheduled to later in the year to due COVID-19. Lightfoot has been active since 1958 (that’s an incredible 62 years!) and released his eponymous debut album in January 1966. According to Wikipedia, Solo is his 21st. Here’s Do You Walk, Do You Talk. Lightfoot still sounds pretty compelling.

Nadia Reid/Oh Canada

Nadia Reid is a 28-year-old singer-songwriter from Port Chalmers, New Zealand. Somehow her name sounded familiar and I had an idea, so I checked Aphoristic Album Reviews, and surely enough Graham covered her before, among others in this post from last October titled The Ten Next Best Singer-Songwriters Ever. Oh Canada is from Reid’s third album Out of My Province that came out on March 6. She released her debut Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs in March 2015. Not quite sure what it is about this tune, but I like it. Reid’s vocals are definitely part of it. Check out the official video.

The James Hunter Six/I Can Change Your Mind

James Hunter is an English R&B and soul singer-songwriter who has been around for 30 years. According to his website, he’s worked on the railway, busked in the streets of London, provided backup vocals and guitar for Van Morrison, played clubs and theaters all over the world, written scores of original songs, and recorded some of the most original and honest rhythm & soul albums of the last two decades.  By 2006, Hunter was recognized with nominations for a GRAMMY® Award (“Best Traditional Blues Album” for People Gonna Talk (Rounder)) and an American Music Award (“Best New/Emerging Artist”). He and his band then hit the road for a decade of extensive touring and recorded critically-acclaimed studio albums— The Hard Way (Hear Music), Minute by Minute (Fantasy), Hold On! (Daptone), Whatever it Takes (Daptone).  By 2016, MOJO magazine had crowned him “The United Kingdom’s Greatest Soul Singer.” Somehow, I missed all of that, but I’m glad Hunter is now on my radar screen. I Can Change Your Mind sounds like beautiful old-fashioned soul. The vocals are pretty amazing. I can some Sam Cooke and Otis Redding in there. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; GordonLightfoot.com fansite; AllMusic; YouTube