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

Hey, Hey, The Blues is Alright

I got this song/I’m gonna sing/I’m gonna sing it just for you/If you dig the blues/I want you to help me sing it, too/I want everybody to hear me when I say/The blues is back, and it’s here to stay.

The above intro from The Blues is Alright, a tune by Little Milton, nicely captures how I’m feeling as I’m writing this post. Of course, the blues has always never really left, though I guess it’s fair to say it had greater visibility when Milton released that song back in 1984 and Stevie Ray Vaughan was all the rage.

Sadly, Vaughan and Milton are no longer with us, not to mention the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, to name a few artists of the “old guard.” But over the past few months, exciting new blues music has been released. And as somebody who digs the blues, that truly makes me happy. Are you ready for some? Ready or not, here we go!

Robert Cray first appeared on my radar screen in 1988 with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the title track to his sixth studio album, a tune that grabbed me immediately. Fast-forward some 32 years and 18 records later to February 28 this year when Cray released That’s What I Heard. Produced by longtime collaborator Steve Jordan, who also plays drums and percussion, the great collection includes four original tracks and eight covers. The Robert Cray Band also features Richard Cousins (bass), Dover Weinberg (keyboards) and Terence F. Clark (drums). Here’s the opener Anything You Want, an original. Apart from being a decent guitarist, I think Cray also has a great soulful voice.

Ever heard of British blues-rock guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor? Damn, that lady sounds smoking hot to me! Even though Taylor is only in her mid-30s, she has an impressive record. She was discovered at the age of 16 by Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics), who in 2002 invited her to tour in Europe with his band D.U.P. In 2009, Taylor’s debut album White Sugar appeared. Her latest release is Reckless Blues, an EP that came out two weeks ago on March 6. Here’s a great cover of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, a tune John Mayer wrote and first recorded for his third studio album Continuum from September 2006.

Let’s move on to Frank Bey. Admittedly, I had never heard of him until earlier today, even though the man is 74 years old and, well, has been around for some time. According to his website, he began his singing career 70 years ago as a gospel singer – yep, we’re talking as a 4-year-old. At age 17, he joined the Otis Redding Revue. In the mid-70s, Bey became entangled in a legal battle with James Brown over one of his songs Brown had recorded without his permission. While the matter was settled out of court, it left Bey embittered, and he got out of the music business for 17 years. Then he returned and since 1998 has released six albums, the most recent of which is All My Dues Are Paid that appeared on January 17 this year. It’s warm and soulful. Here’s the tasty opener Idle Hands, featuring some cool wah-wah guitar and nice horn work, along with Bey’s great vocals and some hot gospel backing vocals. Check it out!

Ready for two more? Here’s Christone “Kingfish” Ingram with his new single Empty Promises, a live recording that came out on February 14. The 21-year-old from Clarksdale, Miss. released his debut album Kingfish last May and got rave reviews. It’s certainly no coincidence he has played with the likes of Buddy Guy, Keb’ Mo’, Eric Gales and Rick Derringer. I think we will hear many more great things from this super talented young artist. Empty Promises was written by blues and soul singer and guitarist  Michael Burks who passed away in May 2012 from a heart attack. He was only 54 years old.

The final tune I’d like to call out is by Tas Cru, another blues artist I had not heard of before either. While he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, luckily, there’s a website. According to his bio, Cru is truly a blues eclectic who refuses to let his music be bound to just one blues style…with a repertoire of over 60 original songs from multiple albums and dozens of crowd-pleasing classics…Tas Cru is currently is based out of upstate New York and performs in multiple formats ranging from solo acoustic to a 7 piece-backing band. Cru’s most recent album, which was released on February 1, is titled Drive On. According to a review in Elmore Magazine, it’s his ninth and 11th overall, when including two blues-for-kids records he made. Here’s the funky title song featuring great horn and organ work. Don’t get fooled by the tune’s slow start. Keep listening!

Sources: Wikipedia; Robert Cray website; Joanne Shaw Taylor website; Frank Bey website; Tas Cru website; Elmore Magazine; YouTube