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

With this country going through unprecedented times, it’s reassuring to see some things that don’t change, such as new music releases. This week’s Best of What’s New installment features four artists I had not heard of before. Between them, there’s a nice variety in music styles, including pop rock, southern rock-oriented country, blues rock and progressive metal. Frankly, I had not been aware of the last genre, but I suppose when it comes to blending music styles, there really aren’t any boundaries except imagination. Let’s get to it!

Babe Club/Future Talks

There’s limited information on Babe Club. This review in the Charleston City Paper, identifies the act as a songwriting duo and couple consisting of Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell. Both are former members of SUSTO and started working together in 2018 after leaving the alternative rock band around singer-songwriter Justin Osborne, which I previously covered here. Babe Club’s profile on Bandcamp describes their music as follows: Capturing Blondie’s mid 70’s new wave era, and the 90’s alt-pop group The Cardigans- Babe Club’s sound is marked by raw guitars, textural synths, & lustrous drum beats. A clever songwriting style reminiscent of Aimee Mann, their alluring melodies are fused with powerfully evocative and existential lyrics, yielding songs that explore self-realization, honest emotions, friendship and themes of loveFuture Talks is the opener of what appears to be Babe Club’s debut EP Remember This Feeling, which came out today. More than Blondie, I can hear some Cheryl Crow in here.

Fates Warning/The Destination Onward

Fates Warning formed in Hartford, Conn. in 1982. According to Wikipedia, they are considered pioneers of progressive metal, together with Queensrÿche and Dream Theatre. The band’s founding members included John Arch (vocals), Jim Matheos (guitar), Victor Arduini (guitar), Joe DiBiase (bass) and Steve Zimmerman (drums). Fates Warning have since seen many changes, with Matheos remaining as the only original member. The current line-up also features Ray Alder (lead vocals), Joey Vera (bass) and Bobby Jarzombek (drums). Fates Warning released their debut album Night on Bröcken in September 1984. The Destination Onward is the opener to the band’s 13th studio album Long Day Good Night, released today (November 6). According to the band’s website, the album was written by Matheos in close collaboration with Alder who has been the band’s lead vocalist since 1987. While in general, it’s fair to say metal isn’t my preferred type of music, the tune’s relatively melodic vocals and sound sufficiently drew me in, so I decided to feature it here.

Brad Cox/Drinking Season

Brad Cox is a country artist from Australia. Drinking Season is a tune from his new album My Mind’s Projection, which according to Apple Music is his sophomore release. It came out today as well. Apple Music also notes Cox writes relatable, melodic tracks that balance the good and the bad, the social and the internal, the partying and the heartbreak. My Mind’s Projection has plenty of fun, boozy sing-alongs, but there are just as many tender reflections on a relationship that didn’t work out. I guess Drinking Season, a nice country rocker with a southern flair, would be an example of a boozy sing-along. “For me, the first day [of drinking season] is Christmas Eve,” Cox told Apple Music. “I used to work the harvest down in the Riverina before Christmas, and with Australia Day being 26th of January, I used to just find myself drunk for that entire time and set myself up for a hangover February.” Well, remember boys and girls, everything in moderation! 🙂

Jeremiah Johnson/Daddy’s Going Out Tonight

Let’s wrap things up with some blues rock by Jeremiah Johnson. According to his website, Born and raised in St. Louis, Jeremiah Johnson is the voice of Mississippi River blues blending with the struggles of everyday life.  He began learning guitar at age 6, drawing inspiration from his rich St. Louis blues heritage and legendary guitarists, like Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton and Hank Williams Sr. and Jr.  With these influences, Johnson began building his musical foundation. After relocating to Houston, TX, in 1999, Johnson finished in first place for three consecutive years at the Houston Regional Blues Challenges, sponsored by the Houston Blues Society.  Johnson returned to St. Louis in 2009, and merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today. His debut album 9th & Russell was released in 2010 under The Jeremiah Johnson Band with the Sliders. Written by Johnson, Daddy’s Going Out Tonight is from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed. Released October 30, Johnson’s seventh album comes on the heels of Heavens to Betsy, which appeared in February this year.

Sources: Wikipedia; Charleston City Paper; Bandcamp; Fates Warning website; Apple Music; Jeremiah Johnson website; YouTube