Peripatetic bluesman Mason Ruffner sets up his amp in Memphis.
by Mark Jordan
Slumped down in a leather chair inside the downtown cafe the Map Room, sipping a lemon drink, Mason Ruffner appears to be settling in.
Though he’s been here only a few short months, he’s already found an apartment in the heart of things in downtown Memphis. He’s made a bunch of new musical friends, landed a couple of regular gigs, and this week he’ll go into Keith Sykes’ Woodshed Studio to cut a Memphis-grown record. All in all, he’s a surprising picture of domesticity, surprising because over his 30-plus-year guitar-slinging career Ruffner has had more homes than he has strings on his ax.
Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Ruffner was a latecomer to the rock-and-roll life. The catalyst for Ruffner came when he was 18 and he discovered Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, his two main influences even today. Following an apprenticeship with Robert Ealey’s Five Careless Lovers, Ruffner spent time in New York and Los Angeles before settling down in New Orleans in 1979.
There Ruffner formed his own band, the Blues Rockers, and established himself with a couple of regular gigs on Bourbon Street, first at the 544 Club and later at the Old Absinthe Bar. It was at the latter that Ruffner really made his mark. As word spread about the hot young blues-rock guitarist at the Old Absinthe, music stars passing through the Crescent City started sticking their heads in to pay their respects – Billy Gibbons, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, and Jimmy Page, who even got up to jam with Ruffner.
It was one of Ruffner’s more anonymous guests, however, who gave his career its next boost.
“I got real lucky,” says Ruffner. “I didn’t even try to get a record deal. Someone who heard me then happened to work at CBS.”
Ruffner’s self-titled debut, produced by Rick Derringer, came out in 1986. It was followed a year later by the Dave Edmunds-produced Gypsy Blood. Ruffner changed labels, and a decade passed before his third release, Evolution.
“My first [album] pretty much was a reflection of what I was doing on Bourbon Street,” says Ruffner of his recorded work. “Basically, it was the blues. My second was rock. I just wanted to rock hard on that one. My third was a real mixed bag, a little bit of everything. In retrospect, I think it was a little too much of a mixed bag. It was all over the place – in Texas, New Orleans, the [Caribbean] islands.”
Though his recording career has yet to reach the levels he would like, Ruffner’s albums have put him in the position to show off his considerable live stuff. Following the Gypsy Blood album alone, Ruffner toured with U2, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Firm.
And his prominence among New Orleans guitarists compelled producer Daniel Lanois to recruit Ruffner to play on his idol Bob Dylan’s No Mercy album, which was recorded in Lanois’ New Orleans studio. Lanois also used Ruffner on his own album Acadie.
Between Gypsy Blood and Evolution Ruffner moved again, this time outside of Austin, Texas, attracted, seemingly as always, by the happening music scene. But early last year, the wanderlust started to hit Ruffner again.
“I was living fairly near Austin out in the country, and all the gigs I was playing were long-ass drives,” he recalls. “So I decided to move someplace a little more centrally located. I literally looked at a map and saw Memphis right there in the middle of it all. And it had a lot of other things going for it. It reminds me a lot of New Orleans. It’s a funky town on the river, great musicians, great history of music from the ’60s and ’70s.”
Ruffner’s decision to move was helped further along by a chance encounter with Memphis songwriter/producer Keith Sykes on a plane flight.
“I had to go to a session in New Orleans,” recalls Ruffner. “So I’m on the plane. And this man and woman get on board and the only two seats left on the plane are by me. … They sit down and start talking, and he turns to me and says, ‘Hi, I’m Keith Sykes.’ Well, I knew Keith because Fingers Taylor, who I had been playing with, played one of his songs. And I introduced myself, and he had heard of me. And I told him I was thinking about moving to Memphis, and he said ‘Yeah, man. Come on. You can stay with me. It’ll be cool.’”
Sykes helped Ruffner put together his Memphis band, which looks like a super group of some of the city’s best players. Premier Player bassist Dave Smith was the first to sign on, followed by drummer Bo Harris, keyboardist Parker Card, and the horn section of Art Edmaiston on saxophone and Scott Thompson on trumpet.
“This the best band I’ve ever had,” says Ruffner. “It’s a bigger band than I’ve ever had before. Before I would show up with three guys backing me up. Now I have five, and I think it really complements the music.”
Ruffner describes the record he’s going to start cutting this week as rootsy. The untitled project is tentatively scheduled to be released in the spring on Burnside Records (no relation to R.L.).
In the meantime, Ruffner is honing the band’s sound with regular local gigs and stretching his own musical muscles with a solo spot at Rum Boogie Cafe, a gig that shows that while Ruffner may be calling Memphis home for now, this bluesman never truly settles down.
“It’s something kind of different for Beale Street. I’ve got a National steel guitar that I play. And I play lots of old blues and some of my own stuff as well. There is a temptation to play tourist blues down there because people who don’t know a lot of blues want to hear the familiar stuff. But I don’t really do that. I play what I want to play. I’ve always been an outsider. Wherever I’ve lived I’ve always been out of the main thrust of things, living on the outside of town playing music a little different from what everyone else is doing. Which is fine. I like to play that role.