by David Fricke
THE HOTTEST LICKS IN THE SOUTH - Mason Ruffner’s first steady gig in New Orleans was enough to give anybody the blues. On many Wednesday afternoons at the 544 Club on Bourbon Street, from 1:00 straight through to 7:00 in the evening, the long, tall singer-guitarist from Smithville, TX, would lead a quartet of pickup musicians through several sets of rough-and-tumble blues and R&B. Mainly hits by local legends like Fats Domino, Smiley Louis, and Guitar Slim. The pay was $120 for the whole band and the whole six hours. The audience was, in Ruffner’s words, "mainly tables and chairs".
That was in early 1981. By ‘84, Ruffner and his firmed-up combo, the Blues Rockers, were regulars at the Old Absinthe Bar. Down the street, and not only had the time slot and the money improved, but so had the clientele. One night, Ruffner finished playing one of his original tunes when a voice in the back piped up, "Hey, who wrote that?" The voice belonged to a very impressed Robbie Robertson. When Bruce Springsteen dropped in, he was so smitten by Ruffner’s gnash-n-slash guitar and gutsy songwriting, that he helped load up the Blues Rockers’ gear after the last set.
Over the next two years, the celebrity parade that passed in front of the Old Absinthe bandstand included Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Carlos Santana, and Jimmy Page. On a couple of nights, Page even got up and jammed with Ruffner. Now, with the release of his debut album, Mason Ruffner, this soft-spoken guitarist with the honery Dylanesque pipes and biting Mark Knopfler-like chops is no longer the well-kept secret of a few super stars. Locomotive shuffles, like "Lady Moon", and Ruffner’s one-take tear through Clarence Garlow’s classic cajun-style jump blues, "Bon Ton Roule", capture the party pleasures of an all-night Ruffner blast at the Old Absinthe, re-created with minimal Eighties techno-garnish by producer Rick Derringer. And although Ruffner’s originals are grounded in familiar blues truths and riff constructions ("Gamblin’ Fever", "Ain’t Nothin’ But Trouble"), he demonstrates considerable promise as a songwriter and a roots-guitar-stylist in the gospel-rock testifyin’ of "Stranded" and the "Sultans of Swing" rung of his semi-autobiographical "Down in New Orleans."
"I had a lot of songs by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry that just weren’t me," Ruffner says of his early days as the 544’s human jukebox. "I took a stab at all the blues artists: Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, and all. But it wasn’t me. I didn’t do those things they were talking about. I was a little phony and I knew it.
"But I kept that stuff on my song list until I could knock it off with something that was me," he says with a proud smile, revealing a gold front tooth with his initials and a tiny guitar etched in white porcelain. "Something that had the same fire, the same gut, but with lyrics I could take out of my life."
As young white bluesmen go, Ruffner, 32, is an odd specimen. The son of a rural mailman, who in his spare time also farmed twenty acres in Smithville, about 20 miles from Ft. Worth, Ruffner arrived at the blues via Sixties Top Forty radio and Jimi Hendrix. "He’s my favorite electric guitarist of all time," he drawls. "If he wanted to talk about a train, vvoom, here comes a train on the guitar. If he wanted to talk about fire, he could make it sound like fire." Ruffner traced the source of that fire back to the vintage of bluesmen like Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Otis Rush and T’Bone Walker. By the time he settled in New Orleans in 1978, Ruffner had served a lengthy guitar apprenticeship with Ft. Worth blues singer, Robert Ealey and recorded with the great Texas growler, Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Along the way, though, Ruffner took side trips into some pretty heavy literature, in particular, the works of Dostoevski and the French authors, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. "Those guys," Ruffner claims, "they were the blues. They wrote the heaviest blues ever." As a songwriter, he really aspired to those blues, he says. "I don’t want to just write things like ‘Hi Girl, I’m cool. Let’s make love’. Let the other cats sing that."
A lot of the "other cats" working the bars in New Orleans’ French Quarter, also lacked Ruffner’s ambition. He jumped at opportunities to back up bluesmen like Memphis Slim, Earl King, and John Lee Hooker when they played locally. In 1984, Ruffner rustled up $300 to cut an independent single that he sold between sets at the Old Absinthe Bar. And while many local artists were content to gig with ill-rehearsed pickup bands, Ruffner estimates that he went through forty-five musicians before recruiting his current blues-rock drill team-guitarist Chris Clifton, bassist Mike Stockton, and drummer Willie Cole.
But Ruffner insists that super star visitations of Springsteen, Page, et. al., have not turned his head. "Playing in the nightclubs, you get hit with everything. I’ve had guys come up and ask me to play ‘New York New York.’ You want to kick ‘em sometimes, tell ‘em, ‘Wake up. Can’ you hear this’? This is my blood, my tears that I’m laying out. But you just gotta shake it off and keep playing. If they’re not gonna listen to Arthur Rimbaud, why should they listen to me?"