GYPSY BLOOD / Mason Ruffner / CBS Associated - Staying in the tradition and staying true to tradition are not always the same thing. The snap, crackle, and stomp of vintage Dixie rhythm & blues courses vigorously through the veins of Gypsy Blood, the second album by this chart-bound Lone Star guitar slinger. You can hear in the roadhouse locomotive of "Red Hot Lover" and the bayou barroom swing of "Baby I Don't Care No More" ample evidence of Ruffner's long tenure in Bourbon Street gin joints, where he played the best of Earl King, Howlin' Wolf, and Guitar Slim.
But Gypsy Blood is alive with ambition. As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Ruffner - much like Robert Cray, the current retro-groove champ - aims well beyond the holy parameters of the classic three-chord Mississippi moan without sacrificing the immediacy and poignance of the music's earthy simplicity. "Runnin'" is a steaming pot of thump-n-funk gumbo fired up by a percolating sex beat reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition." A full battalion of strings swoops over the metallic howl of Ruffner's lead guitar in "Dancin' on Top of the World." And the Molotov-cocktail mix of switchblade riffing, spaghetti-western twang and staccato Stratocaster shriek in the breakneck instrumental "Courage" sounds like Mark Knopfler and Jimi Hendrix duking it out in "Third Stone from the Sun."
Ruffner's producer on the album, Welsh rock-roots expert Dave Edmunds, gives the guitarist plenty of elbow room for his outlaw-blues tangents, heightening the singing and soloing with Mark Avsec's discreet keyboards and with a crisp, airy studio resonance that's in contrast with the fortified thunder down below of Edmund's rhythm regulars, John David and Dave Charles. But Ruffner leaves no doubt here that he is truly his own man. Many of the songs on Gypsy Blood are declarations of independence: "Fightin' Back", "Dancin' on Top of the World", the vengeful "Ain't Gonna Get It" driven by his hairpin lead breaks and gun-your-engine chord grind.
Ruffner's gruff vocal style and articulate fretwork on his critically acclaimed and criminally underpromoted 1985 debut, Mason Ruffner, inspired comparisons, usually favorable, to Mark Knopfler. Indeed, there was a familiar "Sultans of Swing" ring to Ruffner's "Down to New Orleans" on that album. Gypsy Blood, however, with its striking combination of the soaring (the ballad "Distant Thunder") and the sizzling (the pedal-to-the-metal title track), is irrefutable proof that Mason Ruffner is a guitar star waiting to happen. Meet the new sultan of sting.