The Evolution of Mason Ruffner: Series of Dreams
by Raoul Hernandez
"This song's from Louisiana," announces Mason Ruffner from atop the outdoor stage, "where all music is from." The band -- Jimmy Petit on bass, Michael Ramos on keys, Joel Duhon on drums, and Ruffner on guitar -- look at each other for a moment, nod, and count off into "Bon Ton Roule." Let the good times roll.
Pretty much what the crowd of a few hundred is already doing at the Cypress Creek Cafe's annual crawfish boil -- a sad affair if you were expecting Jazz Fest maybe, but a happy one if you live in Wimberley. It's a balmy spring evening out back of the popular small-town eatery, and Ruffner is headlining the musical portion of a fiesta that's been going on since early afternoon. Children dance, couples court, and a goodly amount of beer and rather anemic crawfish are consumed. It's a scene befitting any Texas barbecue, and the banner out front proclaims this event a 15-year tradition. Everyone is having a good time. Perhaps Ruffner most of all.
Wimberley is home for the 43-year-old blues guitarist, who lives a quick van ride down the road off of which his log cabin lies hidden among the trees of a sloping hillside. Modestly furnished but cozy, it's made home by girlfriend Shannan, his dog, and Ruffner, who looks to be in his element on the cabin's amber deck where his Harley sits in front of the living room window. He motions out over his private patch of woods and says he bought it all for a song. Like maybe the one they used in Steel Magnolias, or the spot he cut for Miller Lite ("I'm still not real comfortable with that."). Possibly even one of the 10 tunes found on Ruffner's second album for CBS, Gypsy Blood, which was released in 1987, yielded one AOR hit single, and sold over 200,000 copies. All songs that paid pretty good royalties, but none of which made up for the fact that Ruffner never delivered a follow-up to his commercial breakthrough.
Until last year, that is, when Ruffner -- living in Wimberley since '92 -- put out Evolution, in many ways a perfect mirror-image of and therefore equally perfect follow-up to Gypsy Blood. The only problem, however, was that it came three years after being dropped by Sony, nearly eight years after peaking career-wise, and to absolutely no fanfare whatsoever. Considering that Ruffner's visits to the music Mecca one hour east of Wimberley (Austin) have been infrequent at best over the past several years, Evolution was indeed the lone tree falling in the forest. Isolation: a home address and career description.
A strange place for Ruffner to be, particularly since most people still identify the guitarist with New Orleans, a city in whose French Quarter he spent nearly two decades. "For a long time, 20 years or so, I needed to be plugged into that vibe," says Ruffner, his pale blue eyes settling on the vista outside his living room picture window. "I loved the craziness. I'd have to stumble across he/shes and drunks to get out my door. All-night bars and restaurants, music blaring down the streets. I needed that vibe. But we all change. We're supposed to sooner or later, and I reached a point where I didn't need that anymore." Ruffner, in fact, reached a point where he didn't need a lot of things anymore, namely the music industry.
Born in Illinois, Ruffner was raised in Fort Worth, where his family moved when he was 6. "I'm from an unusual family I guess," says Ruffner about his upbringing. "It was a real strict Quaker type of thing. We weren't Quaker, we were Protestant, but I wasn't even allowed to go to dances. It was a sinful thing, you see, to dance. That was not allowed..." In response to this lifestyle, Ruffner left home at 17, eventually landing in Southern California in 1969. It was there he received his education. "I discovered girls, fast cars, drugs, alcohol, hanging around with degenerates, surfing and music. And guitars," says Ruffner. "After indulging in all that, music started becoming the one that rose above all the other things I'd developed a passion for."
Unfortunately, not all of the budding guitarist's friends developed the same passion. "They just wanted to surf all day, smoke pot, do some acid, get some pussy," says Ruffner. "I started detecting that there was no future in this. It's okay to party once in a while, but not to have your whole life built around that. I wanted more out of life than that. So I left it all behind, the drugs -- everything. I went back to Fort Worth and started getting serious about music."
But his new group of peers didn't seem any more serious about music than his SoCal friends -- at least not about original music. "It was all cover bands," recounts Ruffner. "I couldn't find people who wanted to do original material. They all wanted to do Sly Stone." This was no good for someone who'd recently discovered the two musical muses that would guide his career even into the present.
"What really got me was Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix," states Ruffner. "I always had a passion for the blues, because they played it a lot around Fort Worth. And it was the combination of those three things: the blues in general -- all of 'em, Howlin' Wolf, Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed -- and Hendrix and Dylan. They just ignited me. That gave me direction. That's what I wanted to do." Not able to find a Mick Jagger to his Keith Richards, however, Ruffner, who had also just discovered wandering souls such as Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie, decided it was time to hit the open road. First stop, the City of New Orleans. The year was 1977.
"I thought, `I'll work, get some money and go on,'" recalls Ruffner, who was already looking ahead to Europe and parts beyond. "But when I got to New Orleans, I saw a lot of opportunity there. It's changed now. It's not like Austin. It's closing down to where there used to be 15 clubs on Bourbon Street with live music, and now maybe there's nine. But at that time it was bouncing pretty good." Bouncing with sounds he'd never heard, namely the piano playing of Crescent City legends like Smiley Lewis, and Huey "Piano" Smith.
"All these great piano players and Dixieland guys," he enthuses. "I'll tell you what got me, though, what really helped steer me. There's a place called Preservation Hall down there, and these people been playing so long, they're so old, they're walking in with canes. They start playing, and those people start clapping, and you can see these people -- these musicians -- I bet they could throw away their canes, get up, and start walking. It energizes them. That's it. That's the real thing right there; I wanna do that when I'm 85."
So Ruffner found an apartment at the very center of the action, New Orleans' French Quarter, and started playing -- first the acoustic gigs, then with various cover bands, and finally his own groups. And though playing mostly to tables and chairs, he kept at it. "I was just barely good enough to keep a gig," he laughs. "But I developed a little bit, and got a little better at it. The musicians got a little better and I moved on to little better clubs, and in about three-four years somebody heard me that worked for CBS and offered me a record deal. It was that easy."
That somebody was Tony Martell, the head of CBS Associated, a label whose roster also included Austin's Fabulous Thunderbirds. Martell signed Ruffner to a multi-album deal, and sent the guitarist off to Bogalusa, Louisiana, to cut an album with producer Rick Derringer. Released in 1985, Ruffner's self-titled debut was a low-key, Southern blues affair that contained nine original tunes, one cover ("Bon Ton Roule"), and no singles. It was not worked by CBS, nor supported with much touring by Ruffner. For all intents and purposes, the album was still-born.
It did, however, receive good press, garnering Ruffner a full-page write-up in Rolling Stone among others. It also brought a few high rollers through the doors of the clubs Ruffner was still playing down on the bayou: Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, Billy Gibbons, Boz Scaggs, and most importantly, Jimmy Page. "I introduced Jimmy to the girl he ended up marrying," says Ruffner. "So he'd come down and play with me, and we just got to know each other. Then he asked me if I wanted to go tour with the Firm. So we go do that tour, and people from CBS start coming out to watch me, and become enthused. Then one night the head of Epic (Ray Anderson) came and watched us at the Forum in L.A. The next day my budget was tripled to make another album."
This time the label sent Ruffner to London with producer Dave Edmunds, who had proved his commercial worth with the Stray Cats and had just finished making Tuff Enuff with the T-Birds. "I was fired up for that record," says Ruffner. "I thought, `Here's my chance. I get to make another record.' I had just had my heart broken by this woman, and I was gonna show her, and my record company, and everybody else too that I had it."
Recorded over three weeks, and mixed on the fourth, Gypsy Blood proved just that when its title cut became a hit. Next came the video ("totally silly"), opening slots with U2 and Crosby, Stills & Nash, extensive touring, hundreds of meet `n' greets, great reviews, and better-than-respectable album sales. Ruffner jumped eagerly onto the dancefloor, learning all about chart positions, market share, and getting radio adds all at once instead of one at a time. He was on the fast track, and when the dust cleared nearly a year later, everyone agreed that Ruffner's second record had achieved its purpose, taking the guitarist to the next level and positioning him for multi-platinum sales with album number three.
Everyone but Ruffner, it seems, who couldn't believe Gypsy Blood hadn't been a bigger success. "I was very disappointed," says Ruffner, "because that was my best shot. I knew that I made that record about as good as I could. I hit the bullseye for the talent I had. I was expecting double platinum." More than disappointed in fact, Ruffner was heartbroken. He'd played the game, danced the dance, and was now expected to get back out on the floor.
"But I didn't want to have anything to do with it at that point," says Ruffner. "I was tired of touring and playing, and going out there and trying to make it. Just sick and tired of it, and disgusted with myself that I got on that track. And then they're saying, `C'mon, let's make another record. And this time we're gonna fix you up with one of those real slick producers. That Dave Edmunds is not slick enough.' The head of Epic promotion, the head guy said, `You give me two or three more songs like "Gypsy Blood" and I'll take you to the top.'
"And I'm thinking, `I don't want to write another song like that, man. Don't say that. Don't say that. I want to write something different. I wanna write what's in my soul.'"
But there was nothing in his soul -- or at least no songs. Although he headed back to New Orleans to write more material, it didn't take long for Ruffner to realize he had nothing left to give. "I basically just threw my pen down, and said it's just not in me. I don't feel like it. I remember always feeling miserable when I was around those CBS people. I felt like I let them down. They invested a lot of time and money in me, and I didn't have anything to help them with. I didn't have songs. I wasn't writing."
Writing had never come easy to Ruffner, who'd always spent much of his free time in the local library reading classics; everything from Ovid and Dante to favorites like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. And though Ruffner now insists he's never suffered from writer's block, inspiration was nowhere to be found, not even in Daniel Lanois' studio where the guitarist came face to face with his favorite author, Bob Dylan.
"Dan called me out of the blue, and I'd heard that Dylan was in town, and thought `This must be the Dylan session.' When he asked me, I could feel my face changing colors and everything. `I'll be right there.' Bam, zoom, I was out the door...When I got there Dylan was giving everyone a hard time. He would stop in the middle of a song, if he didn't like what was going on, and say, `Dan, where'd you get these guys? They can't fucking play this shit.' Right in front of them.
"So Dan takes me and Glen [Fukunaga] and Roddy [Colonna] before we start the session and says, `Look, if he doesn't talk to you, if he acts rude or something, just be cool, and keep playing.' So we're expecting the worst. But he comes in, and says [to me] `Man, I heard your tape.'
"Well, I didn't know what he was talking about at the time. `Yeah,' he says, `you know that `Baby, I Don't Care No More' [from Gypsy Blood]. That's some good shit.' And he started reciting some of my lyrics. He says, `Guns `n' Roses need a song like that. They need a good song.' He really opened up to me, really liked me."
Dylan liked Ruffner enough, in fact, that when the guitarist wrote the king of songwriters a note of thanks, he got back the same. For Ruffner, it is the Holy Grail of notes, and he knows just where to find it: at the top of his desk drawer (there's also a copy of it tacked up in his rehearsal space). It reads:
The note you wrote meant a lot to me, you played right on the end of the song ["Series of Dreams"]. It was the only thing to do. Eric Clapton thought it was Mark Knopfler. Keep at it. A poet you might want to check out is Thomas Moore. Probably the library would know. You don't need to check anybody out on the guitar.
Presto. Ruffner could now die happy, and was probably prepared to do so until one month later when at a Carlos Santana gig, he ran into the Latin firebrand backstage and was asked to jam with him. "I think that was kind of a turning point for me," says Ruffner thoughtfully. "It told me, you're okay, you don't have nothing to prove to anyone. Forget about trying impress CBS and sell records to teeny boppers. You got Santana, Dylan, Lanois, forget it. You're okay. Just do what you want to do when you want to do it. " That was 1989, and from that point on, Ruffner never seriously considered recording another album for CBS.
Today, out in the peaceful solitude of Wimberley, Ruffner, a friendly, honest man who admits to "anti-social tendencies," says he'd like to get back into the game -- his game, played at his pace. Three or four good songs a year is all he's looking to write, and perhaps not coincidentally, Ruffner says he's nearly completed an all-instrumental album. He also mentions the possibility of recording an album with Santana and another guitar recluse, Peter Green. Time to start building it up again, he says, to which the obvious question must be posed: Any regrets at leaving it all behind the way you did?
"I do kind of wish I had it to do over again," he says after a moment. "I'd have been prepared. I wouldn't have let all of it affect me so much. I would never look at that Billboard magazine, and stuff like that. Though I'll tell you one good thing about my process; I did have a taste of success, and I did taste failure, but I didn't get a big gulp of either one. It would have really destroyed [me]. If I'd have sold Gypsy Blood double platinum and everything, it would have just been a ticket to ruin for me. I'd be sitting out here, I wouldn't have to take shit from nobody, I'd have money, and I wouldn't have to go play. I'd probably be sitting here like a junkie.
"But you're looking at a pretty happy man in a way. I'd like to build up my business just a little bit more. But I see a lot of opportunity out there for me -- to do just what I want to do with my life. I'm not interested in being a pop star. Legend, maybe. I'd settle for legend."