by Michael Segell
MUSIC - Mason Ruffner is a man who knows his influences. There's the intonation, phrasing, and timbre of Bob Dylan, the muscular, expressionistic guitar work of Jimi Hendrix, the baleful spirituality of B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf. Another group of artists has made its mark on this man, however, a group that probably has never been cited by an American blues-rocker: the French symbolist poets Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Lautreamont, and painters like van Gogh and Gauguin.
"Those guys were the original bluesmen," says Ruffner, whose second album, 'Gypsy Blood' (CBS Assoc. Records), firmly establishes him as a blues-rock authority. "The great American blues singers are coming from the same sensibility - the philosophy of solitude, suffering, and derangement of the senses. They wrote one-liners as good as Baudelaire. They just constructed their poetry a little differently."
Ruffner, a Texan who has spent some time on Bourbon Street corners in his adopted city of New Orleans hustling a riff and song, buys into a bit of that philosophy himself. In the ripsnorting tune 'Baby I Don't Care No More', he sings, "I used to think I had eyes like a god/But now I feel like Marquis de Sade." But a little of that credo goes a long way. "I have my own rules about how to live my life," he says. "I don't know that I want to go mad."
'Gypsy Blood' may just keep him sane. The follow-up to his impressive but scantly heard debut, it's the latest, and to these ears the best, example of the popular resurgence of blues-flavored rock - from Dire Straits to The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray.
Success for the lanky, pompadoured Ruffner, whose smile reveals a gold tooth with his initials and a tiny guitar etched in white porcelain, is overdue. The son of a mailman and a part-time farmer, the thirty-four year old Ruffner began working with blues singer Robert Ealey in the late sixties in his hometown of Fort Worth. He then tried his hand at modern rock and folk before giving up music briefly at twenty-three. "I wanted to write songs, but there just wasn't enough in my head or in my life," he says.
So Ruffner began hanging around Fort Worth libraries, absorbing "life" from symbolist poetry and biographies of Beethoven. When he picked up the guitar again, he headed for New Orleans, where he played for change in the French Quarter and as a sideman in local bars. By the early eighties, his band, the Blues Rockers, were regulars at the 544 Club and the Old Absinthe House Bar, jamming with bluesmen like Memphis Slim, Earl King, and John Lee Hooker when they were in town.
It was there that CBS Record execs heard him and proffered a recording contract in 1985, resulting in his debut, 'Mason Ruffner'. Despite receiving critical acclaim, the record sold a meager seven thousand copies, leaving Ruffner himself feeling mildly deranged. "But I've always made a living, and that's the whole key - having the opportunity to create," he says. "Playing is a great antidote to the blues."
Having copped some blues from dysphoric poets and generated some of his own, what does he think of the pain-and-lonliness school of thought now? "I want to be around a long time," he says. "If I feel myself going too far, I back off. I'll get a pretty girl and go out and have a good time."