edited by Mark Jordan
New Stuff in the Bins New releases this week include the new CD from Texas guitar slinger Mason Ruffner. A former sideman for Bob Dylan with a couple of acclaimed solo records under his belt, Ruffner moved to Memphis about a year ago at the urging of Keith Sykes. He quickly formed a band made up of some of the city's best players -- chiefly, bassist Dave Smith, keyboardist Parker Card, drummer Bo Harris, and horn players Art Edmaiston and Scott Thompson.
Now, with Sykes behind the board, Ruffner has produced You Can't Win, a record of Memphis-fied Texas blues. The simple, laid back rhythm section and catchy horn phrases recall Stax and '50s style Memphis blues, but Ruffner's six-string work stands atop it all to give the album's 13 tracks their distinctive feel. Anyone who has seen him live knows Ruffner has fire, but here he follows his band's lead and emphasizes feel and tasteful playing. The result is a gently rocking, deeply grooving blues record captured with appropriate restraint by Sykes.
by Justice Natchez
Well, there's no doubt about it, Mason Ruffner has arrived in Memphis. Some might think it was Memphis that put the blues back in Ruffner - I have a feeling it's vice-versa. Though Ruffner himself touts his new CD You Can't Win as a "simple three-chord blues approach," this record gets my vote for the most original blues release out of Memphis since I stumbled into town six years ago. On first listen, I found myself hearing some of the less original influence of the modern day Beale Street Blues.
Don't get me wrong, I have heard some very good music on Beale, but I've also heard a lot of music that had as much feeling and originality as a jukebox with a drinking problem. So I admit, I came to this record with some bias, and I am kicking myself hard for that. I should know better. There's a little bit of the tone and buzz of Beale Street rhythm sections, but that's because Ruffner came to Memphis and got a serious backup band. These guys are veterans of the scene, and I can see why they might get excited about playing with Ruffner.
Somehow, Mason Ruffner has the ability to take relatively straightforward songwriting and simple lyrics, and turn them into something you find yourself getting lost inside. Somewhere around the middle of this album on the second listen, I had an epiphany. I had completely driven right out of Memphis on my way to Corky's. I hadn't even noticed, but this album had grabbed me and was ready to have its way with me. The power is in the arrangements, where Ruffner leaves plenty of room for his talented band and his nimble fingers to remind us why musicians on stage are players, not workers. It never really becomes a jam session; the musicians seem to know exactly where they are supposed to put on the gas and where to let off.
The instrumental parts of the album lack the attempted fireworks of most modern blues projects, and damn does that ever make a difference. It makes the music so much more personal. After a barrage of mediocre guitarists (Kenny Wayne Sheppard, Johnny Lang, etc.), who think that bending wound nickel across rosewood is supposed to make our jaws drop and our pockets empty, it's nice to hear someone who's solo's are more like a bandleader's than a WWF wrestler's. Anyone familiar with Ruffner's previous work, though, should have known that this would be the kind of blues album he would make, especially with the help of Keith Sykes, who co-produced the album at his Woodshed Studios here in Memphis. The emphasis is writing honest songs that feel like an extension of the artist himself. It works.
Ruffner told me when I met him for lunch that he thought Bob Dylan is as good as it gets. "Dylan's the man," Ruffner said, "the Stones knew it, Dylan knew it himself." So, while listening to this album and Ruffner's 1987 release, Gypsy Blood, I found the common denominator to be Dylan. Some might find that strange, with Dylan being known so much for his poetry, while Ruffner's lyrics are simpler and carry less of the load in the songwriting. It's not the lyrics, though that make me think of Dylan while listening to Ruffner.
It's not that Ruffner played with Dylan on the Oh Mercy album either. What makes me think of Dylan is that while listening to these records, I felt like I learned something about the man who made them, just as I did when I first heard Bringing it All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde. This is truly something that the blues could use, pardon the rhyme. People like Alvin "Youngblood" Hart have really injected some originality into the blues by infusing other styles of music like reggae, bluegrass and funk, but it's so important to have someone who is not putting different genres together, but simply combining his own unique soul with the blues. It seems that lately the blues have suffered from the "legend" complex, where every blues musician strives to be one of the greats.
The Handy Awards give out trophies for the most impressive players on every instrument you could think of, and it seems this is a symptom of the spotlight-oriented attitude the blues has adopted since Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page hopped across the pond to try their hand at this working class music. Blues bands ever since have been moving more and more towards putting on shows for the sole purpose of allowing every instrument in the band to take the spotlight and solo.
Why is it that the blues have become so solo filled? The music didn't start out as a means for musicians to stroke their instruments like well-shaped egos, so why is it that there are hardly any blues shows that don't feature dozens of solos? Ruffner will give you a little taste of his guitar, and you'll know for sure that he can play, but his solos serve the purpose of the song.
Instead of wowing the listener with fireworks, Ruffner uses his instrument and his band's skill to draw the listener into the song and erase the huge boundary between listener and musician that seems to have become so prevalent in the blues. The reason that so many Delta Blues musicians are revered today is that they made honest, personal music. Although I can look back and admire the guitar playing of a Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell, it's not the reason I listen to and love the music. That music touches so many people because it is music from the soul, and the same can certainly be said of Ruffner's music. And that is certainly something Beale Street could use more of. There are tons of talented musicians in B.B. King's, Rum Boogie and Blues City, that's something nobody can dispute. I just wish I felt more at home with the music. I wish that more of these bands would come down into the crowd and say, "This is the blues. This is about you and me and I want to tell you about it.