MASON RUFFNER / CBS Associated Records
Today's fashionable retro rock often has as much to do with gesture as with music. It's an opportunity for overbright kids to invent campy band names, to dress up in sharkskin suits and skinny ties and to advertise their predictably offbeat tastes for the Standells or the Syndicate of Sound. If all this twerpy posturing gets on your nerves, Mason Ruffner's debut album may be just what you're looking for. Don't let the rockabilly haircut fool you; here, at last, is roots rock with a minimum of attitude.
Ruffner is a guitarist and singer who will never see thirty again and who has played Texas and Louisiana gin mills since 1974. Lately, he's become a cult favorite: salt-of-the-earth types like Robbie Roberson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and even the Boss himself have dropped by the Old Absinthe House Bar in New Orleans to catch his show. Ruffner's roots go far deeper than Sixties' garage bands. He taps into rock-n-roll's bluesy, guitar-dominated central tradition: BB King, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan. Yet Ruffner is no reverent revivalist; for him, this is living, contemporary music.
Ruffner is hardly the fastest-fingered guitarist around - even on this studio LP, there are minute snags in his execution - nor is he the most inventive. There's hardly a lick here you haven't heard before: Mark Knopfler, whose approach is similar, is far more daring. And even Mark Knopfler is not so obviously Dylanoid a singer and songwriter. Ruffner's voice is a little fuller, raspier and lower-pitched than Dylans', but his timbre and phrasing are so similar you have to listen hard to hear the difference. He also adopts some of Dylan's characteristic turns of phrase and thought. "Lady Moon", a tribute to a surrealistically tough cookie ("She don't never take off those dark sunglasses / not even when she's making'love") wouldn't sound out of place on Highway 61 Revisited; two quasi-gospel songs, "Stranded" and "Lay it On Me" evoke "Slow Train Coming" and "Shot of Love"; even the overdubbed instrumental "Serenata" sounds like Dylan's Tex-Mex theme from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
What makes a record with so few surprises so satisfying? Partly, it's Rick Derringer's gewgaw-free production. (The only pop touches are some echo-whap percussion and neo-bubblegum synthesizer on "Just Be My Friend", misleadingly positioned as the opening cut.) Partly, it's the clear, stringy, almost palpable sound Ruffner gets from his Fifties Fender Stratocaster and vintage Super Reverb amp - a sound to make you relish again the sheer electric guitarness of the electric guitar.
But mostly it's the joy and the unselfconscious conviction with which Ruffner re-creates and re-combines the sounds he obviously loves. Oddly, the only false notes are in what seems to be his most personal song, "Down to New Orleans". He actually did make his way, flat broke, to "play the blues down on Bourbon Street", but that doesn't make the phrase itself less of a cliche. Ruffner should resist the temptation to traffic in his own all too exploitable myth; the most pernicious form of attitudinizing, after all,is self-impersonation. When he's just singing and playing, all his gestures point in the right direction.
MASON RUFFNER - Mason Ruffner - (CBS)
Ruffner, 32, grew up in Fort Worth, but he has been a fixture in New Orleans since the late '70's, leading raucous bands that play rockabilly blues. As a singer, Ruffner sounds like a combination of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Waylon Jennings - there is some heavy-duty cynicism going on there. He plays guitar, and his three-piece band, bolstered for this album by studio backups, creates a propulsive, Rolling Stone sort of background. Ruffner's songs have such titles as Ain't Nothin' But Trouble and Gravediggers, in which he sings, "You better run fast as you can/ Here they come with a shovel in their hand/ Yeah, don't get too stoned/ 'Cause you might find a graveyard for your home." Those who want to mull over some of the more grueling aspects of life in a spirited musical way might well want to do it in the company of this leading contender for the title of Bruce Springsteen South.
Mason Ruffner (self titled) - CBS Records
Where has this boy been hiding? We've been needing him bad. A superb writer, fine guitarist, good sense of humor. Knows how to get into a song, do some fast, clean, melodic licks and get out. Songs like "Gravediggers" and Gamblin' fever" are what the best rockabillies would want to be if they were starting out today, and when he gets to "Stranded", it sounds like Dylan has met Warren Zevon. And don't get the idea he's just copying old notes; these are all his own. All he's copied is the idea that a clean, quick guitar can make some great rock 'n' roll.
Best Albums of 19851. He Is The Light, by Al Green