When Mason Ruffner hit the stage at the Cibolo Creek Country Club in 1997 [audio at the bottom of the page], it was an unusually fertile time for the Fort Worth-born guitarist and songwriter. He had just released Evolution on Archer Records, after a 10-year wait following his last release, and was only two years away from the bluesy, horn-driven You Can’t Win. Over the previous decade, though, CBS/Epic Records had dropped him.
“I was given a golden opportunity to sign with a major label … something most musicians can only dream about,” he remembers. “[But] it didn’t take long for me to see I don’t write enough songs to have a recording career.”
“It was a tough time,” he admits. Ruffner says the pressure to come up with radio-friendly singles killed his creativity. “I had a great manager, a great record company, and a great band just sitting around waiting for me to do something, but I just wasn’t inspired to do that. I’ve always just followed my muse, so to speak.”
Where that muse has often led him is back to the stage. You can hear it in the 1997 set, heavy on the blues-based music that has been Ruffner’s trademark since the early 1980s, when he was discovered on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
That city just “opened its arms” to him, he says. Ruffner played the 544 Club and the Old Absinthe Bar up to six nights a week for five hours at a time. “Everybody was playing cover tunes, or Dixieland or something. I was the only guy playing original stuff. We didn’t take requests. We were a hardcore, original band. And then we could barely keep a gig!” he laughs. “But I was able to step on up and out of Bourbon Street, and [those other bands] didn’t.”
Throughout Ruffner’s career, he’s enjoyed success on his own terms, and has collaborated with the best in the business, including Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan. You can hear Ruffner’s crying guitar licks on Dylan’s Disease of Conceit as well as two other tracks from Dylan’s 1989 album Oh Mercy. Ruffner says Dylan was a major influence. “Dylan really gave me the idea of cool intellect, outside-the-box lyric writing. He transformed [pop music] from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Maggie’s Farm and The Times They Are a Changing. He made people want to write more of a serious lyric. That was huge for me.”
Funny, then, that Ruffner’s latest project is an album of purely instrumental music, Aerial. The 11 tracks on the compact disc include rockers and a few songs with an almost Spanish tinge. Ruffner continues to surprise, explaining that he’s also a huge classical music fan. “You wouldn’t know it by the music style I play, but I just love Bach, Rachmaninoff, on and on. That type of music makes me swoon!” Ruffner says with a hearty laugh. “I just love to play with an orchestra and strings and stuff. So I thought, over time, I’d finally get it together and put something out!”
Recently, Ruffner set up shop in New Orleans again, and he’s enthusiastic about the Crescent City scene. “Austin’s supposed to be the live music capital of the world, but I don’t think whoever said that has been to New Orleans lately. The city has really bounced back from the tragic Katrina storm 10 years ago. There’s so much music going on, and I still have some contacts from the old days here.”
“I would like to just play locally, I don’t want to tour. I think this is the best place for me to do that,” he says.
The next time you’re heading down to New Orleans, you might be able to catch Mason Ruffner at d.b.a., Ruby’s Roadhouse, or at the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival this fall, as he continues to follow his muse.
Below: Hear Mason Ruffner's 1997 performance for Texas Public Radio's old Texas Music program, Sunday Night Session. The full program includes "Gypsy Blood," "The Ragman," and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited."