You don’t have to get very far past the opening pleasantries in a conversion with the great Ronnie Earl to find he’s in a very beautiful space these days – both spiritually and professionally.
And why wouldn’t he be?
He’s been happily married for the past 18 years and he’s celebrating 25 ½ years of sobriety through the 12 Step Program.
And that’s just the wonderful things happening in his personal life.
“God has been good to me. I feel really blessed to be able to play good, happy, soulful music for the folks,” he said. “One of the messages that I feel is important for me to spread is that you don’t have to be hurting to be a blues or a jazz musician. It’s OK to be happy and fulfilled and live a life of soul and divine purpose. I’m blessed to be able to live and do things at my own pace.”
Things are going just as wonderfully on the professional side of the ledger for Earl, as well.
His latest studio CD – with his longtime group the Broadcasters – Good News (Stony Plain), has been out since early summer and as with any album that the group drops, this one has been hurriedly embraced by blues aficionados all over the planet.
“The reaction to it has been wonderful, beautiful … just a lot of love. And we made it with a lot of love and a lot of very special people,” Earl said. “Our intention, as always, is to operate from kindness and spread the love.”
That mission statement is more than obvious just by glancing at the front cover of the disc. A bright neon figure sets cross-legged on the marquee of a gloriously-inviting nightclub promising an evening of ‘Blues ‘N Soul,’ while reading a daily periodical emblazed with the headline ‘Good News.’ That my friends, is positive reinforcement if there ever was, and according to Earl, that’s also the message of the record contained within.
“Yeah, much of the news in the world is very dark and scary and the band and I want to bring some light to the world. We want to bring some positive vibes, and well, just bring some good news,” he said. “And bringing good news from music is a gospel kind of thing, so that’s where we got it (the title) from.”
“Earl and the Broadcasters have certainly managed to do just that with Good News. In kind of a mirrored-way, the bleak goings-on in everyday society seem to be reflected in the trials and tribulations that much of the music business has been embroiled in since the dawn of the new millennium. A lot of artists – from all genres of music – have decided to throw in the towel on creating any new albums and just strictly rely on touring to get their music and message across to the masses. Earl, however, continues to swim upstream from most of the musical pack and remains committed to doing things his way.
“To be honest, I don’t feel like I’m part of the music business at all. We don’t really tour out in the market place anymore and I’m on a small independent Canadian label (Stony Plain). They’re such wonderful people (at the label) and I don’t feel any pressures or anything. Holger Petersen (Stony Plain owner) is just a wonderful person,” he said. “I really feel like God is taking care of me and the band. I just don’t feel like I’m part of the machine or anything like that. I’m doing things, as Frank Sinatra said, my way.”
They may not hit the road for days and nights on end – preferring to work two or three shows a month instead – but when Earl and the Broadcasters do hit the bandstand, you can pretty much count on a couple of things; a sold-out venue and a marathon performance that bursts the border of three hours.
“I play so hard, sometimes for three-and-a-half hours straight, and I need a week or two between shows to recover from that,” Earl said. “We really try to give it all we have every time we step on a stage.”
“Born and raised in Queens, New York, Earl came of age in a time when bands like The New York Dolls and the Velvet Underground were the much-talked about darlings of the NYC musical community. But somehow, Earl managed to battle his way through glam rock – along with what would become punk and new wave – to find the wonderfully blissful sounds of the real-deal blues. It turns that out a concert by Johnny Winter – one in which Winter never actually showed up for – is to thank for his introduction to the realm of authentic blues music.
“A friend of mine and I used to go to the Fillmore East a lot. We saw the Allman Brothers – this was right after Duane had died and they had Dickey Betts who did a great job and would later become a friend of mine – and one night we went to see Johnny Winter. But Johnny canceled the show, and instead, they had B.B. King and Albert King. I was about 19 at the time and didn’t know much about either of them,” said Earl. “They were all wearing tuxedos and I became completely baptized by the music. I said, ‘You know, these are real adults playing serious, serious music.’ And I’ve been with it (the blues) ever since.”
“Earl didn’t just limit his musical tastes to strictly blues after that encounter with two of the three legendary Kings; he also soaked up as much jazz as he could absorb, too.
““I went to as many jazz clubs as I could, and I took advantage of all of the opportunities of being in New York that I could. I saw Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey and Elvin Jones,” he said. “And then I’d also see John Hammond and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Larry Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis … so even though I wasn’t playing then, living in New York was just such a huge opportunity to see an entire rainbow’s spectrum of all kinds of incredible music. And then they’d have these concerts in Central Park, where I’d see George Benson and Earl Klugh and James Cotton, just on and on and on.”
When Earl did start playing the guitar, he quickly stepped right into the fire and began playing with cats like B.B., Otis Rush and Big Walter, big-time names for such a young guitarist to cut his teeth with.
“It was a dream come true. Again, I have to say it was a God thing. Here I was and the next thing I knew, I was playing three sets a night, five nights a week with Otis Rush in New York and playing with Big Walter (Horton) and Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and Joe Turner and Nappy Brown and Earl King,” he said. “It just went on and on and on. I got to play with Muddy quite a few times and even had a chance to join his band. So I feel very, very blessed to have done that.”
As important as he feels thanking the musicians that gave him a chance as a young player is, Earl believes that it is his duty to do the same and offer today’s generation of up-and-coming blues artists a chance to get up and show their stuff.
“I’ve been trying to have the younger generation on my records and at my shows, the way that Muddy helped me and Big Walter and Duke Robillard and Bob Margolin and Roomful of Blues helped me,” he said. “I think it’s important that I do what I can to help out the way that I was helped out early on in my career. That’s very important to me. On my new album, I have one of my favorite young guitarists – Nicholas Tabarias from Detroit. He plays on about half the songs. And Zach Zunis is also on the new album. And an album or two before that, I had Tim O’Connor, a great young guitarist from New England on there.”
After graduating from Boston University in 1975, Earl began to think of playing the guitar as more than just something to do to help pass the time. Quickly he hooked on as rhythm guitarist at The Speakeasy in Cambridge, Mass., and was soon at the very center of a red-hot blues scene in the New England area.
“There were all these clubs were you could see – and play – the blues. You’d see B.B. King and Albert Collins and Ray Charles – who’s my all-time favorite – at these clubs,” he said. “It was just an amazing time and such an amazing scene back then in that area.”
While living in Cambridge, Earl made a couple of pilgrimages to the Windy City – where he was introduced to the Chicago blues scene by none other than Koko Taylor herself. Tempted as he was to relocate to Chicago from New England, Earl fought the urges and managed to stay put.
“I was tempted (to move to Chicago at that time), sure. But there was just such good, fertile ground in Boston for the blues,” he said. “And to be honest, there was so much blues going on in Chicago that I thought maybe I might get lost in the shuffle.”
It’s safe to say that Earl did not get lost in the shuffle in Boston or Chicago, or anywhere else for that matter. He rapidly carved out a reputation as one of the hottest and most inventive guitarists, regardless of locale. He played with Roomful of Blues from 1979 to 1986, at which time he left to form his own outfit – the Broadcasters. Almost three decades later, despite several personnel changes over the years, the Broadcasters, which are named after the first Fender guitar, are still going strong.
“We’ve always had wonderful keyboard players; like David Maxwell, Tony Zamagni, Anthony Geraci and Bruce Katz and great bass players and great drummers like Per Hanson,” he said. “But this band I’m in now (Jimmy Mouradian, bass; Dave Limina, organ; Lorne Entress, drums) is the best I’ve ever been in and we’ve been together now for almost 15 years and show no signs of slowing down. I really hope our soul permeates everything we do.”
“There’s an old saying that goes something like, ‘Those that can’t do teach.’ In Earl’s case, he ‘Can do and he does teach.’ A multiple winner of Guitar Player of the Year at the Blues Foundation’s Blues Music Awards, Earl also did a stint as an Associate Professor of Guitar at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
“I like it all, I really do. I enjoy playing and I also enjoyed the teaching. I think all that is part of the master plan that my higher power has for me,” he said. “You know, I’ve gotten to do this and I’ve gotten to do that and I think its all part of the plan.”
Long heralded as a guitar-player’s guitar-player and praised by everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Carlos Santana to Kim Wilson to Gregg Allman and Joe Bonamassa and beyond, Earl’s brushstrokes on the six-string bear the influences of a large number of his heroes – both from the world of the blues, as well as the world of jazz. The really beautiful thing about Earl’s sound – on his patented slow blues, as well as his lively shuffles – is the way he creates magic by simply plugging a Strat straight into an amp and letting his fingers do the talking.
“Otis Rush is definitely at the top of my list of influences, as is Magic Sam and early Buddy Guy and Johnny Hartsman,” he said. “And I have a huge love for the music of Ray Charles and John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and George Benson. Then there’s Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and Peter Green and the three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), along with Earl King, too.”
With influences such as those to look up to and to draw inspiration from, it makes perfect sense that a good portion of the music that Earl has created over his lifetime is instrumental and is sans vocals.
“I love playing guitar and it’s like the guitar and the organ are the singers. I just need the room (without vocals) to express myself sometimes,” he said. “We do have vocals on some of our songs. We adore Diane (Blue) and she sings on the new album. I love playing with her.” Blue does a sensational job on Earl’s plaintive arrangement of Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come” on Good News.
Over 20 albums into his career as a solo blues artist, it would be understandable should Earl feel like the time is right to dial things down, kick back and enjoy the benefits of what he’s been creating since the late 1970s. But based on recent evidence, Ronnie Earl has no such intentions of slowing down to enjoy the good life.
And for blues lovers everywhere, that’s Good News, indeed.
“I’m enjoying playing now more than ever. I’m 61 and I still have a lot of energy. I played in Chicago last month and played for three-and-a-half hours,” he said. “I just hope that when I do decide it’s time to stop playing that people will remember that I tried to bring joy and love to the world through my music.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2014
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.