For any artist or band serious about getting their music heard, touring is a necessary evil. Long nights on the road away from family and friends can test the bonds of any musical endeavor. Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist RB Stone has raised the art of touring to a whole new realm.
“I don’t come from money. For thirty-three years I’ve booked most of my stuff, raised about all of my money and wrote most of the tunes, and fought with the bar owners. I always wished that I had a buffer, an agent or a manager. The only ones I ever seem to attract are the crooks. There is no shortage of those! I remember spending three days in the same clothes with no shower setting up shows in Japan & Europe in the days before e-mail. It’s been pretty much a one-man wrecking crew. I have such a passion for the music”.
“There was a long road of dues paying. I’ve hitchhiked across the country a few times and lived out of several bands. I’ve been to thirty-one countries to play music and used to take packages over to Japan to entertain the troops. We’d have a Dixieland jazz group and the country singer, Connie Smith. For the last three winters, I went back to the cowboy mentality. I said screw it to paying rent and I have been living out of my van. I do have an office in Nashville with a futon that I just purchased. Otherwise it has been motels; somebody’s house or crashing in that van for three years. There have been nights in the van at four degrees. I fixed it up with a propane heater.”
The long, strange trip has started to catch up with Stone. But there have been a number of positive elements that have made the adventure worthwhile. “Not paying rent enabled me to get out and meet as many people as I can. Being an old sales guy, I know those two minutes with someone face-to-face is worth twenty phone calls. I have been on the campaign trail for almost three years solid. Tab Benoit says you have to take it to the people. We don’t have the mass media behind us”.
Music was a part of Stone’s childhood. His parents had a piano but he was drawn to the rhythmic power of the drums, so his parents got him a kit. But it wasn’t until his early twenties that Stone was introduced to any kind of professional gig. “I worked on a ninety man rail gang. It was wide open in those days. I had a gun pointed at my head the second week. It was pretty wild stuff – being drunk on whiskey driving the motorcycle down the dotted line at 120 miles per hour. I had gotten off illegal substances for the booze and wanted to straighten out. So I quit the rail gang and ended up in a plumbing & heating store, a mini-version of Lowe’s. That led to a house, two cars, two trucks, and two motorcycles”.
“After a couple years, I was sitting in Ohio bored and miserable. So I sold everything except a truck, a shotgun, a guitar and headed out to Colorado to learn how to ride bulls as a rodeo cowboy. I was sitting up in the mountains and I met an old cowboy who came riding through. He was working on an Indian reservation south of Durango. He said he couldn’t pay me but he’d teach me everything he knew. For six months I lived for free, sleeping in the tack room or my truck. By day he would teach me how to train and ride horses. At night, since I didn’t have any money, I taught myself how to play guitar using an old songbook.”
Once those skills had taken hold, the local outfitters started hiring Stone to wrangle horses and take groups on mountain excursions and hunting trips. They would ride by day, then Stone would entertain the clients at night around the campfire with his guitar. “My pay was thirty-five bucks a day and all you can eat and drink. I took advantage of that drink part! That lasted for a few seasons, then I got laid off. So I went to this little old mountain bar where we used to hang out and started playing for tips plus a place to sleep. Later I put a band together and that was the start of it all”.
His previous business experience had taught Stone the value of having a plan. He started booking his own gigs, playing wherever he could just for the experience. Fate lent a helping hand when a city-owned pick-up truck pulled out in front of Stone, who was riding his motorcycle on the way to a gig. Slamming into the side of the truck, the singer was amazingly not injured.
“I hurt my knee a little bit. I acted all macho, telling the guy that I had been bucked off horses harder than that while standing there thinking, damn, that hurts! We actually became great friends. He even met his wife at one of my shows. And he paid for my first record, probably out of gratitude that I didn’t press charges or sue him. That was one of those times where you say it was nice running into to you”.
That record, Keep on Riding, was done with his band Highway Robbery. It featured plenty of the southern rock sounds that were popular during that era. But the band didn’t stay together long as the other members were content to be a cover band while Stone wanted to focus on original material. He kept the name for his backing band and began putting his name out front. They recorded two more records of country-tinged southern rock.
“I wasn’t thinking about doing blues in those days. I was so into the country stuff and didn’t have any in-roads to the blues, even though I used to pound out some boogie-woogie as a kid on my Mom’s piano once she had taught me three or four chords. The Marshall Tucker Band was it for me back then. You had rock, jazz, country, bluegrass, blues, and even gospel. And Gatemouth Brown would come through every so often – same thing. He wore a cowboy hat, a real country guy. I am a big Merle Haggard fan. If I could sing Haggard songs every night and get paid, I probably would. I had that blues thing in my head but I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously because I have such a country voice”.
Stone found a home in country music, releasing a series of albums that kept him busy. “That was back when country was good. It is embarrassing now – I don’t even like telling people I’m from Nashville. My heroes were Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Haggard. That’s the real stuff. Yeah, they’ve been to jail and they drank too much and I followed suit. If you are going to be an outlaw, be an outlaw! Don’t get all tattooed up and tell us how bad you are”.
“I have some jail songs that came from first-hand experience. “Texas Drunk Tank Blues” is one I starred in. I was pretty much a dumbass that night. Traditional country is simply redneck blues. Today’s stuff has no feeling, no goose bumps. I strive for heart songs and head songs. Sometimes they are combined. Heart songs bring out the emotions. Head songs should make you laugh or dance. If I’m not hitting you with all ten or twelve songs on an album, then to me it is a waste of your time and mine. You can’t cry or laugh all of the time. I try to get to the humanity in the tune”.
It certainly wasn’t your typical mainline career. He was making great money everywhere else in the world. His travels included major country and Americana fests across Europe mix in with several months in Japan. At one point, while living in California, he teamed up with Gwen Gordy, of the famous Motown family. Gordy and Anna Gaye, Marvin’s widow, thought enough about Stone’s songs to back him on a project.
“They paid for me to record twenty-seven of my tunes. Right before we were going to launch everything, Gwen has a stroke. Berry pulled the plugged, as he should have. Berry sold half of the Jobete Publishing Company to EMI, putting me under a much bigger umbrella. So I went to Nashville where I was recording and producing demos for the company. That was a good. I did acoustic stuff and some Americana but what I kept hearing was blues, blues, blues. I wrote my first blues song sitting in that cabin out in Colorado. It is on my 2011 blues release, Lonesome Traveler’s Blues. I always had some form of blues in my show. I just wasn’t sure how to go about it. If you put the effort out, somebody will sit down, educate you, and give you the answer. So that is what I did.”
Stone’s last two recordings have continued mixing blues influences with some rock flavoring and a dash of honky tonk. His vocals ventured into a higher register, which Stone likens to the sound of a tube amplifier breaking up. His last one, Loosen Up!, was nominated for a 2014 Blues Blast Music Award in the Rock Blues Album category. It was produced by Tom Hambridge, who has been producing Buddy Guy’s projects. Cut in one nine hour session, the disc has that live feel that Stone was looking, not wanting anyone to polish the cool off the session. He was content to concentrate on his vocals and his cigar box guitar.
Taking a job as a pilot driver paving the way for vehicles hauling over-sized loads, Stone has been able to travel across the country, visiting different parts of the country and getting a chance to play for new audiences, allowing him to build a wider fan base. His ability to play as a solo act means he can ask to play in bars and clubs for tips, which gets him in the door while providing some extra cash. Once people hear his soulful voice wrapped around his strong original songs, they quickly become fans. Other times he will partner up with friends in the area or a local band. Whatever opportunity pops up, Stone is ready to make the most of it.
Stone likes to keep shaking things up, which is easier to do when your shows are full of original material with titles that range from “God Only Heals You When You Cry” to “Daddy, Hide Your Daughters”. “I don’t cover a lot of songs because I’m too lazy to learn. It is easier to write. The same applies to my harmonica playing. People tell me that I sound different. It is only because I’m too lazy to learn what the other guys are doing. Some people like hearing the same lick over and over. To me, that is predictable. I like to come out of the box. I’ve got a song, “Henry the Hypocrite,” that is as hard-core twang as twang comes. It is a true story about a good Christian boy who walks into the bar carrying his Bible who starts eye-balling my girlfriend while I was on the road. Might have to start a new band – think I’ll call it the Haggard Tones!”
“If you have any sensory perception, you can tell when somebody is on stage pouring it out. Hound Dog Taylor – how cool was that! One guy and his guitar – you get a buzz off that. And I love Muddy, Johnny Winter, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy. Anything that is real. I mostly learned to sing from Haggard and Doug Gray from the Marshall Tucker Band. He had that lonesome bluegrass sound along with a soulful, gospel, southern blues going on. And John Fogerty is another guy that I love. They all have that sound, the groove, the feel”.
Stone is finishing the final details on his latest, as of yet unnamed, recording that will be out later in the year. He is quite proud of it, feeling that it offers the best glimpse of his musical vision and all of the music that has touched him over the course of his life.
“In the end, you just have to keep moving. The best word I could tell anybody in life and in the music business is ‘next”. So that didn’t feel good, that wasn’t right, so next. You learn from it and move on. You’ve got two choices – you are a victim or a student. You can learn or say woo is me. I’ve starred in both of those movies. The blues is all about heart. People can feel the real thing. I respond to artists who have some miles on them. When I got into to country, you had to be at least thirty-three with some miles on you and have respect before the record companies would even look at you. Then Randy Travis hit at twenty-eight and it was all over. I hope that blues manages to keep appealing to all age groups. There is something about watching Buddy Guy walk out there at seventy –six and saying “Damn right I’ve got the blues”. Enough said!”.
For more information on the RB Stone, visit www.rbstone.com
To see the video of RB’s performance at the 2014 Blues Blast Music Awards CLICK HERE.
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.