Featured Interview – Ben Rice

imageOne of the exceptionally talented members of a new generation of blues artists, guitarist Ben Rice has been steadily impressing people with his soulful voice, considerable guitar chops, and adroit songwriting. After developing his craft for years, Rice came of age at the 2014 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, sponsored by the blues Foundation, when his trio made to the final round of the Band portion of the Challenge. The next year, he once again made to the finals, this time in the Solo/Duo category and received the St. Louis Blues Cigar Box Guitar award as the top player in that part of the competition. In 2016, his Live @ The Purple Fox Loft trio recording showcased his undeniable talent.

The pieces all came together for his 2018 follow-up effort, Wish The World Away. Critics loved the album, as did the nominators for various awards. Rice received two 2019 Blues Blast Music Award nominations, taking home the Sean Costello Rising Star Award at the Blues Blast Awards show in September. He also received three Blues Music Award nods, for Acoustic Blues Album, Acoustic Blues Artist, and Best Emerging Artist Album. Finally, he received six nominations for the Big Muddy Awards, sponsored by the Cascade Blues Association, receiving four awards for Contemporary and also Traditional Blues Act plus the statue for Electric Guitar and the “Curtis Salgado” Male Vocalist Award. It was indeed a very good year!

Like many musicians, Rice got his start through his parents love of the arts.

“My Mom liked old school R&B, groups like the Isley Brothers as well as Al Green, George Benson, and Lee Oskar, the harmonica player in War. Then my Dad listened to pretty much everything else – Bob Marley to Alice Cooper, the Beach Boys. He was a big fan of the Tubes. That gives an idea of the soundtrack that I grew up with. Dad had an old nylon string classical guitar that he didn’t play, he just knew a couple of spots where you can press down and strum to make it sound good. Knowing what I know now, they were almost, but not quite, real chords. Once in awhile, he would play the two or three things that he knew that sounded good. “

“My three brothers and I were so captivated by that sound. When my father put the guitar down, all four of us would be stumbling over each other to get to it. We would then try to create anything that sounded remotely as good as what he played. When I was seven, two of my brothers started a garage band when they were in middle school. I would watch them rehearse every day after school. I was captivated. It was super cool. But they would do what older brothers always do, chase me away! I idolized them and they would pick on me. That’s the way things go.”

“For my seventh birthday, Dad decided he would get me my own guitar and guitar lessons, as long as I kept after it. I wanted to play the rock stuff my brothers were doing, but my teacher, who was into progressive rock, told me that I seemed to be more interested in the blues, so he would tell me about B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I would hang out at thrift stores, where I found several Robert Cray cassette tapes. And my sister has a knack for giving me recordings that end up significantly changing my musical path. She got me a B.B. record, then later gave me a Solomon Burke album that is my Desert Island album of all time.”

Eventually Rice joined his brother’s band, then started his own group when he reached sixth grade. Following in the footsteps of his brothers, the band practiced every day after school at his house for four hours, where there was a drum set, a bass amp, and plenty of room. When Rice ran into other musicians at school, he would invite them to ride the bus over to his house to jam. Those after-school sessions continued through high school. At one point, Rice met someone from the Cascade Blues Association at a Blues In The Schools program that organization had sponsored. He gave the aspiring guitarist plenty of information about the local blues scene.

“My friend Jimmy Hale was hosting a monthly blues jam on the last Wednesday of every month. As soon as I found out about it, and learned that I could get in, I was there almost without fail for at least four years. I made my parents drive me. It took forty-five minutes to get to the place! I was such a pest. Thankfully, the musicians at the jam were very nice to me.”

In seventh grade, his band needed a singer. While he had yet to view himself as a vocalist, the band needed someone to fill that role. He was really shy in those days, and not real confident he could do it.

“I really didn’t think much about singing until I got to college. It was simply something that I did in between solos. The first show that I did singing was a picnic. This guy pulled me aside to tell me that he kind of heard me. He made it clear that if I was going to sing, even if I’m not very good, you need to sing loud so people can hear you. Just keep on doing it. People may say you are terrible, or the band needs a new singer. Don’t listen to them. Just keep on singing. At some point, people will start telling you that you sound good. I don’t know who that person was, but he gave me permission to be bad at something.”

“That is exactly what happened. It took until my second year of college for it to happen. People would say that we wish we could find someone who could sing as good as you play guitar. So, there was a weekly jam session at a club in downtown Eugene, and they needed a singer. Some of the truly great musicians that were part of it asked me if I wanted to do it. I told them I was more of a guitar player. Their response was that I could play guitar, but they needed a good singer. At that moment, I realized that dude from eight years ago had nailed it!”

“A couple years ago, I went to a master class that Curtis Salgado was doing on singing for local gigging musicians. I try not to show it too much, but I am a big Curtis fan. Any time I get a chance to hear him talk about anything related to music or the crazy life he has had, I’m there. So we are in the class with Curtis going wisdom, wisdom, wisdom for about two hours. He knows everybody in the room. Then he starts going around the room giving each person a brief idea of what they should work on, a thirty second personal synopsis.”

image“I had to leave before the end. Curtis chased me down the driveway. He said, Ben, you need to learn how to sing! At that point I was feeling pretty good about my singing. I had just put out a good record, and had won some awards. But Curtis Salgado is telling me I need to learn how to sing. If had been anyone one else, I would have blown it off. Earlier, he had given me the phone number of a vocal coach that he had recommended. Curtis asked if I had called the guy, which I had done. But the coach wasn’t getting back to me. I said maybe I would find someone else. Curtis gave me an emphatic “No,” telling me to hound the guy, Tom Blayok, knock down his door. It took two weeks of phone calls and e-mails, but he finally offered a slot at 9:30 am. That is real early for me to be doing anything!”

“Once I started lessons, I quickly realized that Curtis was right. It was a night and day difference as we worked on techniques, vocal tone, and developing pitch. He built up my understanding of how the voice really works. Since then, when I practice, I do scales on the guitar to warm up, then I work on technique and repertoire. Then it is the same thing for voice. I have exercises I do every day. Tom teaches all of the styles, including opera and Broadway. Lisa Mann, Paul DeLay, and Linda Hornbuckle have all studied with him.”

“Now I feel like I am on the path towards singing like my heroes, including Robert Cray, B.B. King, Sam Cooke, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and Sean Costello. Through Sean, I found people like Robert Ward, who is truly unique and funky. Who else plays guitar like that? Locally, here in Portland, there are plenty of talented artists who have been huge influences on me like Curtis, Lloyd Jones, and Paul DeLay, There is also Terry Robb, who is a master finger-style guitar player. It is a deep bench up here in Portland. And we just lost guitarist Johnny Burgin to New Orleans! He didn’t live here very long. His attention to the little stuff gives him this refined style that is like a fine scotch. He might pay a lick I have heard before, but not with that much nuance.”

Coming out of high school, the guitarist followed his then-girlfriend to college. He had considered studying history, but then he learned that there were programs at the University Of Oregon that would allow him to study guitar, the one thing that really interested him. He applied for the program, auditioned, and was accepted, in part due the private lessons he had taken over the years.

“They have two different programs, Studio and Jazz, but they study the same music. The Studio program had more classical music, classical theory and analysis. The Jazz program was oriented to jazz theory, jazz history, and jazz practice labs. Since there were a lot of tremendous musicians in the Jazz program, and we were studying the same music, I decided my sophomore year to switch to the Jazz program. Then I was playing my own instruments in my classes. And even though it was a Jazz program, my two Professors were huge blues fans. The first one, Don Latarski, turned me on to Little Charlie Baty and Mike Henderson & the Bluebloods. The other one, Mike Denny, made sure I knew about Lightnin’ Hopkins, helping me shift through all of his material to get to the need-to-know tracks. He hipped me to “Jake Head Boogie,” which knocked my socks off. I was lucky that they both indulged my love of blues music.”

Graduating college in 2011 after five years, Rice moved back home to Newberg, OR to play with his band and started teaching, including a mariachi program that stemmed from what he learned playing the music in a band while in college. Teaching was another avenue that really spoke to him.

“I love playing, performing, and traveling. I really like being able to move around. But I go back and forth. After being on tour, I’ll get home ready to quit teaching to focus on playing and traveling. Then I do my first lesson back and, whoa, no way am I giving this up! I enjoy being able to share this passion and my love for this music, the culture, getting to talk about the things that perked my ears up when I was starting out, like Jimi Hendrix. In my middle and high school years, I was laser-focused on music. School’s out, ok, it’s time to go jam and rock out. Teaching gives me the perspective that everyone does not need to dedicate their life to music or an instrument. In the last couple of years, there has been no room in my gigging and playing schedule to teach. It breaks my heart to not be there for people on a consistent basis. I’m not very good at saying no, but that decision to drop teaching was made for me.”

Rice started recording CDs at the age of fourteen. The first few highlight an young artist figuring out his craft, his place in the music. A few of the songs still get requests from long-time fans. His 2011 album, Pour Me Some Whiskey, was the first release that Rice felt counted as a real album.

inageFor his most recent recording, Rice paired up with singer/songwriter RB Stone for an album, Out Of The Box, that had the duo rocking out on an all-original program utilizing a variety of cigar box and washboard guitars. They had planned to include a number of other noted cigar box players like Matt Isbel from the Ghost Town Blues Band and J.P. Soars. The various schedules just didn’t work out, so the plan changed.

“RB ended up coming out here to Oregon so that we could record at the studio of the great blues drummer Jimi Bott, Roseleaf Recording. We tracked the whole thing in three days and then another day to mix it. I love working with Jimi. He is a no-nonsense guy but he is focused and always listening. He is a great engineer who makes things sound good because of how he records. RB and I co-wrote a number of songs, which is my first exposure to writing songs with another person. He helped finish some of my songs, and I’d like to think I helped with some of his tunes. He is a great writer, especially with lyrics, so he helped clean up some of my stuff.”

“He also inspired me. At one point, we had twelve songs lined up. Then RB sent me a recording on his phone of him singing, “Red hot mamaa, dadadada, red hot mama, dadada.” I was like, nice try RB, whatever. About fifteen minutes later, I was in the shower, singing that line because it was now stuck in my head. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t “Red Hot Mama,” it was Hot Rod Mama. I had the song written in my head before I finished the shower. It ended up being the lead track on the disc. The whole thing was a lot of fun. Cigar box guitars are funky instruments. They are never in tune, but you can’t get that kind of sound out of a normal guitar. Nothing sounds like them.”

Rice has several favorites when it comes to guitars and amplifiers, instruments that give voice to his musical vision. Two of the guitars are truly unique pieces with matching stories behind them.

“Playing live, I usually have my carved Telecaster with me. That is my #1 electric guitar. It was made by two guys out of Eugene, OR that wanted to start a guitar company, which they named Cirque. My guitar was a prototype. I was about to go on a six week tour, so I offered to take it along and showcase it for them, which they quickly agreed to let me do. They added that I could just hang on to it because they didn’t need it. So I had it for about four years! Then one of the partners passed away. I decided to give it back so that his family could have it. That started a long search for new guitar that played and sounded like it, but I couldn’t find anything. So I went back to the other partner to ask if I might be able to purchase the guitar. I was able to buy it back, which was fortunate because it is a priceless guitar to me.”

“Next I have a Republic all-metal resophonic guitar that I bought from Paris Slim – Franck Goldwasser. He is a real deal blues guy, so it has plenty of good ju-ju on it. He put a sticker on it to make it look like a National guitar. If I try to take it off, it would take all of the mojo out of it. I have had that one since 2010. There have been other resonators, but the Republic is my “ride or die” guitar. It is with me at every show. On my last trip to Florida, at the last show I played before the pandemic shut everything down, that guitar somehow got loaded into RB Stone’s van. We drove three days straight from Florida to Oregon. We were in Nebraska and stopped at a Costco in the middle of nowhere to buy toilet paper, because there was no toilet paper in Oregon, or Idaho or Wyoming for that matter. I suddenly realized I was missing a guitar. RB sent it FedEx about four weeks later. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until I had it tuned up and started playing it again. It was that sound that I was missing. It is an early version of the guitar, before RB SRepublic really figured out what they were doing. The neck is funky and it doesn’t play the best, but it is one where my voice is.”

“Finally, I have a four string washboard guitar that was made by my Dad and given to me as a 25th birthday present. It sounds amazing despite taking some bumps and bruises over the years. It has been bondo’d and rubber cemented back together every time. It is held together at certain points with duct tape. But nothing sounds like it! Even against the Teli and the resonator, it usually sounds the best of any of my guitars.”

imageSwitching to amplifiers, his favorite at this time is a 1965 Fender Deluxe amp without reverb, getting it in trade for another vintage amp. He also has a Super Reverb model, but feels the Deluxe gives him quality sound at a reasonable volume. Rice’s approach to music is not about ear-shredding volume. He frequently gets requests to turn the volume up, but his interest is to get a nice, warm sound.

“The amp I love to play through the most is not reliable enough to take on the road. It is a 1948 Fender Tweed Pro amplifier. It has two knobs, for volume and tone. That is all I need at my fingertips. What you pull out of your guitar is what is going to come through your amp. When I recorded with singer Karen Lovely for her Fish Out Of Water album, she also had Rick Holmstrom on guitar. He was playing through a modified Fender Tweed Vibroluxe model. He got this monster tone! I was wondering how they were going to fit all that sound, that magic, on a recording.”

Since he performs in several different musical configurations, Rice utilizes a rotating roster of musicians depending on the gig and availability.

“I used to have a weekly B-3 trio group that started in 2014 with a goal of playing soul-jazz. But all three of us were blues dudes, so that is what we did. Then I might use a bass player, or have somebody on sax, or combine organ and sax. So now there are two drummers, two keyboard players, and two bass player I will call on. They are all a bit different, which is exciting for me as a songwriter to hear their varying interpretations of my musical ideas and concepts. The keyboard players are Dave Fleschner, who used to play with Curtis and now is the Musical Director of United By Music, and Ben Partain. On drums, I try to use Dave Melyan (the rumors about them dating are not true) and Mark Banner. Holding down the bottom end on bass most of the time are Calen Uhlig or Melanie Owen.”

When he is not on the road, Rice is a committed volunteer for the non-profit United By Music. When schedules finally made it impossible for him to teach locally, the mentoring he does for the organization provides a similar opportunity to share his knowledge, passion, and interest. Founded in 2006 in the Netherlands, the United By Music program has professional musicians working with people who have musical talent as well as developmental challenges and delays, such as autism.

“I really appreciate being able to witness other people’s gifts in music. Every time I work with them, I am reminded that music is a divine gift from whatever higher power there may be. Watching the United By Music artists perform is certainly inspiring. That is a very special experience for me.”

Visit Ben’s website and buy his music at https://www.benricelive.com

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