Featured Interview – Ronnie Shellist


Cover photo © 2022 SPAH

imageEarlier this year, a new album started making the rounds, simply titled The Dig 3. Knowledgeable blues fans undoubtedly recognized the names of lead singer Andrew Duncanson and multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt. Their contributions to the new album dig into the heart of the blues tradition, as you would expect from two veterans who have always played the music with the utmost love and respect.

What helps make the record extra special is the fine harmonica blowing from Ronnie Shellist, a name that quite possibly is unfamiliar to many blues listeners. And even fewer listeners have heard Shellist play live. But once you hear his stellar contributions on song after song, he is sure to become one of your favorite harp players.

To reach this point in his life, Shellist has followed a road less traveled. While he may not be a household name, his influence on the world of harmonica extends around the world.

In 2020, Shellist made a move to Champaign, Illinois just as the pandemic was breaking out. For a number of years, he had been touring and recording with the Kilborn Alley Blues Band. Now he lived a few minutes away from his good friend, lead singer Andrew Duncanson.

“We played constantly through the pandemic, doing live streams and grabbing gigs where we could. I spent a lot of my time teaching. My website business exploded because I was ahead of the pack with on-line offerings. A lot of harp players were calling me, asking for help in getting set-up. I was happy to help out. And I started the Global Blues Harmonica summits that featured famous players like Kim Wilson, Howard Levy, Charlie Musselwhite, and Dennis Gruenling. It was a way to give back, as I could pay them really well, do what I love, and use my audience to help my friends. We also released a home recording Andrew and I did with Gerry Hundt and Ed Kobek, called Hangover Blues, Vol. 1., that is really good.”

Shellist and Hundt became good friends in Colorado, before Hundt moved to Illinois to be a member of the Flip Tops, the band backing noted guitarist Nick Moss. Along with Duncanson, they often found opportunities to make music together.

‘Gerry is constantly gigging, multiple gigs a day, six or seven days a week, many as a one man band. He is a crazy man, and one of my best friends on the planet. One day after the start of the pandemic, I invited Gerry to come out to my house, promising to keep things safe, and I also got Andrew to come by. We sat in my back yard, doing a live stream that can now be viewed on my YouTube channel. We had so much fun that we did it a few more times informally. Then, once things started to open up, we began to book gigs. That was the start of the Dig 3.

“I think it was Andrew’s suggestion to get Gerry and go into the recording studio. Andrew wrote all of the songs with a project like this in mind. He is a monster songwriter. He has recorded hundreds of songs, has has hundreds more waiting to be recorded. I may be biased, but I believe Andrew’s singing and songwriting rank with the best on the planet. We knocked it out live, no overdubs, one or two takes.

We are now looking at booking some dates for live shows. Right now the only date on the books is for the Winter Blues Fest in Iowa in February next year.

“Also, Rodrigo Mantovani, from the Nick Moss Band, played on three tracks on the album. Now that I have moved back to Colorado, Rodrigo can play with Andrew and Gerry as his schedule permits, to keep the Big 3 name floating around. Gerry had booked some studio time to record two more tracks, but I was not available to fly in for the session. He asked if I minded if he got Rodrigo to fill in. I thought it was a very cool idea, as Rodrigo is a monster player, and those tracks have a different vibe than the rest of the album. There might be some shows with Rodrigo joining us down the road. We have never played together.”

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Shellist moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas, where he majored in Spanish with a minor in Business.

“I barely got my degree in Spanish. My thought was to go into international business somehow, but I quickly realized that I didn’t want to do the business side, so I started teaching Spanish. I even tried to start my own business, doing interpretations. Having spent a lot of time in South America, Central America, and Spain, I was at a high level of fluency with the language. Learning the language gave me plenty of ear training, which certainly has helped make me a better musician.

“Being in Texas, I decided that Spanish made sense, plus I excelled at it in high school. I had a knack for it, both hearing and speaking it quickly. Because I was a poor all around student otherwise, it made sense to major in Spanish at college. It was easier for me, and there was a need for Spanish speakers.

“It was a big part of my life just before the music began. In my senior year of college, I picked up a harmonica, flirting with it. Then I couldn’t put it down. The weird thing about music is that once you playing an instrument, it just keeps calling you. If you put yourself out there, the opportunities come. If you are passionate about it, you keep taking those opportunities. That is what pulled me into doing music full time.”

The genesis of his passion for the harmonica was a visit to his parents while in college. His father had bought a harmonica, which came with an instruction book.

“I saw it laying around. I asked my father if he was playing. He said, no, he couldn’t figure it out. I had tried to take guitar lessons as a kid. My Dad wasn’t much of a musician but he did play a bit of piano for fun. He exposed me to music. Once I picked up his harmonica, I was able to learn “Oh! Susanna”, After that I was hooked as it was very rewarding to play a song, which I never did very well on the guitar. I kept messing around with it until I fell in love with blues music. Being in Austin in 1993, I started getting exposed to guys like Walter T. Higgs and Guy Forsyth, who were phenomenal harp players, plus teachers like Michael Rubin and J.P. Allen.image

“It was a vibrant music scene. I will never forget one night Guy was playing at a club called Maggie May’s. No one was listening to him blowing amplified harp through a Fender Super Reverb amp. I had one of those moments that people talk about, where everything stops and blacks out, I was so entranced. That was my first experience hearing blues harmonica live, and that was the moment I was hooked!”

Austin at that time had a wealth of clubs featuring live blues music, including the renown Antone’s venue. Many blues artists and bands made a point of stopping in Austin to take advantage of the opportunities to play. For Shellist, that meant a steady stream of stars that got him invested in the music first, developing a love for what he was hearing.

“Another influential moment happened before I moved to Colorado in 1997. I took a trip to visit my brother in Key West, Florida. He suggested we go to a local blues club as he knew I was playing harmonica. We didn’t know who was there, just went to check it out. It turned that one of better Delta blues artists, Big Jack Johnson, was on the bill. When we walked in, there was a guy at the door dressed in a suit, who I assumed was the door man. When I asked him who was playing, he replied, “I am.” So I asked if he had a harmonica player. He said no, but asked me if I play. I hesitantly replied, yes. Jack said he would call me up later.

“So my first experience sitting in with a band, not a blues jam, was with Big Jack Johnson. He was such a sweetheart of a guy, and after I got done playing with him that evening, it set me on fire. I was ready to make the full commitment. I couldn’t sleep that night. I was addicted. So I then went out and started playing with many bands. One of the biggest was the Hugh Fadal Band. They did hill country blues meets pop, kind of everything. I recorded my first couple of CDs with Hugh Fadal and the singer/songwriter Chris Gonzalez. After the move, it became obvious that I was failing at the part of my business that included Spanish, so I went for it. I did the jams, kept meeting people, playing and recording with at least a dozen acts during my two decades in Colorado.”

The move was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Shellist simply loaded up his car and took off without telling anyone. He had fond memories of the state from travels with his family at a younger age. The mountains certainly worked their magic on him.

Of all of the bands he was involved with, the biggest project was the Shuffletones, with Jeremy Vasquez as the singer and guitarist. Shellist would help out on the vocals. They made a name for themselves in the Denver area, holding down a regular Saturday night gig, with a packed house the norm. They cut their lone recording, Chicago Sessions, in 2006, with the help of Nick Moss. Shellist’s last recording, ‘Til Then, was released in 2012. (Recordings available at ronnieshellist.com/music)

“Early on in Colorado, before I fell into the blues scene, I was craving to play with a band full-time. One day, I saw a Post It at a music store that said, “looking for instrumentalists – keyboard player, saxophone, or otherwise.” I thought, shit, I play the harmonica. Well, I ended up getting the gig, spending a year and a half with a band that played psychedelic funk rock. It was a very eclectic, heavy group called Available Jones. I was using effects peddles. We toured and recorded an album in late 1999.

“That experience exposed me to a lot of funk and fusion jazz bands in addition to the blues, especially artists like James Brown and Funkadelic. But I was also into the major blues artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters. Then there were the kings of harmonica like Sonny Boy Williamson, Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, and James Cotton. I can’t point to just one player because I loved them all. That said, my list of top harp influences would have guys like William Clarke, Kim Wilson, Sonny Boy II, Snooky Pyror, and Gary Primich, who I got to hear a bunch because he was in Austin.

“William Clarke had a thing going on that was so special. He was so powerful in the key areas – passion, musical creativity, phrasing, and a monster technician. I don’t know of any other player who walked this planet who did so much for the harmonica, other than Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson). I didn’t discover him until I was transitioning to Colorado. I stopped to call a friend on the way. I told him I was listening to William in the car and being overwhelmed by how much I am falling in love with his music. There was a pause, and then my friend asked me if I knew that Clarke had just passed away. I remember getting in my car and crying for a hour straight. His music impacted me so much that I felt like I had lost a best friend, and I was sad that I would never get to see him. So many people have been influenced by his legacy.

“Then, with Sonny Boy II (Rice Miller), it was his wah-wah sound. That helped me develop really solid hand techniques that I use a lot. I couldn’t get enough of that vocalization that you get from the harp that really helps your acoustic sound, allowing you to mock some vocal qualities.

“I guess that is a big part of what allows a player to get to the point where they develop their own style, their own approach, and a sound that is recognizable by many people. They have taken so much from so many different genres, and resources from different instrumentalists, not just harp players. They have processed all of it, and then it comes out, the tonalities and attacks. I didn’t love just one or two players. I fell in love with just about every recording I came across, and I soaked it all up.”

imageOne aspect of his career that has surprised Shellist is the opportunity to get to know many of the artists that have inspired him. Being friends with people like Wilson has been special, allowing him to see those he admires as friends, not just as musicians on a pedestal, as you live vicariously through their records. Being able to connect with them as people, so you can understand their music, has been enlightening for him.

Expanding his musical horizons even further, the harp player formed a duo with a guitarist named Moses Walker. “My final regular, focused project in Colorado was Walker Shellist, recording two albums as a duo in Denver. Walker is older hippie guy who plays Americana and old-time music mixed with jazzy stuff. He is wonderful, with a big baritone voice. He was a huge influence for teaching me how to play jazz melodies on the harp. If you are going to play “All Of Me” or “Sweet Georgia Brown,” you are nuts if you don’t play the melody. So I had to figure out things I had never learned on the harmonica. Now I want to continue to explore that side of music outside of the blues.”

Another aspect of Shellist’s career is his role as a harmonica instructor. Thanks to his girlfriend’s sister, he managed to take advantage of technological innovations to spread the word.

“It began because my family didn’t know what I sounded like, so I wanted to send them a video. The sister told me about this new thing called YouTube. I replied, what the hell is that? She convinced me to put the video up – and it went viral. That was a huge part of why I began teaching. That video went over a million views, and now is over two and a half million. I called it “Funky Blues Harmonica”. A couple other videos went viral as well.

“Before I knew it, messages were flying into the video comment section asking me how to do this or play that. Around 2007, I develop and built what is now www.Harmonica123.com. Even though it was expensive, I created CDs and DVDs of some lessons. It was a gamble, but I quickly sold out of them. As the digital age slowly caught up, I built out downloadable harmonica lessons. Today, the website is a very robust site with interactive memberships, downloadable classes, and interactive live Zoom lessons. It is hard to believe how far we have come in a short time. From 2010 to 20114, I did live webinars with terrible connections, cranking out about 400 lessons during that time, that I then sold as recordings. Now I have deleted every one of them so I can start over with higher quality, new content. This is my bread and butter.

“People may wonder how much value there is trying to your harmonica skills from watching a video, when much of the action is inside the mouth. Still, there is a lot you can observe, like the way someone uses their hands or the way they use their body language to change the tone of the instrument. When Kim Wilson is playing a warble, he is looking straight up. There is a reason for that goes beyond showmanship. There are a lot of things that I train students to look for, so they aren’t just relying on their ears. A good harmonica teacher should understand the high level stuff they do, then break it down step by step. What is really comprises a beautiful vibrato, and being able to describe it, then watching and listening to the student to give them the feedback on what they need to improve. It is an art and a skill to teach well because I can’t show you what is going on in my mouth. But I can explain it quite well.”

“One thing that pushed me to become the musician I am was that coming up, I was constantly surrounded by people who were much better players than I was. As a musician, you should be pushing yourself to find people who will push you to be better. That is a key factor in maintaining the motivation you need to work hard to be successful. I am torn, being dedicated to the business I have grown with my teaching. At the same time, I am absolutely a musician who needs to get out there and play. That is how I get inspiration that I can bring into my teaching.”

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