Deb Ryder clicks off the accolades for her second album Let It Rain as if she can’t quite believe it herself.
“I was on the Grammy ballot for this record. I was in the 2015 Blues Blast Music Awards too. I didn’t get a BMA (Blues Music Awards) nod, but I got Best UK 2015 Pick for the Best Record. I was on the Roots Music Report Best of 2015. So, for just starting out doing this, I had a great year and 2016 is already – I’m getting called right and left and playing all over the place doing a bunch of festivals.”
In country or rock music, Deb Ryder wouldn’t get out of the gate at her age. It’s not as if she were a neophyte 40 years into the game, but to release her first two indie records Might Just Get Lucky in 2013 and Let It Rain in 2015 as a solo act that long into a career doing session work, background singing, and sit-ins would be suicide in the “real world” of the pop music business. Not in blues, however.
Talking to her for an hour reveals some fascinating history behind the 11 originals on her second album produced mainly live in the studio with some heavy hitters backing her up.
Producer Tony Braunagel is another 40-plus-year veteran drummer. Keyboardist Mike Finnigan is a member of Taj Mahal’s backup band The Phantom Blues Band, and toured with Jimi Hendrix, Bonnie Raitt and Etta James. In fact it was Etta who told a young Deb Ryder her songs had too many words years ago when she would regularly perform at Deb’s stepfather’s club.
“I was blessed in that my stepdad owned a very famous rock and roll club. Everybody played up here, and we lived behind the club called the Topanga Corral, and we had a couple of cabins way out back on the property, like a 10-acre piece, and occasionally Etta would come up and hide out and stay with us. She kind of mentioned a few things to me. ‘First off, blues is not a genre that accepts 6000 – too many – words. You kinda gotta slim it down and get what you want to say.’
“So she was rough. She was a rough woman, but I did learn a lot from her. She was very kind to teach me a lot of tips for stage, for singing. When she graced the stage actually, she had you rapt, and I was like a little sponge at the edge of the stage just trying to check out everything that she did. That was a long time ago, but I carry to this day that indelible stamp of her making me stick to the classics. I think if you’re familiar with my music at all, it’s pretty classic, and I really have to give a lot of credit to her because to this day I can hear her saying, ‘That sucks! What are you trying to say there? You have about 6000 too many words in that song.’
“And she’d say, ‘Do not rewrite the wheel. There’s a lot of greats ahead of you that have set it up for you. Just figure it out.’ To this day I can still hear her because I’d bring her a song, and she’d say, ‘What the hell is this?’ She was very tough. I feel so blessed, though, that she would pay any attention. And she would teach me how to sing. She even let me open for her twice which was really great. It was really scary. When you’re young, you just let it slide.”
Deb Ryder has spent a lifetime rubbing shoulders with heroes and hard drivers like Etta James. “You know, I mean it’s all good. I remember being driven down to (Arista and Columbia Records executive) Clive Davis’s office in the back of (Eagles founder) Bernie Leadon’s two-seat Sprint, a little Morgan, whatever it was, a little bug-eye Sprint. I don’t know what they called those. Linda Ronstadt in the front seat on the right, and I was crammed in that little spot with my guitar behind the two seats, and off we went. You know, those were those days. Yeah, so that’s true. Etta did influence my writing quite a bit, and to this day I pretty much stuck to it.”
As a kid Deb was the flower girl at Neil Young’s wedding. “Neil Young and Crazy Horse played the Topanda Corral every Thursday night. Taj Mahal had some Thursdays and Fridays. Big Joe Tuner was there every Sunday. I mean it was just an amazing environment when I was a kid, but my stepdad was also an architect, and he designed and built Neil’s house in Fernwood Pacific in Topanga.
“He went into business with my stepfather on a restaurant called the Gold Rush named after his record that they ran up here for a while, and his bride that he married, Susan Octavado, and my mother ran a coffeehouse together. So we were all connected with that whole thing.
“I used to muck out the stalls when I was a kid. The school bus would let me off, and I’d muck out the stalls at the Springfield Ranch for the Buffalo Springfield. So, my earliest days were if I got these horse stalls clean and everybody curried and groomed, I’d get in there with my guitar. They’d let me jam with them on the porch, and it would be everybody in town, but we’re talking ’70, ’69? I mean a long time ago. So, you know, I’d known them for a quite a long time.
“They invited me to be the flower girl, and the wedding took place at the house my step daddy built, a beautiful home that Neil had in Topanga with a studio down below, and I recorded there a couple of times. So, we went way, way back. I still talk to him every once in a while.”
Deb and her husband bass player Ric Ryder played in a band called The Bluesryders for 20 years. So when it came time to record her solo act, they called in some favors and reconnected with some heavy hitters including producer/drummer Tony Braunagel.
“The Tony Braunagel story is a really special one. My first record which did pretty well for just an out-of-a-cereal-box kind of record I produced called Might Just Get Lucky. It hit the Living Blues charts. It was number one in France. I mean I did pretty well in Europe, and we did that on a shoe string calling in a lot of favors ’cause I’ve sung for a lot of people in my life and traded a lot of stuff, and I called in a bunch of favors which, by the way, I don’t recommend when you want to record an album because everybody has different presets and stuff. It’s a nightmare, but we recorded a little here and a little there and had all these great players.
“This was when I was first recording with (guitarist) Kirk (Fletcher), and this is before I met Tony (Braunagel) and the bunch. We’d just see each other here and there at different concerts that maybe I’d opened for or whatever, but the first record did ok, and it turns out I got everything ready to do a second album.
“I was ready to go, and I’d fallen in love with the Phantom Blues Band, didn’t really know who they were. I knew the individual musicians and who they were, but I fell in love with them (as a band). I just think everything they did, the energy they had is very live. Everything about what they were recording I really loved and brought home, and I put on the box, and I said to my husband, ‘We’ve written 10 new songs, but the energy of this record, I just want you to listen.’
“So we’re listening to the record, and he flips it over and he says, ‘Oh! Tony Braunagel, I know him.’ And I said, ‘Well, he’s a famous producer.’ And my husband who is bassist had played a couple gigs with him somehow somewhere. So, he gets him on the phone, and of course Tony says, ‘No, no, no. I’m very busy. I don’t know.’
“Tony that weekend went to stay with one of his best friends from high school, a fellow by the name of Steve Hunter in Houston and Tony said, ‘Steve, what have you been doing?’ They’re sitting on the back porch having some beers. ‘Well, I’ve been working with this girl, Deb Dyer.’ And Tony say, ‘Deb Dyer, where do I –’ because Rick had just phoned him a few days earlier. He says, ‘Yeah, you gotta hear her first record. She did this one on her own. Put it on.’
“He fell in love with the writing, loved my voice, loved everything and called me from my friend’s house. So Tony calls me from Hunter’s in Houston, and I quickly sit down with the phone and I’m like, ‘Yes, Mr Braunagel.’
“He says, ‘I’m producing your next record, but here’s how it goes. You can bring in one or two people, but for the most part I use my own people, and that’s Mike Finnigan, Kim Wilson, Johnny Lee Schell, you know.’ I said, Ok!
With one phone call, Deb had grabbed the brass ring. Braunagel is a veteran who drummed for Eric Burdon, Rickie Lee Jones and Better Midler in the ’70s. In the ’80s he played on Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time and Luck of The Draw. In the ’90s he produced Taj Mahal’s Shoutin’ in Key and played on Taj’s Senor Blues. Both albums were Grammy winners.
Keyboardist Mike Finnigan has toured and done session work with Joe Cocker, Maria Muldaur, Rod Stewart and Los Lonely Boys. He was a Blues Music Award nominee in 2013 and 2014 for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year Award. Kim Wilson of Fabulous Thunderbirds is a seasoned harmonica player and Johnny Lee Schell began his career in the ’70s with the Texas southern rock band The Babys and appears on Bonie Raitt’s Green Light and Nick of Time.
“You talk about getting scared,” says Deb. “Then, you hang up the phone and you sit down. So, I was thinking, I am not worthy. (Braunagel) loved my stuff. So, the next session of course was, ‘Send me what you’ve got. Send me this, send me that.’ And the first couple of sessions we’re sitting there with Finnigan and Tony, and we always have the bass line down way before we go anywhere, so the arrangement can at least be translated with some sort of feel. I mean that’s how we do it. So we were incredibly organized. We got in there. We did that record in five days. The second record we did live. We’re all sitting around.”
None of these guys phoned it in. Deb had a particularly good time with guest virtuoso British rock guitarist Albert Lee who has recorded every from Clapton to Earl Scruggs. He plays on “Blue Collar Blues” on Might Just Get Lucky and “Ma Misere” on Let It Rain.”
“I had lunch with Albert Lee. I ordered Mexican. He was so tickled. He’s such a joy. He’s such a joy. He gets there, and they had stuff for him laid out like a pad and this other stuff. He’s got this old amp out in the back of his Volvo in the trunk. That’s what he uses. You know, he doesn’t mess around with all the – it’s all him. It’s not gizmos or gadgets, and he’s so adorable, and his wife goes everywhere with him. He says, (British accent), ‘Oh, the pad. Darling, where is my pad?’ And she says, ‘It’s in the closet.’
“I think for an indie artist I’ve done amazingly well for only two records out and starting this whole process in 2013. It’s kind of an endearing story. We could not have children. I don’t care what process of mainstream medicine we tried I unfortunately lost several, and we couldn’t get pregnant, and there were just all these issues. Later on, of course, they figured it all out, and I love my son, but I had him so late and so much energy was consumed while I was working fulltime trying to have children, singing a lot but not doing any of my own stuff. I was singing for everybody else, singing on their records.
“I did just have my meeting with Tony for my album three. We’re gonna go a little bit deeper blues this time for sure…..I’m heading this time I think for a more traditional sound. I have some great collaboration going on, speaking of Kirk Fletcher and Alex Schultz. They’ve formed a band with me in Europe. I leave in mid-January.
“I did a lot of work for Vegas at that time. I did a lot of commercial television work. So, I was busy, but I was much more consumed – I mean we built a house. We built our American dream stuff up front and then got it done and said, ‘Well, now what do we do?’ And we said, ‘Rickie’s in school. Let’s make a record.’
“And that’s how we started. It’s very ballsy to start at this age, but you gotta understand, l don’t care. In a weird sort of way, it’s kind of our retirement.
“It’s all about that attitude. What the heck? Just go for it!”
Visit Deb’s website at www.debryder.com
Photos by Moses Sparks © 2016
Writer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.