Ronnie Earl Interview
Playing For A Higher Power – Relaying A Message Of Hope And Healing
By Brian D. Holland
“Hope” - An Introduction
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters recently released “Hope Radio” on Stony Plain Records. His fourth on the aforementioned label, about his twenty-first altogether, Ronnie has been releasing CDs under his own name and with his band, the Broadcasters, since departing from the New England based Roomful of Blues in the early 80s. He points out that the word “hope” refers to his vision that the music can be “something for the world, to put hope in their hearts, or spirit for a world that has too much suffering going on”. An optimistic aspiration for sure, a feeling of “hope” often generates from Ronnie’s guitar playing. His friends and close acquaintances know it as an attribute of his personality as well.
One can easily perceive feelings of love, harmony, and happiness in the music of Ronnie Earl, as well as sadness and loss. It’s a rollercoaster of terms in describing one’s playing, but just as life is an array of emotion, so is music at times. All of these words of sentiment grasp the one term, “hope”, in an effort to reach genuine contentment. What’s perceived when listening to music can be a different experience for everyone, of course, and although Ronnie’s technique runs the gamut of possibilities on the emotion spectrum, his playing always contains the aspect of “hope”. A virtuous quality in regards to “hope” is that it never enters a dark realm. It can be surrounded in darkness at times. It can often be a last resort in a world of darkness, something those in the shadows reach out for in desperation and need. But it lies within the luminosity. It brings smiles to faces and brightens expressions previously glum.
“Hope” is never dark.
That said, Ronnie’s playing is generally in the blues genre somewhere, and the blues does have a tendency to be sad. After all, that’s why they call it the blues. But any ardent listener of the genre knows that sad music isn’t sad in its entirety. Sorrow is vented through expression and articulation. It conveys a sense of realization to the listener that they’re not alone, an awareness that others share in the suffering. It’s congruent to group therapy. The early blues performers poured all of themselves into their songs, informing the listener of everything pertaining to their anguish. In return, they received a sense of closure. The great blues singers told amazing stories. Some still do. They poked fun at their own misery from time to time. These tales, both happy and sad, were of life from every angle: love and hate, rich man poor man, good and evil, success and failure. Though much can be said about blues lyrics and vocal aptitude, the instrumentation often matches the story, adding to the emotion and intensity. Whether we’re talking Robert Johnson’s raw yet hauntingly brilliant acoustic accompaniment, the enthusiastic boogie piano of Roosevelt Sykes, or Albert King’s soaring lead guitar fills, the instrumentation corresponds with the lyrical sentiment.
It all comes back to the guitar playing of Ronnie Earl. For example, you can perceive deep emotion in the Broadcaster’s cover of R.C. Robinson’s “No Use Crying” (originally performed by Ray Charles), on the 1990 release “Piece of Mind”. Though the amazing Darrell Nulisch gets into lyrical content of loneliness, informing others to “Take my advice, opportunity never knocks twice,” Earl perseveres with a subtle lead accompaniment throughout, one that completes the song incredibly. He complements the vocal with sweet, delicate notes of compliance, and even manages to supplement the conversation in his solo. The fragile sensation of heartache brought about by personal loss is shared by both voice and instrument (also in the keyboard work of both David Maxwell and Tony Z), as well as the notion that “hope” exists for anyone who cares to listen to the message being conveyed. His playing on Ron Levy’s “Wild Kingdom” [Black Top 1985], particularly on the song “So Many Roads”, parallels the vocal brilliantly.
Though most of Ronnie’s material is instrumental these days, his recordings made with distinguished vocalists have been nothing short of exceptional. In the midst of albums and touring bands that have been poised with the voices of Sugar Ray Norcia, Kim Wilson, Darrell Nulisch, Gregg Allman, Greg Piccolo, and others, an amazing aspect of Ronnie’s instrumental work is that the lack of a human voice doesn’t cause the music to sound deficient in any way. The melody and the notes that resonate from his Fender Stratocaster are just as sweet and beautiful, or even as harsh and coarse, as the actual human voice. Very few electric guitarists have accomplished this successfully in any genre. The genuine human emotion expressed in his solo work is quite astounding. Perfect examples of this are heard throughout his 1995 release “Blues Guitar Virtuoso - Live In Europe”. The strutting “Robert Nighthawk Stomp” is effervescent and enthusiastic. His guitar converses with the audience in slow blues mode in “Thank You Mr. T-Bone”. And garnering proof once again that tone is in the fingers, “Moanin’” never sounded better on a Stratocaster. Although the album is entirely instrumental, his playing is incredible throughout. Because of the diversity in the music, as well as the emotion that radiates from it, it’s of no concern that a vocalist is not present. “The Colour of Love”, from the album of the same name, is an amazing ten minute instrumental (Allman Brothers influenced no doubt) in which a vocalist isn’t needed. That’s what instrumental music is all about. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking blues, jazz, or any other genre, nor if it’s guitar, sax, or horn; it’s about a lead instrument possessing its own voice, one bursting with emotion, expression, and personality. Integrate these attributes with a style that’s both raw and natural, and you’ve got the guitar playing of Ronnie Earl. Known for his “slow burn”, he brings it up and brings it way down, in a rollercoaster of showmanship and emotion.
Ronnie Earl possesses all of this and more in his playing, but the most important thing is that his guitar “voice” possesses “hope”. He likes to stress the point that his music is retrieved from “a higher power”. That higher power bestows upon him the ability to relay a message of love and healing to others. Ronnie wants his music to touch people’s lives. And it’s not about money at all; it’s about healing. He’s more than aware of the need and the desire for healing power. Keep in mind that Ronnie had donated his time playing guitar for developmentally challenged kids for many years. And since diagnosed with diabetes, as well as with chronic depression, an affliction he once medicated and restrained with the use of alcohol and cocaine, he’s quite aware of the need for love and healing in music. It’s possibly one reason he’s so good at getting that message across. Though he’s sober now, and medicates himself with music, life, and love, Ronnie says that having the ability to heal others through music has been a healing power for him. Though he may never perform a major tour again, primarily because he can no longer tolerate the quandaries of a demanding schedule, releasing new CDs such as “Hope Radio” affords him the ability to inform fans and friends alike that Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters are alive and well.
The “Radio” part in “Hope Radio”? Well, we all know that as the device in which music containing love, hope, and healing is delivered. I like to think that that’s what a radio is for all of the time. But no matter how it’s perceived, “Hope Radio” is another instrumental gem from the man they call Mr. Earl, as well as from the other incredible musicians who make up the Broadcasters. What sets this one apart from his previous work is its blatant message of love, hope, and healing. It’s not that Ronnie hasn’t conveyed that message before, it’s just that this one is expressively for the hurting people of the world, those submerged in the darkness of substance abuse. It’s also for the lonely and the disabled, both mentally and physically, and for those affected by violence, hate, and war. That just about covers everyone possessing the aspect of “hope”. Oh, and let’s not forget the music lovers as well, those who need a good fix of electric blues guitar every now and then.
“Hope Radio” is full circle Ronnie Earl.
Below is my recent interview with guitarist Ronnie Earl. He greeted me like an old friend instantly, in a warm and gracious manner that’s as unique to him as his guitar playing style. He was very much in the mood for talking about life, hope, and healing, and how it’s all connected to his music, the guitar, and the blues in general.
(Brian D.Holland) I find it amazing, Ronnie, that you didn’t start playing guitar until your college days. You were inspired at a Muddy Waters concert while attending Boston University. Correct?
(Ronnie Earl) Yes, I started playing when I was about twenty years old. I didn’t start playing professionally until 1975. Between seeing Muddy Waters, and also B.B. King, before college I think. It was Albert King, B.B. King, and Muddy. I had gotten a degree in special education. I was kind of confused; I had this college degree and I didn’t know which way to go with it, whether to go the musical route or to go the college route, the profession of special education. But it kind of ended up being full circle, because I ended up playing for developmentally disabled kids for about fifteen years as a volunteer.
I’m giving you my story, Brian. I don’t think you’ve gotten an interview like this yet, or maybe you have. I know they’re all different. I’m sort of semiretired, for a lot of reasons, health reasons. I feel very blessed, Brian, but I also feel like I gave my life for a good twenty to twenty-five years of touring and playing for people. I haven’t toured now in many years, since about ’98 maybe. After years of constantly keeping a band together and touring, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I soon started experiencing health issues like depression as well, which is very stigmatized. You hardly hear about it.
(BDH) It’s pretty common, Ronnie, probably more common than people realize.
(RE) But not talked about enough.
(BDH) Right, stigmatized, as you had said. But you’ve been extremely vocal about your substance abuse problems, and also about your desire to help others with the same issues.
(BDH) You were very close to Stevie Ray Vaughan at one time. Defeating substance abuse was a shared concern of both he and you.
(RE) Stevie was a dear friend of mine. He was very supportive of my sobriety. He was a fine human being and very nice man. A very loving man, he had a lot of love in him. And of course, he was a great musician. But most people are unaware of his beautiful spirituality and beautiful personality.
(BDH) Carlos Santana is another friend who is a very spiritual person.
(RE) I played with Carlos, and toured with him as well. He is another very spiritual man. We share that in common. But I haven’t seen him in a long time now, to tell you the truth.
(BDH) In your opinion and experience, are substance abuse and depression related?
(RE) Absolutely. As a matter of fact, my physician, who is also a very good friend of mine, once told me that the gene of alcoholism and the gene of depression are right next to each other. What you have a lot of times are alcoholics and addicts who medicate their depression with substances. This is what happened to me. I medicated depression with cocaine, though I started with pot. I’ve now been sober for eighteen and a half years and in the twelve step program. I can tell you that that is my greatest success in life. I wouldn’t give up my sobriety for a room full of Grammys or for the world.
Like I had said, I feel very blessed. I got to play with everybody, and I got to record with lots of great people, you know, like Big Walter Horton and so on, people who really loved me. It wasn’t like just going to a session and doing the session. And I got to put a lot of younger musicians on my records, to pass it on, people like Robert Jr., as Walter [Horton] passed it on to me. I think that’s important. Nowadays you have a lot of people who put stars on their records to boost sales. I think it’s important to expose the younger musician, to give him some positive feelings about himself and some self esteem. He can say, “Hey, I’m on Ronnie’s record, or so and so’s record.” That gets the ball rolling for these people a little bit, because it’s not an easy road. And that’s very gratifying for me.
You see, Brian, for me it’s not about chops or dazzling an audience with your guitar prowess. It’s about the love and the healing you can bring people through your music. It’s not about making money. I always stayed true to myself and the blues. It is about that. It isn’t about selling tickets at a higher price, making money and selling albums. It really is about touching people’s lives. And that heals my depression. The depression made it difficult for me to work for a while, the diabetes as well. I’m blessed with my beautiful wife, Donna. I play when I can and make records when I can.
(BDH) Since you’re mentioning records, I’ve got to say that I just finished listening to “Hope Radio” for about the second time today. It’s a great album. That great Ronnie Earl live and reverberated sound is quite intense. I love it.
(RE) Oh, bless your heart. Thanks a lot. I kept this band together. We’re taking a break since making the album, and we also made a DVD. You know, I think it’s okay to give yourself permission to rest a while. This album took a year to come out after being made. Even though it was live, a lot of planning went into it. But the whole thing is to get a beautiful feeling, and you don’t have to play a lot of notes. Sometimes it’s how long you take to come into a song, and I guess it’s part of my style, too, that people talk about, bringing it up and bringing it way down. I think that really came through on the record. I think the most important thing for an aspiring musician or whatever isn’t an equipment issue, it’s just having your own style, and [other people] being able to say, “Oh. I know who that is.” You know, immediately. You don’t have to play everyone’s style. It’s okay to just have your style. John Lee Hooker didn’t play like B.B. King. He played like John Lee Hooker.
(BDH) And he often played around one chord.
(RE) And he’s in the Mount Rushmore of blues. Also I feel like, well, there’s a lot of emphasis today on war, sales, and so on. To me, it’s playing for my higher power.
(BDH) It’s primarily a pop oriented society today it seems.
(RE) Well, it’s disgusting. But for me, it’s playing for my higher power, and playing through my higher power, who I choose to call God. I’m not thinking about, you know, the next stage in my career. I don’t even consider this a career. I consider it a luxury to do what you want to do and make a living at it. I had Pat Metheny’s manager for three years, and I was on a major label. I had the whole thing, you know, playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival with B.B. King, and every major festival, under my own name. But you know, Brian, I couldn’t keep up. The pace was too fast for me. One day, my wife said to me, “I want to go home and garden.” We came home and we settled, and now I’m just a little country bumpkin. I go out and play when I can, when it works, and make the people happy.
(BDH) Isn’t that basically what life is all about, Ron? Doing what you want, what makes you happy? Your own personal wellbeing and happiness is the most important thing of all.
(RE) Well, keeping it simple and having priorities. Being a good and kind person, and not thinking about my ‘next move’ or my ‘career’. There’s that word again. Just realizing, as my wife has taught me, that there are two worlds, the material world and the spiritual. The material world is the Grammys and this and that, and the spiritual world is playing heart to heart with people. That’s what I try to do. You made me very happy today because I really haven’t spoken with anyone who’s heard the record yet, except the guys in the band. I was praying it would go out to people and bring some healing, and not just be some guy’s guitar record. We have so much of that.
(BDH) Yes. I like it a lot. It hasn’t gotten to the point yet where it becomes embedded into my mind, where I like albums to get before I start talking about them. But I know already that there’s great blues on there, and it’s extremely optimistic sounding, even the slow blues. There’s a lot of great slow blues on it, leading into some jazz, as you often do, and back into the blues again.
(RE) And some gospel.
(BDH) Yes, there’s some gospel is in there, too.
(RE) See, I’m coming at it from a different place. I don’t feel like I fit in very much in the blues world anymore, but I love playing the music. And it feels like my music.
(BDH) Well, it’s the Ronnie Earl style of blues. You definitely fit in, that’s for sure. But it’s definitely a Ronnie Earl style of music, and some of it is totally the blues. Some of it goes off on different tangents, which is what I enjoy most of all.
(RE) Well, thank you.
(BDH) You’re entirely welcome. One of the first things I heard from you, going back a while now, was the “Piece of Mind” album.
(RE) Oh, yeah.
(BDH) There’s a song on it that’s one of my favorites to this day, “No Use Crying”.
(RE) Oh, yeah. That was a Ray Charles tune.
(BDH) I love that one. I like a lot of your albums from that era, “Soul Searching”, “Deep Blues”, and “They Call Me Mr. Earl”.
(RE) Wow. You’re going way back. That music will never die, no matter what happens. When I started playing, in ’74, it was all pop music. Forget about blues. But you can’t compare blues to pop music because it’s a different world.
(BDH) Genre music, such as the blues, gets recognition and becomes popular in spurts.
(RE) But the people are out there. They love the music.
(BDH) Yes, they do. Let’s talk about the new CD, “Hope Radio”, which I know was done in the live setting.
(RE) It was recorded live in a studio in Acton, Massachusetts. We invited some special people, family members, Church people, 12-step people, and all kinds of people. The record and the DVD will be close to the same. My vision was that it would be something for the world, to put hope in their hearts, or spirit for a world that has too much suffering going on, to help find peace.
The thing about “Hope Radio” is that it was my way of telling people around the world, mainly because I don’t tour anymore, and I don’t know if I ever will tour again, that Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters are alive and well. I’m still playing, and I can still do my thing. I try not to compare myself to the way I played before. I think I have my style, and that’s my style. I’m not going to change and make a rock and roll album, because that’s just not in me to play that. But I wanted to let people know that I was still here, and here’s what I sound like live.
(BDH) The song “Bobby’s Bop” is very jazzy. I like how you get into that Wes Montgomery Naptown octave playing on the Stratocaster. I think it’s proof again that tone is in the fingers.
(RE) In the fingers and in the heart.
(BDH) You’re a huge fan of Wes’ playing, of course.
(RE) I love Wes. I love Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Charlie Parker. But within the blues, my influences have been Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Sammy Lawhorn, Otis Spann, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Big Walter, and Lightning Hopkins.
(BDH) Is the desire to play instrumental music stronger for you than doing vocal music?
(RE) To be honest, I’ve been doing this for like seventeen years now, and I don’t even think about it anymore. This is what I do. I might have, you know, Kim (Wilson) or someone sing on an album every once in a while, but this is what I do live. And to be honest again, I don’t even think of it as instrumental music, I just think of it as music. I’m a guitar player so I play guitar. I relate to it on a pretty simple level, and I express myself on the guitar the best. I’m not trying to need or not need a vocalist. This is just what my thing is.
(BDH) Let’s talk a bit about your guitars and such.
(RE) I’m not an equipment person in the least. I’ve always used my old Fender Stratocaster, and I have a couple of new ones. I used to play my siesta red Strat most of the time, but now I change around. I use old Super Reverbs. I have four, but I only use one live. And that’s it. Nothing between them, no pedals, no nothing.
(BDH) You always seem to have such nice tone. I love the sound and the diversity in all the songs on “Hope Radio”.
(RE) Thank you. The band helps a lot, of course. I’m very proud of the band. They sounded really well, and we sounded good together.
(BDH) Would you like to say anything else in closing, Ron?
(RE) I want to add that I think there are a lot of wonderful musicians in Boston keeping the tradition going. For me, people like the Racky Thomas Band, guitar player Peter “HiFi [Ward], Framingham’s Pete Henderson, Monster Mike Welch, and the Brian Templeton Blues Band. I know Ricky Russell is still going. I’m proud to be a [Boston Blues Society] member, and to know that these people are keeping the music going.
That’s about everything I have, Brian. Be sure to let everyone know that Ronnie Earl is full of love and gratitude. I’ll talk to you soon. God bless you.
Brian Holland is a music journalist who resides in Massachusetts.
Brian D. Holland - Music Writer