Welcome to part two of the two-part interview that I conducted via email with Thomas Ruf, the force behind Ruf Records (read part one). In the past twelve years Thomas and his label have become one of the most active blues labels in Europe, if not worldwide. Even more important is the fact that unlike other labels, they produce new recordings of working artists instead of merely reissuing older back catalogues.
Aside from taking on established blues musicians from North America whose careers have been victimized by an industry that's more fickle than the weather, they have also helped to develop the careers of young European and North American players. What's even more impressive is their commitment to all the forms that the blues can take. From the harder edge of Walter Trout who only knows one speed other than fast — faster — to the internationally flavoured acoustic sounds of Bob Brozman and the amazing sounds he pulls from a resonator guitar, Ruf records proves the blues can be sung in as many ways as there are people.
The blues are an individual's means of expressing emotions through music, so it makes sense that different people will have different ways of getting there message across. That's the real beauty of the blues, and Ruf records. If one performer doesn't speak to you, that's okay, because there is somebody else waiting in the wings that just might.
When did the blues start to become popular in Germany? I know that in countries like France they have a history of African-American musicians performing in Paris since the twenties and the thirties in the jazz clubs. Obviously that wouldn't have been the case in Germany during the thirties, so there is not the same history of having the music around and available for the population.
I am not too good with the historic stuff as I spend my time in the present and look into the future for new goals rather than trying to fight about the correct past re-calling with all the blues scholars… there are other people that know more about the past than I do. I know there was an underground swing club scene during the German Nazi years. After the war the GIs started bringing in their music.
There were American radio stations in the '40s and '50s broadcasting in Germany. American popular music became popular after the war coming into the country along with the Marshal Plan. The blues was made popular almost by one single man in the early '60s — Horst Lippman from Llippman & Rau. They started the American folk/blues festivals in, I think, 1962, bringing over American blues performers on a yearly basis.
The artwork on their '60s tour posters itself is legendary. I highly recommend watching the two volumes of the American folk/blues festival DVDs. They are in fact much better in my opinion than the Scorsese blues film series. Because they are more simple and authentic — they just show great historic footage from all the performers — from Sonny Boy Williamson to John Lee Hooker to Muddy Waters.
They were all there during the '60s, filmed by German television. And what the American folk/blues festivals did to kick off the British blues boom is a piece of music history. Mick Jagger loves to tell the story how Fritz Rau – Lippman’s partner and a pretty hot-tempered guy – kicked The Stones out of the venue when they tried to hang around during sound check and meet the performers that were their idols during the UK shows of the AFBF tour.
Alexis Corner – father of the British blues – was probably more popular in Germany than in the UK. The UK market is more trendy, Germany more conservative. Germany for many British R&B singers is the last territory where they find plenty of work after their stars descended during the '70s when disco and the following eras drowned the British blues boom. People like Chris Farlowe, Long John Baldry, The Yardbirds, Eric Burdon still could get a gig in Germany during the '80s and '90s – long after work dried up in England and the US for these guys.
Why do you think the blues seems to be more popular in Europe right now than in America where they come from? It seems like a high percentage of your roster are North Americans; are they signing with you because there just isn't the interest in their work back home or are there other reasons?
Walter Trout could not get an American deal, nor find a booking agent. He was on a Dutch label with a European-only career before he signed with Ruf and we developed his career on his home turf.
Luther was out of a deal when I started Ruf Records for him. More popular? I am not sure. The USA has more blues clubs and blues radio stations then Europe. The blues is part of the everyday music culture, I think. And it’s not really a big deal when one of the performers comes through town. In Europe it’s more of a big deal, because not every act works over here; there are, in total, fewer bars and fewer US blues acts touring. Its more a concert event then a bar gig. The artists get therefore treated better. I think overall it goes in cycles.
The blues really had a bit of a comeback in the USA in the '90s – right when Luther Allison came out there big time. The US has a great blues festival circuit. It’s the baby boomers that keep the blues scene alive there. Since a couple of years now it’s changing again. Bars close left and right or stop having live blues acts. Gigs are drying up stateside. The blues festival circuit in Europe is growing again. Right now it seems stronger over here; but it goes in cycles.
There seem to be more and more women playing blues guitar these days, Erja Lyytinen from Finland for example, and you've just come from a recording in Minnesota with three women. There have always been women vocalists, but is this something new for there to be women guitar players?
Bonnie Raitt, Sue Foley, Debbie Davies, Deborah Coleman were among the first ones on the electric guitar in blues. The Blues Guitar Women CD gives a good overview of the current performers. It used to be a bit harder in the beginning for women, as the guitar was a man’s world. Nowadays I think it's easier for women. There are in fact more and more coming up. Basically because there are just too many GUYs out there wanting to make a living playing guitar. I mean thousands and thousands. And they are all good. More musicians than there is work.
The English blues musician is nothing new, that dates back to the early days of the Rolling Stones, but now it seems like more and more Europeans aside from the Brits are taking to it. Is this a recent development or are we in North America just finally hearing about it because of the efforts of people like you?
Well, I tried to promote a couple of European performers, but it does in fact not really work. You can sell American and British blues in the USA, Germany, France or Japan. But you cannot sell a French blues artist in Germany, or a German artist in Sweden, a Swedish in Spain. It doesn't work. There are hundreds of European blues bands and they are incredibly good, some of them truly original.
The small country of Norway for example must have at least 200 very solid blues bands. There is a young blues player in every town. Only you never hear about them, as they cannot be picked up by international labels. Erja and Ana are exceptions to the rule. They offer the press something of an exotic story, a new story to be told, paired with the right amount of sex appeal and pop appeal (this is the marketing guy talking now).
What do you see as the future of blues music, and what role do you envision Ruf records playing in helping that become a reality?
I used to use a crystal ball and got pretty good at it, until the market totally changed a few years ago. With the rise of the digital sales (downloads), the industry goes back to the early '60s, when the record labels produced single songs, not albums. Why spend the money to produce a full album – 12-14 songs – when the consumer later on only picks one or two to download? The guy who used to spend 15 bucks for the entire CD might now only spend 99 cents with us through iTunes and download one song he likes. The existence of record labels per se in their traditional form as talent-developing and career-building service companies is changing.
So no, I haven't used my crystal ball too much lately. It's hard to predict. It's clear that the traditional stand-alone retail store with a true music mission – we carry any new CD of any genre and also deep catalogue – is history with the decline of Tower Records, the most prominent chain of this old school record store concept. There are as few as maybe 200-300 record stores with a good full assortment of music around the globe. The rest is chains with selected limited stock (they carry hits, not blues), mom and pop stores for a specialist clientele – many of them carrying second-hand – and the Internet.
The future of the blues is in crossover and evolution rather then preservation. The labels whose specialty was preservation of a traditional style are in trouble. I am not friends with those who constantly try to put blues music into a museum as an art form of the past. In general, the blues lacks performers that qualify as heroes. We have many solid players, but few real star personalities with charisma.
One final question, twelve years ago when you started Ruf Records you must have had an ideal of how you wanted things work out.
No, sorry this is wrong. I didn’t. I just did it because somebody needed to do it. And I worried about it later. Which was good. If I had predicted what I was in for, I might have changed my mind early on (smile).
Now twelve years later you have some the best known names in blues music signed with you from across three or four generations of musicians, playing all sorts of different styles and have just been recognized with the Keeping The Blues Alive Award for 2007 from the Blues Foundation. You must feel some sense of, if not accomplishment (which you should, in my opinion you've done wonders) at least vindication. Did you see any of this coming?
My artist, partner and friend Luther Allison died very suddenly, one album short from breaking through the roof, receiving a Grammy and giving Buddy Guy and Robert Cray a serious run for their money.
At first sight, his passing stole the fruit we so long worked for minutes before harvest time. With time passing, I realized that actually the path was the way. It did not matter as much how long it lasted – it was actually important that it happened while it lasted. It's not about if we ever got there.
It's about the quality between you and your fellows while you walk. I never had a similar, quite as close, trustworthy relationship with another artist. And I consider myself pretty close friends with most of my fellow artists. But it kind of set a human standard that I will never want to miss, am grateful for and never will compromise, really. I don’t care how profitable a project potentially could be – if it's not worth spending my personal precious lifetime working on it, it's a waste of time for me.
Well, that was the last question I posed to Thomas, and I can't think of a more appropriate place to end. It tells you a lot about the man and the label, and perhaps explains why they are having the success they are in signing quality performers. In 2007 Jeff Healy will be joining their roster as he makes his long awaited return to blues from his foray in jazz music, and we can look forward to new releases from Bob Brozman and Candye Kane and others as well in the new year.
I'd like to thank Thomas Ruf for taking the time out of his hectic schedule to answer my questions and for putting such obvious thought into his answers. It's not often we get to hear from the people who are responsible for producing the music we love and even less frequently do we get such candid answers.
If there were more people like Thomas Ruf working in the music industry, people who can remember that's it is about the music first, not about celebrity and fame, I think we'd be hearing a lot more about the songs, and a lot less about divorces and who's sleeping with who. Since that's not likely to happen in the near future I guess we should just be grateful that there are people like him still involved in the music industry.