Back in the early 1960s something peculiar happened in the world of popular music. The seemingly impregnable wall that had divided two worlds, separated by the barrier of race, began to develop cracks and fissures. Punching those holes was the music of poor Black sharecroppers from the Mississippi Delta and the electric sound of urban poverty from Chicago.
A small group of country musicians from the southern United States had begun to incorporate black music into their compositions in the 1950's gaining popularity and notoriety. Sun Records of Memphis Tennessee was the nexus for this hybrid, and with its stable of artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis began to integrate Blues music into the mainstream.
But it took a collection of young musicians from Great Britain to really bring the Blues to the forefront of popular music. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Who, and the bands that followed in their wake like Led Zeppelin and Ten Years After made no secret of their debt to the Blues musicians of the Americas.
Early albums of the Rolling Stones, like The Rolling Stones Now would probably sound unrecognizable to current fans as they are almost strictly Blues albums. Whether covers or originals they made no bones of who their influences were. They delivered their Blues straight with no country filter and provided much of mainstream America with its first exposure to the music of her own people.
For the first time people began to be familiar with names of Muddy Watters, Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and other men and women who had toiled in virtual obscurity because of the segregation of black and white in all aspects of American life. For some the recognition came too late for them to reap any of the fruits of their labour.
Others, like B.B. King, were able to catch the wave and ride it sufficiently to create comfortable livings and careers for themselves. Even today many men and women who were responsible for building the framework on which so much of our popular music rests, have never received proper recognition financially or other wise, for their contributions. (In an effort to try and right that balance organizations like The Music Maker Foundation have begun to spring up around the United States with the sole purpose of providing funds for these people to live in dignity and to record and tour their music.)
Although there have been individuals who have had success with Blues based recording careers, mainstream radio, and by extension the recording industry, has yet to welcome the genre enthusiastically. While the occasional syndicated radio show exists, the likelihood of ever hearing a blues song show up on popular radio is minimal.
With options for Blues performers still limited in North America looking further a field remains one of the best avenues for the security of a recording contract. A road that is become more frequently traveled these days is the path that beats to the door of one Thomas Ruf of Germany.
From 1989 until 1994 he had worked with Luther Allison as his European agent. Desiring to do more for the man Thomas described as "his rising blues hero" he started his own record label that "offered another avenue to promote the music and career of this extraordinary artist." From such small beginnings great things grow.
For twelve years now Thomas Ruf and Ruf Records have been recording Blues musicians who share his vision and hopes for the music. The company's motto, "Where The Blues Crosses Over" has a multiplicity of meanings. In music parlance when a genre "crosses over" it travels into territory other than its traditionally associated boundaries. Most often for the Blues that crossing over has been associated with guitar driven power rock and roll a la Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
But in the case of Ruf Records there is more then one way of viewing that saying. First there is the fact that so many of the artists have crossed over the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel to sign with a German label in order to prosper. From established performers and groups like Omar and the Howlers, Canned Heat, Walter Trout, Sue Foley, and the recently signed Jeff Healy to up and comers like Bernard Allison (Luther's son) Aynsley Lister and Ian Parker from Great Britain, and Roxanne Potvin from Canada.
But crossing over also works in reverse and Ruf records is beginning to share the treasures of the European Blues scene with North America. Starting with Ana Popovic from the former Yugoslavia, who was the first European nominated for a W.C. Handy award for Blues, followed this year by the release of Aynsley Lister's Everything I Need in North America and Finnish slide virtuoso Erija Lyytinen's newest recording Dreamland which she recorded in four days while in Mississippi during a recent visit.
I can't help but think how appropriate that last listing is for this label. A young woman from Finland recording an album of Blues music back in one of the birthplaces of the sound, could anything be more appropriate for the label that is doing it's best to cross over the boundaries that have separated the music from people.
With that recording there is the feeling perhaps the process of repayment and recognition for all the years of neglect that the originators of the music suffered is finally beginning. Ruff had previously released a CD recorded in studios in Mississippi and Memphis with three of his young European stars hoping to recapture the spirit that resided there when the music was first recorded.
Coming back like that with respect and a willingness to learn, listen, and try to understand may seem like small recompense for lost royalties and income. But it is a small step in the right direction as they show an appreciation for who is responsible for there even being music for them to play.
Erija had been part of the label's inaugural Blues Caravan Tour in 2006 with Ian Parker and Aynsley Lister. The three joined forces to make the album Pilgrimage: Mississippi To Memphis which took them through studios across the south, to experience making the music they love where it began and with the people to whom it's second nature.
As you might have already been able to tell Ruf Records doesn't seem to have the difficulties other labels do in believing that a woman can be a guitar player just as easily as she can be a vocalist. This year's Blues Caravan Tour will feature three of the labels women guitar players, Sue Foley, Deborah Coleman, and Roxanne Potvin.
Crossing over this barrier may not seem like as big a deal as other, but even with people like Bonnie Raitt proving that a woman can play a guitar as well if not better than a man, acceptance of a woman playing lead guitar is still far from universal. Ruf records are out to break the stereotype of "chick" lead singer and keyboardist with a vengeance. These women are only a small representation of those who are out there but hopefully there example will encourage other players and perhaps other labels.
Thomas Ruf has guided Ruf Records for twelve years through waters that have not always been the smoothest. In only their third year they faced disaster when their U.S. distributor went bankrupt. There have been other years when cash was tight so new releases were light on the ground and they had to make due with reissues.
But it looks like they have left those days behind them now. Walter Trout's 2006 release Full Circle has already been on the Billboard charts for fifteen weeks and shows no signs of leaving any time soon. Their total sales to date for the 120 albums released in 12 years is 1.2 million and growing, they've been nominated for two Grammy Awards, and ten WC. Handy Awards.
As recognition for the work they do in producing and spreading the word of the Blues, Ruf Records was just informed by the Blues Foundation that they are this year's recipient of the Keeping The Blues Alive award for Record Companies. For a record label not even based in the continental United States to be considered for the award is an honour alone, but to actually receive it is a great accomplishment.
Twelve years ago Luther Alison challenged his European Agent to put his money where his mouth was, which resulted in the formation of Ruf Records. Thomas Ruf has not only backed his words with money, but even more importantly actions.
Receiving an award for keeping the Blues alive, sounds like you're helping a patient on life support. In the hands of the people at Ruf records the Blues aren't just being nursed along with survival in mind. They are the healthiest in mind, body and spirit then they have been in a long time. That can only be good news for music fans everywhere.