Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ronnie Earl were friends before Stevie became famous. “I was still using, and he was clean at a time we played together,” says Earl. “He was a big sign post for me that – uh – hey, I’m clean and sober. He didn’t say anything to me, but he was a powerful example.”
Ronnie Earl is connected…
A blues guitarist with jazz overtones, he plays at this weekend’s Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a festival that’s all about being connected. Tracing its roots back to the Newport Jazz Festival and later the Kool Jazz Festival, this annual event is one of the most prestigious jazz fests in the country and certainly the biggest such event on the regional music calendar. It got that way by showcasing nothing but connected musicians.
Earl plays at 1:30pm on Saturday, the day that the headliner is Earth, Wind & Fire, the funk-jazz-pop horn band of the last 45 years that’s won six Grammys, been nominated for 20 and plays everything from horns to kalimbas. Also on Saturday is Mike Stern – one of Downbeat’s 75 Best Jazz Guitarists, whose history includes playing with Blood, Sweat & Tears and Miles Davis – and Lonnie Smith, the B-3 organist Jazz Times described as “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turbine.” Even the gazebo’s list of performers includes such heavyweights as post bop jazz pianist Marc Cary whose credits stretch from Dizzy Gillespie and Ani DiFranco.
The late Blues Queen Koko Taylor introduced Earl to the Chicago blues scene. “She was like my mother. She is my mother, and I’m very sad that I don’t see her. She took me to all the blues clubs, and it was dangerous back then in Chicago, real dangerous. She took me to see Junior Wells and the Aces, Louis Myers and Sammy Lawhorn. She was like my mother.”
And when Fabulous Thunderbirds harp player Kim Wilson introduced Earl at this year’s Blues Music Awards, he said, “I’ve known this guy for a long, long time even before he played guitar. He was just like a kid. He plays like a kid.” Wilson met Earl in Boston back in 1975 just after Earl graduated from Boston University with a degree in special education. At the time Earl was trying to decide whether to become a teacher or a blues guitarist. Living with Wilson for a while in Texas convinced him that he could do both. Wilson plays three songs on Earl’s 1999 CD Living in Light, and Earl has served as an associate professor of guitar at Berklee College of Music.
So when Wilson calls Ronnie Earl a kid, it’s a compliment.
“I’m all about the spirit and the spiritual side of music,” says Earl. “I don’t practice, but I love playing. I love playing for people, and I can’t believe I get to do this, and get paid for it, but I’m still like a little kid. And I think it’s amazing. I think it’s amazing that people like you even want to talk to me, you know, and I believe in being very humble, you know, like it’s a gift.”
Blues is often a catharsis for deep wounds, and Earl has seen his share of both. Twenty-five years clean, he’s bi-polar and has diabetes. He flatly admits he ignores the business side of blues, likes to garden with his wife, has a manager who is a Baptist minister and, he seemed almost embarrassed when he won this year’s Blues Music Award for Best Guitarist over his longtime friend Anson Funderburgh, Chicago blues veteran Lurrie Bell, Kid Andersen and Gary Clark, Jr.
He obviously felt awkward being singled out from his fellow friends and guitarists to win an award for something he says is not a sport where one wins or loses. Almost too overwhelmed to speak, he clutched the statue and said, “Oh my goodness. I might cry. I’m a very sentimental man. You know I’m only here by the grace of God. My greatest achievement in life is that I’m clean and sober for 25 years.” He was then interrupted by loud applause. “And I’d like to thank my record company (Stony Plain) ’cause he (Holger Petersen) is more than a record company.
“You know I was sick for a long time with bi-polar disorder, and I say that to you because it’s not something that needs to be stigmatized anymore. (More extended applause) The love of the blues community and my wife healed me, and I’m here tonight because I’m better. I’m actually happy. I’m a happy man.”
He may be a kid when it comes to the business of blues. He can’t even remember the label (Telarc) he was with after Verve almost turned him into a household name, but his just released seventh CD for Stony Plain, Good News, accomplishes a feat I’ve heard from Charles Brown and Nina Simone but very few other artists – the ability to capture the finesse and sophistication of jazz with the deep soulful waters of blues. “The spiritual world is playing heart to heart and for the sake of healing souls and bringing people together, and it doesn’t have anything to do with sales and getting further in career and career moves and all that stuff,” he says flatly.
Earl was born Ronald Horvath in Queens, New York on March 10, 1953. He took his last name from Earl Hooker after Muddy Waters had trouble remembering the name Horvath in calling him up to the stage when Muddy played Boston. Earl is deeply religious, plays guitar at the First Baptist Church in Littleton, Massachusetts, and has taken years off from performing to spend time with his wife.
If the blues police want to put him down, it’s their loss.
“I don’t believe in hell and the devil’s music and all. I just don’t. I’m just very optimistic and try to be positive in all my affairs. Everybody was very nice to me from Big Mama Thornton to Eddie Cleanhead Vinson and everybody in between, all the people I got to play with. And I believe that blues can be very happy music and very, very deep and spiritual. It’s very connected with gospel and very connected with jazz, and I believe in all of that.”
“To me there’s no white or African American. Duke Ellington said there’s only two kinds of music, good and bad, and that’s what I believe. I’m not really in the blues world. You know, I live in the country, and I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I love Joni Mitchell, and I love Jimmy Cliff and anything that has soul I can feel, and so I’m not in the blues world. I’m not in any kind of career mode. I just play, and that’s kinda how I look at things.”
An earlier version of this interview originally appeared in American Blues Scene.