Blues guitarist hired by Daniel Lanois finds himself in the middle of the contentious recording session that produced a Dylan classic
Gypsy Blood by Mason Ruffner
Updated Bangkok Jungle – Occasionally we got the odd star or name came through, and this Sunday about 7, the big wooden doors swung open and in came a lean, lanky 40-something with a guitar and gritty determination writ all over his face.
Ignoring the crowd and the bar, he came right up to the stage, handed me a business card and asked if it was an open floor and could he play. Sure I said, eyeing his card as he spoke. ‘Mason Ruffner – Guitarist’ it said. Name didn’t mean a thing to me at the time and I welcomed him and asked him to wait his turn, “You’ll be up soon enough” and he headed to the bar and quietly waited his moment.
Took a while if I recall correctly, and he seemed a tad miffed once he did get up on stage having waited patiently to follow the less-than-awesome players who had already strutted their stuff. There was a house bass and a house drummer waiting any front man. Mason called his tunes, got the groove in place and set about showing the room just what Texas blues was really all about. Little doubt this guy was the real deal and he pulled out all the stops gifting his audience the licks and lines those Texas kids are brought up on, while at the same time remembering he was a showman who took his craft seriously.
By the middle of the second number, I was somehow embarrassed I had never heard of him, so impressed we were with his 24-carat blues chops and in-your-face stage charisma. Texas was in town – no shit!
Of course later we discovered he’d been playing with Dylan and had his own record deal and albums and stuff. The real deal right enough.
Political World from Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan (with Ruffner guitar, Lanois guitar, Brian Stotlz guitar, Tony Hall bass, Cyrill Neville percussion, Willie Green drums)
In the liner notes for Political World guitar credits are given to Ruffner, Lanois and Brian Stotlz. (March 8, 1989 Bob Dylan The Recording Sessions). Lanois removed himself from the mix and the main lead guitar credit was given to Ruffner.
“They started with Political World and when Bob came back the next day, Lanois had taken his guitar out of the mix and had Mason Ruffner overdub “torpedo licks” in its place. (Larry “Ratso” Sloman booklet with Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8.
Soon it transpired Mason was on the Dylan ‘Oh Mercy’ album made in 1989 with the Bono-recommended Daniel Lanois producing. Mason was a feature in blues clubs in New Orleans where the album was conceived and recorded, and Lanois called Ruffner in knowing he could write as well as play.
In Dylan’s best-selling autobiography ‘Chronicles’, he says of Ruffner: “Mason had bags of explosive licks with funky edges, rockabilly, tremolo-influenced. Mason had some fine songs.”
Turned out making the record was a stormy project with Dylan and Canadian Lanois taking a while to get acquainted before finally working off the same page.
Lanois recalls the album was to be done his way. Or else.
“I operated with Bob the same way I always operate…I’m completely honest and clear about what I think is the best. And if anything gets in the way of that, then they’re gonna have to deal with The Lanois!”
During the making of this album, one of Dylan’s finest, sparks famously did fly, but Ruffner took the storms in his stride.
“For me Bob was easy to work for. But I think he was a pain in the ass for some people. Sometimes he’d argue with Lanois, looked like just for the sake of arguing. After reading ‘Chronicles’ though, it seems that was a crucial time. It was shit or get off the pot. I think he was a little apprehensive, didn’t really know who Daniel (Lanois) was and if he could make a good record. But, after he realized they were going to make a good record there, I think Dylan softened up. By the end he was a lot different. I remember he (even) did a drawing of Daniel.”
“Whatever happened, this album was different – aside from all the personalities involved. We were recording in an old house, just sitting around the living room. Bob had his little stand with his lyrics, and we’d cut off into something. Seems we were cutting these songs all kinds of ways. Rock groove, slow, funk, or folk groove, trying different grooves and tempos. Bob would put his head down and start playing, and we’d tag along. It was all a big experiment, try the song 20 different ways. We were doodling with half the songs that wound up on his next record, Under The Red Sky,” Ruffner smiles.
“Bob was (also) doodling a lot with the lyrics. He used a pencil. He didn’t use no ink pen. Always making changes and additions and subtractions. An elephant could’ve walked in and he wouldn’t have seen it. His concentration is unbelievable.”
After Oh Mercy
These days Ruffner has set up shop in Stockholm servicing a demand from there for quality blues in Scandinavia and Europe, with the occasional trip to Asia.
His musical roots go back to the mid-sixties, when the lanky teenager from Ft. Worth, Texas fell victim to the supernatural guitar prowess of Jimi Hendrix and the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan. He began tracing the lineage of modern rock back to its post-war origins, digging the sounds of Jimmy Reed, B.B. King and Robert Johnson.
In the late sixties, Mason tried his hand at modern rock and folk music, but the blues bug would not let him be. Eventually, blues singer Robert Ealey invited Mason to join his Five Careless Lovers, the house band at Ealey’s own Bluebird Lounge in Ft. Worth. This was Mason’s formative period as a guitarist and stage performer. Departing Ft. Worth, Mason spent time in California and New York before settling down in New Orleans in the late ’70′s.
After a few years of playing on Bourbon St., Mason started his own band, The Blues Rockers. They landed a steady gig at Club 544 and played more than 200 live gigs a year. In time, The Blues Rockers became one of the most popular bands in the Crescent City backing blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, while counting Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, and Stevie Ray Vaughan among the stars who dropped in to listen or sit in.
In 1985, Mason was signed to CBS Records. His debut LP was produced by Rick Derringer and issued in October of that year. When Mason hit the road, headlining clubs and opening for Jimmy Page & The Firm’s U.S. Tour, some of America’s top critics started to notice. “What makes a record with so few surprises so satisfying?” asked Rolling Stone’s David Gates, who continued, “mostly it’s the joy and the unselfconscious conviction with which Ruffner recreates and recombines the sounds he obviously loves.” In the New York Times, Jon Preles said, “when it comes to rock-n-roll basics, Mason Ruffner never makes a false step.”
In 1987 Ruffner released Gypsy Blood, which was produced by Dave Edmunds. A natural for the job, Edmunds complemented Ruffner perfectly. The spontaneous combustion of the sessions leaps from the grooves of Gypsy Blood. In support of Gypsy Blood, Ruffner toured with U2, Crosby, Stills, and Nash and Jimmy Page; and The Firm. The title track was included in the movie Steel Magnolias.
Ringo Starr personally chose Ruffner to open his summer tour of 1989, the same year that also found Mason contributing in the studio to Daniel Lanois’ debut LP Acadie and Bob Dylan’s highly acclaimed release, Oh Mercy. Mason can also be heard on Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. III.
The dynamic originality and articulate fretwork of Ruffner’s work captured the attention of superstar Carlos Santana, who has incorporated “Angel Love” off of Ruffner’s Evolution album into his live shows and Mason has made several guest appearances with Santana.
His latest CD, You Can’t Win, is on the Burnside Record Label and was recorded in Memphis. “You Can’t Win ” is a return to the roots, to the bluesy stuff that rocks, he says.
Editor – Mason Ruffner / Gypsy Blood has been re-released on CD.