By Jeff Moses
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Many people would object to being called a journeyman. The very word often carries the whiff of mediocrity, of solid but unspectacular achievement, of competence without inspiration.
But to a blues connoisseur, journeyman means something very different. It implies a respect for tradition, a willingness to learn from the masters, and a humility based in the belief that the music is more important than any of the musicians who tap into it. When Eric Clapton titled one of his albums Journeyman, it was his way of pretending that he wasn't a rock icon, but was merely a modest bluesman working his honest trade.
Ronnie Earl is the epitome of a blues journeyman. You can hear it in the way he reverently invokes the names of his heroes. You can find it on the credits of his latest album, The Colour of Love, where he dedicates no fewer than six songs to his personal inspirations, including such guitar deities as Albert Collins, Jimmie Vaughan and Peter Green. Most blatantly, you can find it in his surname, which he long ago changed from Horvath in tribute to Earl Hooker, at the suggestion of no less a blues titan than Muddy Waters.
For 20 years, Earl has tirelessly worked the club circuit, the first decade as a member of the influential Roomful of Blues, and the second as an increasingly respected front man for his own band, the Broadcasters. In the blues, an idiom that innately resists trendiness, the rising stars tend to be talented veterans who've sufficiently paid their dues, not young hotshots with the haircut of the month. Two or three years ago, the rising star in the blues constellation was the late Luther Allison. Today, it just might be Earl.
In 1997, he won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for "Best Blues Guitarist." After winning Down Beat's "Best Blues Album of the Year" for his 1996 Bullseye Records release Grateful Heart, he signed with Verve and made his label debut in June with the widely acclaimed The Colour of Love.
Frequently lauded for his uncommon ability to incorporate a jazz sensibility into his blues work, the 44-year-old Earl says that while growing up in Queens, New York, he actually discovered jazz before the blues or any other music. For that matter, he views jazz and blues as just alternate sides of the same coin.
"My father took me to see Louis Armstrong when I was 5 years old," Earl says. "I don't know if you remember when they used to have music on these traveling carts--I think they were called jazzmobiles. I saw Armstrong on one of those, and it was great. And my dad got me really into Gershwin as a little kid, so I always kinda liked that bluesy sound, 'Rhapsody in Blue,' 'Summertime,' that kind of thing.
Both of Earl's parents were Hungarian Jews caught in the brutal grip of Hitler's Third Reich. Earl's father endured stints in three concentration camps, including Auschwitz, while his mother's family was relocated to the Hungarian ghettos. After the war, both of his parents moved to New York, where they eventually met. Earl seems slightly reluctant to elaborate on their travails, offering only that "we'll never know what these people went through." On The Colour of Love, however, he does dedicate a song to the Holocaust's most famous victim, Anne Frank, with the unabashedly sentimental, Van Morrisonesque instrumental "Anne's Dream."
Despite his father's avid appreciation of jazz, and his own enthusiasm for every genre of music, Earl did not learn to play the guitar until he reached his early 20s. Previously, his parents had encouraged his musical education, but not on the instrument of his choice.
"My parents had me take piano lessons, and they were doing the best they could, but it wasn't what I wanted to do," Earl says. "When the Beatles came out, I wanted to play guitar, and I wanted to get Beatle boots, and grow my hair long, but it didn't work out 'til I was about 19 that I got my first guitar, an acoustic. Eventually, I got a Fender Strat."
As a member of the house band at Cambridge, Massachusetts' Speakeasy Club, Earl backed numerous blues legends, and attracted the attention of Roomful of Blues guitarist Duke Robillard. When Robillard decided to leave the band in 1979, he reportedly told his bandmates that Earl was the only guitarist who could possibly replace him. Earl tends to view his eight-year tenure with the Rhode Island blues band as ancient history, a subject from which he long ago disassociated himself. But he readily acknowledges that his years in the band amounted to a beneficial apprenticeship for his solo career.
"It was good for me, and good for them, 'cause they had never been to Europe and never been to the West Coast," Earl says. "So a lot of good things happened while I was in that band."