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.
"As I got older, my father took me to see a lot of jazz. We went to see Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Smith and people like that, and it was really quite amazing."
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."
One not-so-good thing that happened while Earl played with the band was that he slipped ever deeper into the throes of chemical abuse. Earl says he was addicted to both cocaine and alcohol from 1970 to 1988, and with that in mind, it's easy to perceive his 1987 departure from Roomful of Blues as more an act of self-preservation than of musical restlessness.
These days, Earl frequently slips into the peace-and-love vernacular one associates with Jell-O-brained Woodstock survivors. But Earl's utopian rhetoric is hard-earned, and that gives it the ring of truth. He seems to take nothing for granted: He's openly thankful for his music, thankful to be playing in Arizona for the first time in his career, thankful that he has cousins in Scottsdale who can come out to see him here. Though at times his spiels recall Carlos Santana--whose pretty melodic phrasing is a huge musical influence on Earl--the most apt comparison is Stevie Ray Vaughan, who emerged from the same dark tunnel of cocaine addiction to become a veritable evangelist of universal love in the last three years of his life. Similarly, Earl, once known as a sultry bad boy of the blues, is now more guru than gonzo.
"I just hit a bottom one day, soon after I left Roomful of Blues, and that was when things changed," Earl recalls, with considerable sadness in his voice. When asked how he now fills up the space within him that booze and coke occupied for so long, Earl doesn't hesitate to answer: "I replaced it with love, and grace. When I play, I can feel such an exchange of love with the audience. I don't know if you can feel it from the album or not, but it's there."
With The Colour of Love, Earl finally had a recording budget that allowed him to bring in a high-powered producer, after handling the job himself for years. He chose Tom Dowd, whose mind-boggling resume includes John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Thelonious Monk, Derek and the Dominoes, and Earl's beloved Allman Brothers Band. Earl has long cited the late Duane Allman as his ultimate guitar idol, and working with Dowd placed him, as never before, in the lap of the studio gods. Dowd even brought in Greg Allman to deliver a growling vocal on "Everyday Kinda Man."
"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, 'cause he had engineered so many great records that I loved," Earl says. "He knows blues, he knows jazz, he knows R&B, he's a history of rock 'n' roll."
A similar claim could be made for Earl himself. But if his effortless ability to downshift from the fiery Latin R&B of "The Colour of Love" to a sleepy cover of Monk's "'Round Midnight" is one of his enduring strengths, it occasionally frustrates critics hungry for more of the raucous stuff. A review by Michele Martin of Earl's 1996 performance at the Vancouver Jazz Festival made just such a point. While acknowledging that Earl is "a master guitarist," and "an incredible player to watch," Martin complained that "much of the music was boring and repetitive and too pretty or frothy."
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Nonetheless, Earl seems content with the direction his music is moving in. Although he enjoyed working with Greg Allman on one song, he resists the idea of incorporating vocals into his music on a permanent basis, insisting, "I'm staying on my path." And he proudly says that "over the last six years, I've sort of become a composer." In fact, "'Round Midnight" is the only tune on The Colour of Love not written by Earl or a member of the Broadcasters.
"Although I'm definitely a guitar player, I like to compose," he says. "I like good songs with bridges and interesting melodies. Pretty tunes. And then I like to just jump in and play the heck out of the blues. A lot of my shows are two hours, or an hour and 45 minutes, and I'm able to explore all the avenues that I want to go down.
"It's just music. When I'm playing, I'm not thinking, 'This is a jazz tune or this is a blues tune.' As it's been said, 'There are only two kinds of music: good and bad.' When I'm playing, I'm just trying to play what I feel."
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters are scheduled to perform on Wednesday, January 14, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 9 p.m.