Ronnie Earl has played with the best: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and the Allman Brothers Band. Not to mention Hubert Sumlin, Earl King, Junior Wells, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. He is a three-time Blues Music Award winner as Guitar Player of the Year and has appeared as a guest on over 40 albums and projects.
The great B.B. King once said of Ronnie: “I feel the respect and affection for him that a father feels for his son. He is one of the most serious blues guitarists you can find today. He makes me proud.”
Ronnie’s last local appearance was at the 2011 Bluesfest. In the merchandise tent after that performance, someone was overheard saying “He sounds like Stevie Ray Vaughan”. A nearby voice quickly shot back “Ronnie came first”.
Ronnie would suggest, rather, that “Stevie was a contemporary of mine”.
It was at a Muddy Waters concert in Boston, while still in college, that a young Ronald Horvath made the decision to pay more attention to his guitar playing.
“Everything about that evening inspired me. I had a spiritual awakening that this was the music in my soul that I had always been looking for,” Ronnie said prior to leaving for Ottawa and his Jazz Festival appearance this Thursday.
He received much support in his developing days. “Big Walter Horton took me under his wing and Otis Rush helped me a lot.” It was also a legend who suggested a name change.
As Ronnie explains in a 1995 interview, “Muddy couldn’t pronounce my last name. Whenever he called me up to sit in, he’d mumble ‘Ronnie Something’. He told me ‘you should get a name’. I thought about it. I love (Chicago slide blues guitarist) Earl Hooker, one of my favourite musicians. And Earl King too. As well as Earl Monroe, the basketball player. So I chose Earl and that seems to work pretty well.”
Ronnie joined the blues/swing Roomful of Blues as lead guitarist, replacing founding and parting band member Duke Robillard.
“That was a difficult time in my life. A wonderful band and a good experience. Thank God, I lived through it.” He makes reference to that period in a 2007 interview. “I had a big ego and low self-esteem from drinking and drugging for 18 years”. This year will mark Ronnie’s 28 years of sobriety.
In 1988, after nine years, he left Roomful of Blues for a solo career. He and his band, The Broadcasters (named after the first Fender guitar), haven’t looked back.
Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters have recorded and released, on Stony Plains Records, an album in each of the past 3 years, the latest being Maxwell Street. They will be going into the studio in July to record Ronnie’s 25th album.
This recording, no doubt, will be a bittersweet experience.
On January 14, long-time Broadcaster bassist, and Ronnie’s dear friend, Jimmy Mouradian, died of a heart attack shortly after the end of a show. He was “the most beautiful soul. I’m still in disbelief and grief. He was with me for about 15 years.” Ronnie’s manager, Debbie, continues with her thoughts of Jimmy. “It has been difficult not to have Jimmy with us. He was so beloved. But we are looking forward to making more music and his spirit will be with us. As Ronnie says, we have to choose hope.”
Apt613: You don’t use effects when you play. I’m sure to some that would be a daunting prospect.
I was never interested in using them. Just never used them.
What is the songwriting process for you?
I just come up with some chords at home and simple lyrics. I use the blues as a palette and listen to what comes up from within. But I try to keep it simple.
And when recording in the studio, to what degree are your solos improvised?
They are all improvised.
How important is it to you to have others, especially younger players, be part of your records?
I don’t do it all the time. The last record, Maxwell Street, was pretty much the band. I’ve only used horns once in 20 or so years. But I try to pass it on to younger generations and have them play on the records.
In your playing, it’s almost feeling before technique.
I don’t have very good technique. It’s all playing from the soul.
Your guitar gently weeps often. I sense, though, that you always look to the positive. You always see hope.
Oh yes. There always has to be hope in life. There always has to be something to look forward to, something ahead to look positive about. It’s about living a positive life.
If someone hasn’t heard your music, how would you describe it?
And which recording of yours would you suggest as a good introduction?
Live in Europe. It’s still my favorite. And Good News. I love the music and the way Diane sings on this album. And the cover is based on a vintage billboard in Edmonton, Alberta.
(The cover art is based on a vintage sign that Holger Petersen, of Stony Plain Records and Saturday Night Blues, and Michael Dangelmaier remembered seeing in the 60’s in Edmonton. It was located at Mike’s News which was also a location to buy concert tickets.)
You were supported early on in your career by a number of well-known musicians. Now, you reach out to younger musicians. Are there younger musicians who we should keep an eye on?
Oh yeah: Ronnie Baker Brooks, Nicholas Tabarias, Monster Mike Welch and Mike Ledbetter, Racky Thomas, Pete Henderson, Eddie Taylor Jr., Lurrie Bell, Sue Foley, and Ruthie Foster.
How do you feel about where you are in life and in music today?
I feel at peace. My music has changed and I feel like I am playing less notes and I am playing sweeter – but I like that. I think sometimes there are too many notes in the world.
What can we expect when you and the Broadcasters play Ottawa?
A lot of soul!
Ronnie Earl and The Broadcasters will be playing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 29. Tickets are available online.