Mason Ruffner had everything it takes to build a mainstream blues-rock career—everything but the desire to do so. Back in 1989, Ruffner had the elements in place: He had a song on the radio, an album on the charts, and high-profile sessions under his belt. He was being endorsed by the best around—opening shows for Jimmy Page, and having his songwriting praised by Bob Dylan. And then, he quietly left New Orleans and disappeared.
He recently returned just as quietly: Ruffner’s been back in town since last fall, and his French Quarter Fest appearance will be one of the few he’s made. And if one thing has endured over the years, it’s his disregard for the music business. “It’s been tough sometimes,” he says. “Ever since I quit a good gig on Bourbon Street to start my own little blues group. I’ve always followed my passion, which is to improve my playing. Once you start making records, it’s all about making it—music’s not as important anymore, and that twists things around. I just couldn’t stick with that.”
Originally from Fort Worth, Texas, Ruffner first hit New Orleans in 1977. After playing for years at the 544 Club on Bourbon Street, he got signed to CBS/Epic where he made two albums, both produced by fellow hotshot guitarists: Rick Derringer did the self-titled debut, Dave Edmunds the follow-up, Gypsy Blood. It was the latter album that hit the radio, with the hard-driving title track and the sleek rocker “Dancin’ On Top of the World.” Having pulled a similar trick with the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff,” Edmunds added just enough polish to put the blues-based music across.
Ruffner admits that he prefers the tracks with fewer production frills: “Dave Edmunds likes that raw sound, and we did a couple songs that way—looking back, that’s my favorite stuff now. Those kind of songs age better than when you’re doing the flavor of the month, or the flavor of the decade. When I was making records for CBS, it was always that bashing snare sound—that ‘Born in the USA’ sound, boom! So I wish I had been a little more raw in my approach to recording.”
Though he never went out looking for high-profile gigs, they seemed to come to him anyway. During 1989 he got a call from Daniel Lanois, then based in New Orleans, to come play on a session; Lanois wouldn’t name the artist but Ruffner guessed it would be Bob Dylan, who was in town to make Oh Mercy. “When you’ve got Daniel Lanois producing you, you can’t go wrong. And that’s not to take anything away from that record, because those sessions were important for Dylan, the songs and his singing were all there. For me it was a thrill and a little nerve-wracking at the same time. Dylan seemed a little aggravated sometimes, so I tried to clam up when it came to talking to him. But he was cool.” The sessions led to his playing on Lanois’ first solo album, Acadie.
Ruffner in fact had no idea that Dylan thought anything of his songwriting, until many years later when he found himself praised in Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume One, which deals extensively with the New Orleans sessions (the line Dylan singled out was “You do good things for people and that makes them bad,” and said he might have recorded one of Ruffner’s songs if he didn’t have his own). Ruffner says he was as surprised as anyone else to read that. “I was even more surprised that he spent so much time talking about that one particular part of his career, that he’d pick that out from the long career he’s had.”
So Ruffner ended the ’80s on a high, and hopes were high for the follow up to Gypsy Blood—except that there wasn’t one, much to the label’s displeasure. “I was on the label for another five years, I just didn’t make a record. And there wasn’t even a specific reason. They just wanted me to keep doing what I was doing, and that’s not the kind of stuff that I like to hear. Once you start having a little bit of success, they want more of whatever the formula is. You have to feed the star-making machinery, and that’s when the wheels just came off for me—I couldn’t get inspired from the business end of things. That’s when I realized I’m more of an underground musician, and I found that out the hard way. I don’t write songs to have a music career; I never wanted one in the first place.
“It was tough because I had a band and a manager, people believed in me but I didn’t want to keep on,” he adds. “And I have mixed feelings about what happened—I had a great opportunity, and I was disappointed in myself for not taking advantage of it. But there are a lot of musicians who just aren’t good at promoting themselves, and I fall into that category.”
He didn’t record again until 1997, on the European-only album Evolution—and once again he had some accidental success when Carlos Santana got hold of the album and started playing the track “Angel Love” in concert. “That just happened out of the blue, and someone who’d been to his concert had to tell me about it.” They wound up playing the song live together at a Santana show, and Carlos’ version made it onto the deluxe reissue version of Supernatural—thus putting one of Ruffner’s songs on one of the best-selling albums of all time.
While this was happening, Ruffner was basically making himself scarce. He returned to Texas for a few years, then moved to Norway and then to Sweden, where he lived for seven years until his marriage broke up last year. “In terms of playing, it’s totally the opposite of being here. If you’ve got a local band in the States, you probably want to play every night you can, but it doesn’t pay that good. But if you’re over in Norway or Denmark, you can get one or two thousand dollars from playing a club gig. So what it boils down to is that I didn’t play very often, but the pay was ten times better.”
Another surprise was last year’s album Aerial—his first in seven years and the first that’s all instrumental, more cinematic than blues-rock. “I had those songs laying around over the years and I started thinking, man, I’d love to put a record of those kinds of songs together. There’s a few things in there I never did before, including the acoustic guitar, I never put much of that on a record before. I love classical music and flamenco, so these are the little pieces to my own kind of symphony. I have a passion for composition and I’ve studied that, but not really in an educated way—more in my own, country-boy kind of way.”
Longtime fans will be glad Ruffner’s back in town, but they still may not see him play too often. “I just want to play a little bit occasionally. I’d like to please people but I also need to follow my muse. You know, I was just reading a book by Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) and he talks about following your bliss. And I thought hell, that’s just what I did.”