In the mid-’80s, after Sea-Saint and before The Big Easy, transplanted Fort Worth native Mason Ruffner was a welcome national focal point for the New Orleans scene, a guitar slinger equally adept at blues, country, Tex-Mex and jazz who fell in love with the Crescent City and, somewhat oddly, folded the town’s rich piano tradition into his music. He was a critic’s darling, but perhaps taking a cue from so many of his local heroes, he soon disappeared into the wilds south of Austin.
Now he’s back, quietly, with his first all-instrumental affair, but one assembled from leftovers stretching across his entire musical career. Which could have made for a real engaging mess if Ruffner hadn’t taken these largely atmospheric artifacts and added some surprisingly effective early-’90s-style orchestral synth. The result is a real mind movie, a soundtrack for a tense Southern period drama film that just happened to never be shot. If you were waiting for Mark Knopfler to score a Sundance entry set in Grand Isle, this is your lucky day.
You can feel the romantic triangle straining through “Sunburst,” see the sun rise over the swamps in “Cryin’ Hallelujah,” and savor the local-level power struggle threatening to explode on “Rumbolero.” There’s even a car chase scene waiting to happen on the equally atmospheric rocker “Courage.” And the sequencing works, because the closing trilogy of “Eagle,” “Delta Midnight” and “Serenata” feels like a denouement, an epilogue, and a series of closing credits, in that order.
Ruffner’s guitar, unsurprisingly as expressive in its Gulf States jazz-blues impressionism as always, is the only dialogue necessary, and while it may never win him an Oscar, the Grammy folks might well dust off their short memories and give him some love. It’s at least as interesting as whatever Jeff Beck is up to this year.