Ruby Dee Phillipa and various incarnations of the Snakehandlers have been serving up authentic sounding, rockin’ roots music in the Seattle area since 2002. Headed by ace guitarist Jorge Harada and featuring the peerless talents of bassist Sean Hudson and drummer Kipp Crawford, the award-winning combo has just released their second full-length disc on Dionysus Records. In addition to touring behind the disc, she and Harada are also working towards relocating the band to the roots music capitol of the Southwest (if not the world), Austin, Texas.
Born in Sacramento, California sometime in 1964 and raised in San Diego, Texas and along the California/Nevada border, Ruby Dee is the daughter of an electrical engineer and author/dog breeder Beth Jane Harris. Attending various fairground events west of the Mississippi, she grew to love the constant whirl of movement that dog breeding competitions required. Exposed to the early California Country Rock stylings of Gram Parsons, EmmyLou Harris and even Neil Young, Philippa harmonized with 8-track tapes as she and her mom traveled to and from dog shows. After a rocky personal experience in college, the future Rockabilly/Roots chanteuse tutored the blind, worked at a one-hour photo plant, in an Alaskan cannery and on various boats sailing up and down the Bering Sea, before she finally lit in Seattle. Clearly, hers is a colorful life and no one can describe it better than the artist herself.
Articulate and ever gracious, Ruby Dee took time from her busy schedule to tell us about her life, her scintillating past, the proposed move, how she creates fresh material, and of course her group’s new album Miles From Home. Moreover, when the questions take a technical turn, she calls in guitar hero extraordinaire Jorge Harada to clarify. What more can you ask? Ladies and gentlemen – Here’s Ruby Dee.
KB: Hi Ruby, welcome to Blue Suede News. When did you first start singing?
RD: After my folks’ divorce, my mom lucked into a great fella, Dan Jenkins, who moved onto the ranch with his guitar, great attitude, and brother who came to visit often and play his banjo or fiddle. The two of them would sit on the back gallery and play Bluegrass standards and Country music (a la Gram Parsons), so I just learned to sing along, harmonize, and dance around to the music flowing off into the night. I spent my childhood running around that ranch and the one near BiSpring in Texas, singing my little heart out – sometimes songs that already existed, but sometimes tunes and words I’d just make up. I never knew that was songwriting until many years down the road
KB: When did you get your first guitar?
RD: To tell you the truth, I didn’t pick up the guitar in earnest until a few years ago. I’ve always been surrounded by these amazing guitarist friends, so when I started writing music mindfully 10 years ago, everything I wrote came from inside my head- the words and tune and everything- from where I’d have to either sing the whole thing into a recorder, or write it out and hopefully remember the tune’s nuances. Sometimes, I’d bring a song or two to a guitarist friend and ask for their help in charting what the hell I was singing! A few years ago, Jorge convinced me I needed to actually play the guitar, so I bought my first, a nice little Breedlove flattop acoustic, and I get along just fine with that. Though I’ve got my eye on a parlor triple ought guitar every now and then.
KB: Tell us a bit about your educational background.
RD: I didn’t really attend high school. I attended private schools due to the travelling around I did, so it was easier to finish assignments and send them in if need be rather than dealing with any public school issues with that. Plus I was a smart kid. I attended one year of public early high school/junior high; was bored out of my mind though, so we tested me out of there and into college at 15. Since I was still a kid, I went to San Diego State and studied electrical engineering and theater. I loved the stage, especially singing, and yet could never get away from the familial intelligence I was supposed to carry on. After three years of that, I dropped out for a few years to live on the streets in San Francisco as a drug-crazed Punk Rock waste-away. I had a great time and all, but don’t remember all the details of those two years. I ended up moving down to Los Angeles to get away from drugs – ain’t that funny- and after I really did clean up a few years later, moved back up north to a friend’s cabin in northern California, where I chopped wood every day, grew a big vegetable garden, washed up in a local stream, and walked the two miles to the post office to pick up our groceries from the communal order placed there every month. After a year of that, I re-entered college at Humboldt State in Arcata, studying sustainable forestry, nothing to do with music, believe it or not! I ended up dropping out again, due to some serious Earth First! actions I helped to author that, well, took me away from my studies, and dropped me right into jail. No degree. After that, I moved around – to Alaska to fish for a few years, down to Central America to start up an import company, and then I settled down in Seattle finally – closest I could get to Alaska and still be in the lower 48. It was there that I started to get back into music, and to write.
KB: When did you first start singing?
RD: I first sang on that back gallery at our house near the Nevada border. My grandma was an opera singer in her youth too, so she led our religious school choir, where I also sang. There were also sing-alongs with Elvis’ records in the Texas farmhouse. After that, I worked in musicals through my first bout of college in San Diego, and always sang around the bonfire up in Alaska, or at friend’s parties. It wasn’t until I settled in Seattle and linked arms with an old flame, Marc Olsen, that I began to sing in public for real. We had a little act called “Still” that played around Seattle. We broke up, and I later met up with Gerald Collier, with whom I wrote a few tunes. That started it. When he and I parted ways, I began to write intensely- sometimes a few songs a day. I joined a band called Deadwood in Seattle. We played around the area for a few years, but none of my tunes were brought in, so I quit to start my own project up, and hence The Snakehandlers were born. That was 2002. I’ve been gracing (or is that disgracing?) stages ever since!
KB: Marc Bristol tells me that you used to run a club in Seattle.
RD: I owned a few restaurants in Seattle, starting them up from scratch. They were Bandoleone, a fine Latin cuisine gem of a restaurant and watering hole originally on Eastlake and then moved over to Fremont, Tango Tapas Restaurant and Lounge on Capital Hill, and La Tienda Cadiz, a great little market/cafe where you could buy a bottle of wine, fresh baked bread and a slew of imported Spanish cheeses, or sit down and dine there. I started these from my love of cooking, which soon turned into a strong love of wines, and most especially food and wine from Spain, Portugal and northern Morocco. Once in Seattle, I got into food, and after a year managing a place, I consulted in Spain for a year on someone’s restaurant there, then came back and started up my first, in Seattle. After that era ended, I worked part time for some folks doing books, all while getting the music up and flying. After I got out of the business, some friends approached me and asked if I would put together a juke joint of sorts in Seattle – some place to hear great live Country music with a dance floor, kickin’ bar, and simple but sweet kitchen. I started to put that together- wrote the menus and recipes and everything – but then realized that since we’re planning the big move to Austin, it wouldn’t be fair to leave them stranded with a new business and no one in charge. So I may do that again down the road, maybe in Austin? Who knows? Those recipes are begging to be made up and savored.
KB: It has been a while since your last CD. What took so long and what have you been up to?
RD: This is actually a fair amount of time between CD’s. If you are an independent musical act that writes your own tunes, records them on your own dime, and tours to pay for all that, then two years is a decent stretch to account for all that. Think about it: I write the tunes, and that can take me about a year to fine tune 12 songs and get the band up to speed, then recording takes about 3 months from start to mixing and mastering, then you’ve got the record company dialing in artwork, masters, and so on for one of their quarterly release periods. That all adds up to two years right there. Since North of Bakersfield, we’ve been doing exactly that- touring to pay for the costs of that CD, writing new tunes, living life in general, and then we were back in the studio last November in order to get this new CD Miles From Home out either 1st or 2nd quarter, 2008. Due to timing issues, it came out in the 2nd quarter. Dionysus is on board for this CD again due to the great and fortuitous relationship between Jorge, Rockin’ Ronnie Weiser from Rollin’ Rock Records, and Lee Joseph from Dionysus. Jorge was part of a quintessential rockabilly band a few years back called Dragstrip 77 that was lucky enough to record with Rockin’ Ronnie on Rollin’ Rock and Dionysus. Lee Joseph, the owner of Dionysus, remembered Jorge fondly and agreed to put out both North of Bakersfield and Miles From Home. We’re very happy about all that, obviously!
KB: What were you able to achieve with this album that you didn’t accomplish with your debut?
RD: Our true debut was a five-song EP that we put out on our own label in 2003. We were back in the studio a year later and recorded another EP that we then held off on releasing in order to re-record some of those tunes, heading back into Egg Studios with Conrad Uno to record our first full length, North of Bakersfield. So, from that first EP, I have to say that we had had limited time together as a band. I think the guys learned the songs about 4 or 5 weeks before we recorded them. Also, I’d been singing back up for years at that point, but had few chops as a lead singer, and so looking back, hear such innocence and naivete in my little voice on that recording. So the difference in essence between that first release and this latest is manifold: the band is cohesive, my voice is more mature, my writing has become more universal, and of course there’s the point to be made that when you release your first CD, no one has ever heard of you, whereas when you release your second or third, folks start recognizing your name, and remembering whether they like you or not. Miles From Home has been widely lauded by reviewers, radio folks, and our fans alike. To me, that means we got a good thing going, and folks are starting to remember our name and want to keep us around!
KB: Did you record live, utilize tracking? Is vintage equipment important to your sound.
RD: I’ll leave most of this question to Jorge, since he not only masterfully plays a beautiful guitar, but he also co-produced the CD with Conrad Uno, and so can answer a lot more closely the details requested.
Jorge Harada: Hello BSN readers and howdy Ken! About half the songs on the recording were staples of the live set for a bit, so the initial kinks and shudders had been shaken out by the time we went to record them. As far as the rest, once they were fleshed out by Ruby and I, we showed them to the band and demoed them at home so I’d have something to listen to on our upcoming fall tour. We went on tour, made adjustments and literally gave the songs the road test, then we were able to get in the studio with Conrad Uno upon our return to start tracking during the month of December. The rhythm tracks were done in two days, I cut my guitars in three days, and our guest Bob Knetzger cut his pedal steel and other stringed noisemakers in one day. We really pushed the pace to lay down the bedrock tracks to give Ruby ample time to do her vocals as we really wanted to make sure we got the vocals right on this record, which only took three days. Finally, I went to mix in four days, and we literally finished mixing on Dec 31st, went to play our New Year’s Eve show, and went very early to the airport to catch a plane to Europe the next day! The European tour gave me a month to do some critical listening, made a few changes upon our return and went to master. Mastering was actually fairly easy for both our albums, as we prefer a more natural sound with wider dynamic range, and the albums themselves are not very dense in terms of the amount of tracks captured as Conrad Uno and myself prefer to leave more space in the mixes for the album to really breathe. Ruby Dee and The Snakehandlers are well known for being a very live band, so we record live as much as possible. For you gear-heads out there, this album was recorded to 16-track on 2” tape, so you can really hear the difference. The hardest part about making the record was scheduling the sessions during the five weeks between tours.
KB: Jorge, is vintage equipment vital to your sound?
JH: At the very least, the amplification has to be from tubes. Pretty much after that, if the light comes on when I flick the ON switch and I have a few minutes to monkey with the equipment, I can get the sounds I need to do the job. However, there are a few things that I like to use that allow Ruby Dee And The Snakehandlers to have our “sonic signature” if you will. For the country stuff, I use a B-Bender equipped ‘50s Classic Fender Telecaster with some custom modifications, for the Rockabilly stuff, I go to trusty ol’ #1, “Big Red” herself, a 1991 Gretsch Tennessee Rose that I’ve been playing since way before the DRAGSTRIP 77 days. I also have a really nice sounding Martin acoustic, and a couple of other Telecasters, including a custom built ‘52 copy and a mid-80’s Japanese ‘62 Telecaster Custom that I really love. In between that and the amp are just some real basic and a couple “boo-teek” pedal things – volume, delay, a mild overdrive, a compressor I use when I play slide, and a boost for solos. My rig of choice is a modded ‘65 Deluxe Reverb reissue, and I use a ‘70s Princeton Reverb for recording. I use the same gear in the studio, sometimes I might borrow a baritone guitar or something, tape echo in the studio is also cool if it’s available. That pretty much sums up the “under the hood” tour!
KB: Ruby, how did you and Jorge Harada get together? What role does he play in the development of your sound?
RD: There’s a great little honky tonk here in Seattle called the Little Red Hen. Some mutual friends of ours used to play there one night every week, and they’d invite their friends up onto the stage to play or sing along. One night, a few months after I’d started working on putting this band together, I was standing around when a friend approached me and said, “Hey! You’re still trying to find a guitar player, right? Well, that’s your man right there!” They pointed out Jorge. So, being the shy gal that I am, I walked right up to him and said, “So I hear that you’re my new guitar player.” He agreed to meet up and try out some of my tunes. We got together a few weeks later, both liked the chemistry that practically ignited at the first note, and the rest is history. We’ve been playing together for almost six years now. We’ve had various band mates over that time, but the constant has always been Jorge and me, working together to make this baby tick. How we work together is like this: I write the songs, both the lyrics and music. Then I bring the fledgling tune to Jorge, and we work out details together. Sometimes he changes the tempo, or helps me add in a bridge. Every once in a great while, he’s helped to re-write the total overall feel of the song. Most of the time so far though, the song has remained fairly intact. When we used to have a regular backing band – folks who recorded with us on the first CD – everyone took a part in adding to the songs. Each person might have something to add like a walk up here, or a retarded phrase there. Now it’s just Jorge and me, and that seems to work really well. My style is based more in Bluegrass and classic Country, with a hint of Punk Rock years thrown in for good measure alongside all that lyricism. Jorge’s input is definitely more rockin’, but also based in serious tempo (as compared to my odd singer’s timing). Plus he knows instrumentation and can hear what goes where in a tune, which is huge. I might come along with a tune and say, “This is sort of bluegrassy, with maybe some banjo?” And he tears it apart and puts it back together again and brings back something with mandolin, pedal steel, rhythm guitar and a unique back beat from the drums and bass. I then get to say “Yeah! That’s it!”
KB: What were some of the specific incidents that inspired tunes on Miles From Home?
RD: One of my favorite tunes, “Since You Went Away,” I wrote while on a roadtrip with an old boyfriend. We were driving through a part of Montana that had the most trailer parks I’d ever seen in one area! Now, I’ve got nothing against trailers or the parks they’re parked in, it’s just that I was just amazed at the numbers. So I got inspired, thinking about some woman living in one of those trailers, and how some man had up and left her there, and how she got strong and wild behind that hardship, so that when he came back around, she was a changed, better woman for it. One of my other favorites is “Round and Round.” I was sitting around one afternoon, daydreaming about how good I have it with Jorge by my side, and how in my younger days, I might have got a real thirsty wanderlust, and left him, foolishly. So I took that to the “what if” level, and carried it through the song. What if I’d left him, and then spent the remainder of my days, going round and round, looking for that “something better,” only to realize that what I had was the very best? Folks love that tune live. Probably my other favorite tune is “Cold Pines and Red Dirt.” I wrote that some years ago when I helped some friends move their business from Boston down to San Antonio. I packed up the trailer. It was on a fixed 14-wheeler, just the next size down from a full 18-wheeler rig, and then drove that sucker down to San Antonio. Through some of the worst weather the northeast had seen in some years! There were big rigs jack-knifed, cars upside down everywhere, and a mystery to me, black ice all over once I hit the south. Going through Tennessee, I passed one of those white crosses on the side of the road, and the name jumped out at me: Willie Hatcher the Third. Something about the rhythm of the road, that white cross, and the beautiful countryside there through Tennessee inspired this song. It just came rushing out of me like a sickness coming up. I wrote it with one hand, while driving with the other, and amazingly didn’t end up beneath a white cross of my own! The imagery though, is all there; the cold pines of winter, rolling red dirt hills, barns spouting ads for heaven and hell, and so much more.
KB: What sort of environment do you need to write a song?
RD: I was just thinking about this the other day. I write really well when I’m on the road, something about the rhythm of the wheels moves through my body and starts a song up in there somewhere. But I’ve also written songs while coming home from the grocery store, or walking though a back alley behind a bar. I never know what’s going to inspire me, but when it does, there’s no real telling where or when. It just hits, WHAM! And then there’s a tune, words, an idea, something to flesh out and bring home. The weirdest place was probably in my van, in an alley, in the pouring rain, in Seattle. I’d been driving along, saw the alley, and suddenly, the rain seemed to be speaking to me, so I pulled into the alley, wrote the words to “After the Flood,” and that was a song! Also, there have been times when I’ve been walking along with no way to write, so I’ve called home and left a verse or two and chorus on my answering machine.
KB: Presently you’re listed as being from Seattle. I’ve read that you’re relocating to Austin. Was there a specific event that inspired this move?
RD: Yup, we currently call Seattle home, and we love it here. The problem for us is that it’s extremely expensive to tour from up here. The next real paying gig is over 12 hours away. Which means that we have to cover meals, gas, hotels, and paying the backing band, all without earning a penny. While in the southern US, the next paying gig is really more like an hour or two away. Plus, we can tour from the middle of the country to any other part of it for far less than it takes to get, say, all the way across to the East coast from the West coast. Add to that that I’ve got family and friends down there, and it would be so nice to be closer to them all. So we went down there last year and bought a house. And we’ll be moving in either February or March, 2009. We’re heading back to Europe for our third tour there in May of 2009, and so we would like to have at least a couple of months to get settled in before having to hit the road again.
KB: What do you see as the benefits of the big move?
RD: Benefits: can you say Austin musician’s healthcare, for one? That, and the fact that the bench is so much deeper for this type of music that we do. There are a lot of incredibly talented musicians up here in the northwest. But they either play Jazz or Blues or Rock an’ Rolla, or have family lives they can’t just up and leave for touring purposes. Down in Austin, not only will we have the opportunity to play more easily and more often all around, but it will most likely be a heck of a lot easier to find the right folks for us to play with, who do this sort of music, and are ready and rarin’ to hit the road! We certainly hope to come back up through this way, whenever possible. Most likely, due to the costs involved, we would need an anchor gig of some sort to bring us back this way- Bumbershoot, a state fair, wedding, or other big party- that we can then build a little tour around. It will be more than wonderful to see all our old friends. And of course, they’re invited down to visit with us any old time! The spare bedroom will be ready and waiting. We have had the opportunity to play with some pretty incredible acts up here. Most notably, we opened for Wanda Jackson a few times a few years back. And that same year, we also got to play with the Picketts, Candye Kane, and Christy McWilson, all amazing female-fronted acts. One of Jorge’s favorite memories is of playing Bumbershoot in 2005. One of mine, other than sharing the stage with so many greats, was when we played for our friend Leon Berman’s 50th birthday at Conor Byrnes’ in Ballard. There are images burned into my brain from that night!
KB: How well is “Miles From Home” doing? Also, what are your future plans for touring behind the album?
RD: Miles From Home seems to be doing fairly well. We’ve been in the top 100 AMA Charts these past two weeks, and hope to see that continue over the next 6 weeks through the CD tour. Ha! That leads me to the next part of that question! We will be touring Miles From Home from September 20th through October 11th, starting at the Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, and touring across the south from there: Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, and San Diego, then north up through California, ending the tour in San Francisco.
Our thanks to Jill McGuckin for alerting us about the arrival of this disc. Check out Ruby Dee and the Snakehandler’s online home at http://www.rubydeemusic.com.