Ruby Dee’s sultry brand of R&B-tinged Rockabilly has never sounded better than on her current Catty Town CD Little Black Heart. Recorded with husband/bad-ass guitarist Jorge Harada and their oh-so tight band the Snakehandlers, the set smartly blends provocative original material with stinging guitar riffs, atmospheric side-trips and jukebox rhythms galore.
The multi-faceted California-born singer-songwriter has hosted her own radio program, written cookbook (Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook) and works as a consultant for other artists. Currently based in Austin, Texas, Dee can be seen in residence at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. Further, she and the Snakehandlers also play every month or so at the Continental Club and the Driskill in Austin, and Sam’s in San Antonio.
Yet Ruby Dee’s story could have been tragically shortened and so much less fulfilling had she not fought back from the effects of a traumatic brain injury suffered in a freak scooter accident. We contacted the resilient artist and asked about the details of her life and times. In return, she provided unflinching and often good humored insight into her personal recovery and professional resurrection.
Ken Burke: Marc Bristol tells me that you’ve just gotten home from an overseas tour. How did it go and what were some of the highlights of the trip?
Ruby Dee: Yes, I just returned home from a Northern European tour- the first I’ve ever done on my own- without even Jorge there by my side. There’ve been times Jorge and I have toured and picked up local rhythm sections, and I’ve played without Jorge and with my regular band. So this was a first for me. I was nervous before the tour started about how it all might go, but I have to say, from the very start, the gents who backed me up were amazing- professional, kind and caring, and fun fun fun. I’d have to say that that was the highlight of the trip for me- how awesome they made my songs sound, and how comfortable they made me feel with them backing me up.
KB: How long have you been in this crazy business?
RD: I’ve been singing in the choir since I was a kid, then sang
back-up off and on for years as a punk, then got out of singing altogether for a time. In 1999-2000, I started singing back up again in a few Seattle area Americana Alt-Country bands, then eventually quit those and started the Snakehandlers in 2002.
KB: In the notes of your new disc you mention an accident that resulted in a brain injury. What happened?
RD: In 2008, I was on my scooter, and the driver of a car didn’t see me and pulled into traffic where I was driving. I swerved to avoid being hit, tucked my front tire into a pothole, and went head over heels, landing on my head. Even with a full helmet, I still partially crushed my left orbital disc and suffered a moderately severe TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury]. The left side of my face has no feeling. The muscles all work but I can’t feel anything. No- one else was hurt.
Other side effects were: pretty bad vertigo for a while and I was easily confused and distracted. Plus I lost my language abilities. For a while, I couldn’t really speak let alone write. The longest lasting effect is to my short–term memory: Its shot. I need the lyrics of my songs on stage with me now because I can be in the middle of a song and just blank out, “what am I singing?”
But you know; I feel pretty lucky. I’ve been able to recuperate so well from all that. I still get easily distracted and confused, especially when I’m tired. And I still forget words and names, even faces, unfortunately. The hardest part is when I blank out and someone thinks I’m dissing them on purpose. I’m not, but if you’ve never had a head injury, you wouldn’t see that from just looking at me. I look fine.
KB: Did you suffer from any other cognitive problems? Is English your primary language? Did you also lose the ability to sing?
RD: Oh that’s a great question. Funny enough, the mathematical side of my brain wasn’t much affected- obviously, I only landed on one side of my head. But here’s the funny thing – I speak French, and French must be on the math side of my brain. After the accident, when I struggled to find words, if I thought of the word in French, it helped me inch my way closer to find the word in English. But otherwise, it was all extremely difficult. I could see the picture of the thing I wanted to say in my head, but couldn’t find the word itself. Some friends of mine can tell you – even a year or more after the accident – I would stumble over words that I just couldn’t find, just stopping my conversation in its tracks.
The accident also affected my ability to read easily or do simple things like fill in forms. Words just got all jumbled up and didn’t really make sense in that nice marching order they normally have on the page. Everything sort of jumped around or piled up together on one line when I tried to read. And I LOVE the written word, so that was tough.
The thing about head injuries or strokes is that, while the doctors still don’t know much about how the brain operates, they do know that music helps somehow. So they suggested I continue to perform, which I think was my lifeline to getting better down the road.
KB: Does music help you train the brain better than say just working with
speech? What sort of therapies did you use? How long before you started to see results?
RD: Honestly, I still don’t remember songs fully any more. There is a muscle memory to singing, just like any other instrument folks play. And about 90% of the time, I can shape words from muscle memory and make it through a show. But there’s that 10% of the time where my brain just glitches, and I fake words until I can find my spot on the lyric sheet in front of me. No one really notices except me, but gah, it’s frustrating to need that crutch.
I was only allowed one cognitive therapy appointment after the accident, but the wealth of information that doctor gave me was incredible. I started doing word games and word exercises- and began writing stories to stretch the language side of my brain. Then I started cheating: if I couldn’t think of the word for couch, for instance, I’d write sofa. So that’s when I started writing out my recipes that friends and family had been asking me to write down for years. You just can’t cheat on a recipe. After a year of writing, I realized I had a cookbook’s worth of recipes, and put together Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook.
In an interview I gave after the book came out, the interviewer asked if I would like to host my own radio cooking show. I said yes, and hosted Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cooking Show for 2 years. That really helped my cognitive functioning more than anything else: I had to write out scripts for each show every week, interview people, produce, cut and paste the shows together, chase down advertising dollars, everything. What a challenge! And you could really tell how it helped. From the time the show started until the end of that 2 years, I became confused and distracted and forgot words a lot less often than before. That continues to this day. I can tell when I’ve been writing a lot. I find words more easily and am able to focus. Less writing = less brain function, more writing = more Ruby in the room.
KB: When did you hit the turning point that allowed you to write songs again?
RD: Ah, the turning point! For the first few years after the accident, the language side of my brain was very unstable, like I was in a dark zone. That was really difficult for me because I always prided myself on what I could say and how I could say it. Actually, I became suicidal a few times during those years. Then, slowly, with a lot of effort, language started to creep back in, and I started to feel better about who I was and what I could still do: not as much as before, but I started to feel grateful for what I still could do, rather than dwell on what I couldn’t do any more. Then I wrote the book, and had the radio show.
While running the radio show, I started playing around with and re-working existing songs. I ended up re-writing the lyrics toa bunch of Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers songs in response to a lot of shows we were playing where there were children in the audience. If you know any of my songs, they’re not really child-friendly. We ended up recording those re-written songs and put them out as Rockabilly Playground in 2013. That was the start of being able to write songs again.
In the past, I’d always been able to write songs pretty easily and effortlessly. A snatch of lyric would come into my head, and somehow there would be a tune to set it to. Or I’d start hearing a rhythmic bit of music in my head and words would come together around that. After the accident, the music just stopped. I worked hard to bring back the language, but it wasn’t until after I ended the radio show, about 2 years ago, that suddenly one day, I heard the strain of something both musical and lyrical in my head. I freaked out and dropped whatever I was doing and sat down to write it down. Was I relieved that I could do that again? Oh hell yes.
Here’s the thing: songs don’t just come easily to me any more. I have to sit down and really work hard at a song now – piecing together the different parts, sometimes referring to technique rather than instinct (i.e.: go to the minor for the bridge). But I feel like the songs are better for it now. Sure I have to work harder at them, but I think because of it, I put more of myself into the songs. So they’re more well-rounded now, more well thought out.
KB: Once you started writing again, was it your intention to write this new album Little Black Heart? Which of the songs came from the period when you first started writing again?
RD: All I wanted to do was to be able to write songs again; to be able to share what’s going on inside me with folks outside, and maybe connect with [the listener’s] inside thoughts and feelings too. In the old days, I would write about things that were very personal. Many of the songs on the new album are still written in that vein; I felt something deeply and had to write about it, turn it into something to be shared that’s more universal. But I also started forcing myself to write about things that were less personal. I would take that bit of lyric or tune floating around in my head and make myself sit down and write a story that had nothing to do with me or my experiences, just a song that folks could hopefully connect with either way.
For instance, the more personal songs on LBH are “Mean Mean Woman,” a song I wrote to someone who I thought was my friend, but turned out to be something else; “Not For Long,” something I wrote after someone who played with us for a little while turned drunk-ugly one too many times, and didn’t play with us any longer (hence: “Not For Long”); and of course, “Who You Think I Am,” one of my surprise favorite new songs (surprise in that I didn’t love it right away, but it’s grown on me).
“Who You Think I Am” is about having this head injury, this hidden injury that really no one can see yet everyone is affected by. People think I turn away from them because I’m blowing them off. They don’t realize my brain just shuts down sometimes, or I become so overwhelmed by sound, motion and external ‘noise’ that I just can’t function. If you can imagine, I don’t do very well at clubs any more. I
can get up on stage and sing, but can’t hang out and chat before or after shows, because of all the confusing ‘noise’. I’ve lost a few friends because of this, even though I’ve tried to explain. People can’t see it, so they don’t believe it. “Who You Think I Am” is about that; you think I’ve done this mean thing, or that I’ve said or thought this other thing, but I haven’t. I’m not who you think I am. Of course this song would mean a lot to me!
And some of the songs that are about whatever just came to me are “Can You Spare a Match,” I was watching a movie about the bomb girls from WWII, and saw a poster in the background that said something to do with “spare a match.” The line started playing in my head, which led to a bit of tune, and suddenly I’m writing a swing-era-type song that I love having written. Or “Pretty Little Kitty,” I was just driving down the road and something about the rhythm of the road under my tires started feeding me this Jazz beat. I started riffing on words until I had to pull over and write some of it down. The song turned into a tongue-in-cheek tune about sex, which is always fun to write about!
I think the earliest song post-accident was “You Underwhelm Me.” A friend and I were talking about folks at a car show who’d been rude to someone who didn’t have the right look (the right hair, the right clothes, you know the type), and I said, “Oh well she should have said ‘you underwhelm me’.” Then I stopped and told my friend, “Hey I need to go,” and started writing. That opened the floodgates. Well, started the steady stream anyway!
KB: I really enjoyed LBH’s production values. In essence, do you serve as the disc’s producer?
RD: I am SO GLAD you mentioned this! This is the first album I’ve ever had anything to do with production on. Previously, I’ve always written the songs, brought them to the band, then sat back and allowed Jorge and whoever else to handle the production. But this time, I had very specific ideas about how I wanted each song to sound. I didn’t know the terminology (sorry Jorge, sorry Chris Burns), but I knew what I wanted the songs to say, more than just with words.
In the past, we’ve always done pre-production recordings so that each musician can go home and listen to their parts and know what to do right once we get into the studio. We did that for Little Black Heart too. But this time, when we got into the studio, I stepped in and told folks what to do on certain parts on each song. And we brought in a handful of amazing musicians to play instruments we don’t normally have on stage with us: Earl Poole Ball (piano learened with Music Lessons Main Line) on “Camille” and “Not For Long,” Dave Biller (pedal steel) on “Little Black Heart,” Tony Rogers and James Anderson (cello and violin) on “Camille,” and Jim Trimmier (sax) on “Can You Spare a Match?” and “Not For Long.” At one point, Jim was playing a sax part on “Not For Long” that I didn’t like. I asked him to stop, I sang the song for a few measures, and then sang him his part. He told me to keep singing until he picked itup, and that’s the sax part of “Not For Long.”
I’m not saying I’ll do that on every album, but what a satisfying feeling! Bringing the song into the world, then bringing it to light not only on stage, but also in the studio, with a very specific way I want it to be heard. Thank you so much for noticing that. You just made my week!
KB: Tell about your band the Snakehandlers. Which ones travel and which are studio only members?
RD: First off, once a Snakehandler, always a Snakehandler! In other words, once you’ve played with Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers, you are always an honorary member. That being said, really the band is Jorge and myself as LLC members. Anyone who plays with us is a gun for hire: we make sure to take care of them, pay them decently, cover all costs on the road, and if we make any bucks at the end of it, that’s great. But the band is always taken care of first.
The gents playing with us currently are Dylan Cavaliere on upright bass; he’s been with us for the past 5 years, and Mike L. Smith on drums. Mike has been playing with us only about 8 months, but he sounds like he’s been with us a lot longer than that. We often have folks step in and sub on bass or drums both locally and on the road. My newer songs are much easier to play, so it’s easier on someone subbing in and easier on us too. Jorge and I often do fly-out festivals and other shows where we pick up a local rhythm section, and then sometimes we bring the whole band. It all depends upon the size of the festival and what costs are covered. Of course we prefer to play with our own guys, but then again, there are folks out there that make the songs fresh and interesting when they back us up, so that’s always fun too.
KB: You included cello and violin on “Camille” which increased the song’s emotional impact. Is that the first time you’ve worked with strings?
RD: Yes, it is. I’d already written “Camille” for our friend Rob, whose wife passed away last year. The song is about all of us being in the room with him, all supporting him and remembering their deep bond, all lovingly holding him up, together. It’s a very emotional song. I awoke one morning with the sounds of strings in my head, just doing that low, slow, emotional reverberation that a string quartet can create, and knew I needed to do that with “Camille.”
I have a friend who is a violinist with the Austin Orchestra, and he recommended James, who’d worked with Tony before. All I had to do was say, “You start here, and you start there, and let it build.” They knew exactly what I meant, and they really brought it. Well, and of course, having Earl Poole Ball playing piano on the song didn’t hurt either. All in all, I just wanted the song to build and grow into a crescendo that you could feel deep down. I’m glad you can.
KB: “Not for Long,” “All Knocked Up,” “Who You Think I Am” and “Mean Mean Woman” seem like they would go over great live. Did you perform songs from the new LP during your latest tour?
RD: You nailed it right on the head. Those are some of the best live songs off the album. I throw myself physically into “Not For Long,” just allowing the song to move through me while I belt it out. “All Knocked Up” is a sing-along so folks really get into that. Plus you can dance to it. And “Who You Think I Am” and “Mean Mean Woman” are just rockin’ fun songs that get the crowd moving. Also “You Underwhelm Me.”
When we release an album, we tour it, so the last two tours have been all about Little Black Heart. And here’s the thing about touring a release: you write the songs, you bring them to the band and they start to become more well-rounded, then you start to play the songs before an audience, and that’s when they really start to breathe. Then take those same songs on the road, and suddenly different parts start jumping off the page at you. Like I said earlier, “Who You Think I Am” was not one of my favorite songs off this album originally, but after performing it live to audiences across Australia and Northern Europe, it quickly became one of my favorite crowd-pleasers. I love watching the audience react to a song.
LBH has been getting great airplay. The album charted on the Top 100 AMA charts for 7 weeks. We just dipped off the Top 100, but we’re about to get a bunch of press and are on the 59th Grammy primary ballot for Record of the Year, Best Americana Album, Song of the Year (“Not For Long”) and Best American Roots Song (“Not For Long”), so that might change!
KB: Earlier you mentioned writing the cookbook. Do you have a diner?
RD: Oh I don’t have a diner, unless you count our house. I used to own three restaurants in Seattle, and gave all that up when I was tired of carrying the weight of so many jobs on my shoulders. Now I just love to cook for friends and family again. Anytime anyone asks me if I miss it enough to open another restaurant someday, I don’t even have to think about it- nope! I love cooking, and love feeding folks, but don’t love the headache and stress of restaurant ownership. Come to our house though, and you will always get a great meal or three.
KB: What’s coming up for you, musically speaking? Is there anything else you’d like to say to your fans who read Blue Suede News?
RD: You know, I’ve had a lot of health issues over the past year. I broke a rib about a year ago loading gear, but didn’t know I’d broken it until we were in the studio recording LBH and I was having a hard time catching my breath and being able to sustain notes. At first I thought, “Oh no, I’m just getting old.” But I went to the doctor and they figured out I had a broken rib that had set improperly and was pulling my vocal chords out of alignment. Then we were on tour and I caught pneumonia, and the day we got home, I broke another rib, loading gear again. The broken ribs have caused me to have issues being able to sing my notes normally, so I actually thought a bit about just touring this album and then stopping. But the last tour was so amazing, and I have been working on some new songs. So, I’m not allowed to load gear any more. And I think we’ll see where these new songs lead us. We’ll be touring Little Black Heart well into 2017 at a number of festivals and back across the pond to the U.K., so who knows? Any suggestions?
You can check on Ruby Dee’s latest doings at her webpage rubydeemusic.com or say hello to her at: www.facebook.com/ rubydeeandthesnakehandlers. Also, additional info can be gleaned from our story on Ms. Dee in issue #84.
Blue Suede News
Blue Suede News- Seattle, WA
RUBY DEE AND THE SNAKEHANDLERS Little Black Heart
(Catty Town Records) 2016