Ruley And Mule Train’s Latest CD Captures 2009 Christmas Show
BY DOUG CHASE
An N-G Review
There stands a tall, young man wearing brand-new basketball shoes and squeezing the handle of a small gym bag at the intersection of two busy New York City streets looking “lost-er” than lost.
A compassionate cabbie, sensing either a fare or a good deed opportunity or both, asks, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, could you tell me how to get to Madison Square Garden?” asked the tall fellow.
The cabbie shakes his head and sighs. As he slams his machine back into gear, he yells out the window, “Practice, boy, practice.”
And so it is with any skill or ability that one wants to master, the only applicable admonition is “practice, practice, practice.”
Ask any coach, composer or musical organizer how to get the best results, and they’ll quickly snap, “Get the best players.”
Rockbridge County native Gary Ruley never had a chance to avoid that cabbie’s advice to “practice, practice, practice” because that was just part of the deal growing up in a house where Pat Ruley, no slack musician himself, thought that the family that worked together – and boy did those Ruley kids learn the meaning of work before they could spell it – and the family that played together would stay together.
Pat Ruley’s notion of “playing” did not have playing ball or swimming or fishing at the top of his list, though those pleasures were allowed, once the serious playing of their respective musical instruments was complete.
Dressed in matching outfits, The Ruleys had played more shows as youths than they had seen. Pat was the master of ceremonies and fiddler Ronald, now known far and wide as “Rooster,” was a budding banjo icon, and Gary tamed a guitar almost as big as he. Sisters Sandy, Sue and Kathy made everything look better and were strong musicians in their own rights. The Ruleys, along with a few others, were a little ahead of the curve that became the explosion of bluegrass popularity commencing in the mid-1970s.
Rooster and Gary began to hook up with local college students during the 1970s, and suddenly there was bluegrass everywhere you listened in Rockbridge County: in the hollows, in barracks, in dorm rooms, in fraternity houses … it was just as much fun as rock-and-roll; it just wasn’t nearly as loud.
Gary Ruley, who has chosen to continue to live in Rockbridge County and daily throw open the doors of his auto repair shop south of Lexington, has traveled many places in this country and others with his guitar in tow, but “I just like livin’ here. This is where I belong. This is where I want to be. I’ve spent time on the road, and it’s a different kind of fun. But I like knowing where I’m going to be when I wake up,” he explained recently.
“There’s so many great pickers who live in or near Rockbridge County that it’s not difficult to get a bunch of friends together and make music,” he added.
For years, Ruley has coordinated sporadic shows in the area under the billboard title “Gary Ruley and Mule Train.” That headline could just as easily read “Gary Ruley and Friends” because there has been nary a mule performing with Ruley, and it’s no train they’re pulling. No, it’s a glider of happiness, virtuosity and pure joy upon which they soar.
And listeners have been able to join the ride at will through the three previous Mule Train albums, one a 2003 studio production joined in 2005 by volumes one and two of “Gary Ruley and Larry Keel Live At The Troubadour Theater,” which served Washington and Lee University as its campus theater for decades. The building is now owned privately and has been renovated for other uses, so there will be no further concerts there.
Ruley and his team of smile-makers have recently released another live album, “The Southern Inn and Out,” which was recorded live during the band’s Christmas show at the Southern Inn in Lexington in December 2009. Sadly, there will be no concerts in that edition of that venerable venue, as fire claimed the Lexington landmark last July.
Building and restaurant owners are hard at work bringing the wounded location from its knees back to glory. Perhaps Ruley’s will not be the final recording made in a place where such musical excitement seems at home.
What is a little bit more than cool is that Ruley has developed such a cadre of musical friends over the decades that opportunities for them to perform together are opportunities for them to visit with each other, as they make new friends of their listeners.
The new album (it’s hard for us old guys to write “CD” or “compact disc”) sports a magnificent yet melancholic cover with a full outside photo of the pre-fire Southern Inn, including that neon sign no one who saw it forgets, but probably can’t tell you exactly where they saw it.
While the cover is enthralling, the music inside is magic. It would have been impossible to have jammed one more body into the show venue, and a rowdy crowd it was. But recording master Graham Spice did an extraordinary job of letting us know the concert was recorded live, but managed to allow listeners to appreciate a multitude of details that were lost in the room.
Ruley is coachable if nothing else; he understands that the key to overall team performance is to surround yourself with good players. The talent roster for this new album is beyond good. In addition to Ruley, who sings in a high, lonesome style like no other, and can pick a guitar with the best of them, there are six more spectacular pickers. Once again Ruley joins forces with Larry Keel, who is arguably one of the greatest flat-picking guitarists in the world. Keel, who also lives in Rockbridge County, has been blowing off fretboard steam with Ruley for years.
Adding a special touch to the live show was the appearance of two fiddlers: Nate Leath, a product of the Berklee College of Music and a regular with Old School Freight Train, who has also produced several … “and Friends” albums and had a grand time working alongside Shannon Wheeler. A Bedford County native, Wheeler has played with The Churchmen and The Blinky Moon Boys, who boast the greatest motto heard lately: “We never really wanted to be famous and so far it’s working out just fine.”
Rounding out this edition of the Mule Train were pickers well-known to all local music lovers: Will Lee, whose musical bloodlines go back through his father, Ricky Lee, who played with the legendary Stanley Brothers. After Ricky quit the road, Will was already working on the harmonica, the banjo … and then he just happened to bump into Gary Ruley, who was running a gas station in Covington, who had a banjo-pickin’ brother, “Rooster,” who bumped into Will. Next thing you know, Will was really good and then he was hooking up with Keel and the insanely talented Danny Knicely, who plays anything he touches well, to form Magraw Gap, a bluegrass band, well, not really. It was a band that married blues, rock and roll, fusion, jazz and whatever else struck its fancy into a bluegrass sound. Throw in another Knicely brother on The Mule Train, David, on the bass, who easily and constantly reacts to whatever nuances those up front toss his way.
It is a sound so magical, one half expects there to be a pause to pull a rabbit from a hat.
By the way, this magic will occur again Friday at the Lexington Golf and Country club. The show, which is open to all, is scheduled to commence around 8:15 p.m. Dinner reservations are be available starting at 5:30 p.m. prior to the show by calling 463- 4141.
Ruley smiles about the new show. “The Southern Inn show was awesome, and we’re really happy with how the album came out, but we may just have a few surprises up our sleeves this year.”
Might it be a surprise along the lines of Danny Knicely’s strong voice and Keel’s spontaneous inventiveness as the band breaks out the lovely John Hartford standard “Steam-Powered Aeroplane” on the new album? Might it be a new five-part harmony to top the four-part harmony of lead singer Ruley and Danny Knicely, Lee and Keel on Uncle Pen” that opens the new album?
Might Will Lee uncover his strong vocal chops with another old standard like “Matterhorn,” written by Mel Tillis and turned to honey by Charlie Waller and The Country Gentlemen, as he did for the new album?
Ruley always pays homage to rock and roll, and this continues on the new album. His covers of “Hard Day’s Night” by The Beatles, “Great Balls Of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis are rollicking fun. The Train rolls to a stop with a bluegrass, new grass, whewgrass version of “No Expectations,” first introduced by The Rolling Stones on their 1968 classic album “Beggar’s Banquet.”
Even to attempt to describe the amazing discipline combined with an unceasing courage to go where no man has dared to take his instrument before would be foolish for this technical neophyte.
o let’s step from the train to the platform like this: these dudes can pick, sing and transfer their sense of joy in a manner that got us up and dancing around the room like we thought might never happen again.
“The Southern Inn and Out” recording by Gary Ruley and the Mule Train is available at Rockbridge Music.
This Santa suggests this as a gift possibility to all you other Santas.
This is part of the November 24, 2010 online edition of The News-Gazette..