Elbow grease. Sweat off the brow. Toil and trouble. Hell yeah. That’s Hurricane Ruth, through and through. Whether she’s cutting a record or stepping on the bandstand, the blues-rock singer gives all she’s got. Just like her mama.
Hurricane Ruth LaMaster dedicates her fifth album – “Good Life,” a Category 5 windstorm of 10 original songs – to her mother, Norma Jean.
“My mom did not have a life that was a bed of roses,” Hurricane Ruth said. “She did work her fingers to the bone. She started working for my grandfather when she was 9 years old. She was the driver and he rode shotgun and they delivered bootleg whiskey, beer and gin to the local houses of ill repute in Beardstown, Illinois.”
The LeMasters lived in a small town on a river: “You take the hard road to a gravel road to a dirt road to get to their house.”
Father Milt LaMaster died in 2009. He went on the road as a musician at the age of 16. Ruth has notebooks filled with stories shared by her parents, and that’s where lyrics from many of the songs on “Good Life” are derived, including the title track.
Norma Jean advocated a creative life and, when asked, she told her daughter she wasn’t afraid to die. “Never stop doing what you do,” she advised. “Fight for your dreams. Do what you love. You’ve got to live each day like it’s your last one. So when it’s gets to be your time, you can say, ‘I’ve had a good life.’ ”
Ben Elliott’s final project
“Good Life” was produced by the esteemed Ben Elliott, who died of cancer in April. It was recorded at Elliott’s Showplace Studios in Dover, New Jersey. The players on it are incredible: Guitarist Scott Holt, who toured with Buddy Guy for a decade; Los Angeles drummer Tony Braunagel (Robert Cray, Etta James); keyboardist Bruce Katz (bandleader, Berklee grad, member of Gregg Allman and Big Mama Thornton’s bands); and bassist Calvin Johnson (Anthony Gomes), who Hurricane Ruth calls “Thundercat.”
“It is my understanding that I am indeed (Ben Elliott’s) last project. I get emotional when I talk about it. Ben taught me a lot. I am not the only one who will say he had the best set of ears in the business. And he was so hard working. Even as ill as he was, we would bang out a 12-hour day in the studio and long after we had left, he’d still be there working.
“Ben selected me. He really liked (my 2017 album) ‘Ain’t Ready for The Grave.’ He liked my live performances. He said, ‘I really hear a lot of rawness and edginess in your voice. Kind of that barroom brawler and then you can flip a switch and do sensitive sweet vocals. … I hear rawness of a Steve Marriott-Humble Pie and the grittiness of Paul Rodgers and I want to be able to work with that and channel that.’ ”
The collection of songs, which includes co-writes by gutarist Holt, Gary Nicholson, Karen Leipziger, Bart Walker and Tom Hambridge, are diverse and, as is Hurricane Ruth’s bent, emotional.
Experiencing a Hurricane
A resident of Illinois, just east of St. Louis, Hurricane Ruth doesn’t often tour in the West. It was a most delightful happenstance that I saw her perform in Memphis. On a midweek afternoon the week of the 2015 International Blues Challenge, I went to the Purple Haze just off Beale Street to catch another band that had a couple of cool cats I met at the airport, the Reverend Shawn Amos and guitarist Doctor Roberts. I can’t remember which band went onstage first, but I will never forget Hurricane Ruth’s performance, the unexpected power and presence that simply blew me away. A “Hurricane” indeed.
After I met her, she told me, “It doesn’t matter if it’s 10 people or 25 people in a club where I play or to thousands of people. I always try to make it a personal experience for whoever is in the crowd.”
Hurricane Ruth is obviously a blues singer. But it’s no surprise she used to play a metal band, Slick New Face ft. Hurricane Ruth, which opened for Judas Priest.
“A lot of people take a lot of shit for being influenced by different genres,” she said. “As a musician, you cannot limit yourself to listening to just one genre. I listen to anything and everything that I can, from classical opera to straight blues, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton — I wear her out on the regular. Humble Pie to Heart to freaking Gino Vannelli, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy. You can’t limit yourself to not listening to everything.”
“I never did quite fit the mold of society. As a person and as a musician, I never did fit that mold of your typical blues singer, or female singer. I’m more comfortable in jeans or leather or tennis shoes or boots than I am in high heels. Part of this album is returning to my authentic stuff. I want to be as authentic as I possibly can.”
- Hurricane Ruth
- ‘Good Life’
- Label: American Showplace Music
- Release: July 10, 2020
- Favorite tracks: ‘She’s Golden,’ “I’ve Got Your Back,’ ‘Black Sheep’