Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century. That’s a lengthy stretch to do anything, let alone work a local music scene. But Tampa Bay’s own Ronny Elliott has been active in these parts for all that time, a drawling dry-witted Americana and folk-rock hero whose richly-hued narratives are imbued with a sense of straightforward honesty whether he’s reflecting on history, social issues or love gone wrong.
One of his earliest bands opened for Jimi Hendrix back in ’67. Afterwards, Ronny was asked to stick around and hold the amps steady during Hendrix’s set, for fear the guitar legend might knock them over during a particularly unruly moment. Ask Ronny about his Hendrix experience, however, and he just shrugs, claiming, “Most of my stories have more to do with just being there, a Forrest Gump
kind of thing.”
Elliott with his 1932 National guitar at one of his favorite haunts, Ybor’s New World Brewery.
The title of his latest album, 2012’s I’ve Been Meaning to Write
, sums up his work ethos perfectly: he might be full of songs but he’s not necessarily in a hurry to put them to paper. In fact, he didn’t actually start producing original material until he’d been a musician for nearly 30 years, because, he says, “I never wanted to be anything but a bass player and be in bands.” But he finally figured out “grown-ups can’t get along” and if he wanted to be a part of a band that lasted, he’d have to start one himself. So he picked up a guitar (his original instrument), put together a band of his musician friends (axe-slinger Steve Connelly, drummer Harry Hayward, singer Natty Moss Bond and bassist Walt Bucklin), and eventually issued his full-length debut, Ronny Elliott and the Nationals
, in 1995. “I don’t have any real regrets but I probably should have gotten to it sooner.”
Nine albums later and a week before his 50-year anniversary show this Saturday at Skipper's Smokehouse, we sat down over beers at New World to discuss his life and times. Check it out after the jump...
How does it feel to have five decades behind you?
In general, it feels like I enjoy playing more than I ever did, even as a kid – and I’ve always enjoyed playing. So in some ways, it does not feel like a long time at all. But if I’ve got the blues and I’m feeling sorry for myself, it feels like at least 50 years.
You’re often referred to as a ‘cult artist’ and an ‘insurgent singer-songwriter’ – what exactly does that mean to you?
Unsuccessful. [Laughs.] It’s a polite way to deal with the fact that – what if I played baseball for 50 years and I never had a hit? What would they say? They’d have to come up with some sort of terminology, I expect.
I’ve had friends and people in my life, who think that I have a self-destructive, suicidal tendency, and I zig when the obvious thing is to zag. But I don’t think there’s too much to that. Mostly, I just don’t do ‘right.’ I don’t think it’s by plan. But I’m not sure. There are more of them than there is of me.
Tell me about playing with Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent in ’68.
It began when we did that Rock n’ Roll Revival Tour, so we were performing with Gene Vincent and The Coasters, too. Bo Diddley was on that tour but he brought a band and Bill Haley had the Comets. After that, Chuck Berry set me up with a band to back him whenever he was down here. I worked with him a lot after that.
Was there anyone else that really impacted you early in your career?
Those two had the biggest impact. My mom took me to a show at The Armory in 1956, and Billy Haley and Bo Diddley were on the bill, and they were already huge factors in everything I was doing, they and then Little Richard and The Beatles later, and the Coasters.
But I’ve played with so many people who meant so much to me. In fact, I was just having breakfast with a girl, and Van Morrison came on and it reminded me of working with [him].
How was that?
He’s like the nastiest little guy in the whole world. And I’m a huge Van Morrison fan. It seems to me, that if somebody’s really good, typically they’re gonna be really nice. He’s one of those exceptions – he’s not a nice guy. Piss and vinegar, all the time. Not like Chuck Berry – Chuck Berry is not nice 75 percent of the time, but when he is nice, he’s like the best guy in the world.
Was there anybody, aside from Van Morrison, who weren’t what you expected?
There’ve been a few disappointments. I had to promote shows for my record producer, Phil Gernhard, for a period of time. I think he didn’t want to pay me with me just sitting there [Laughs]. So we did Creedence Clearwater Revival with John Mayall and Dion at Curtis Hixon, and John Fogerty was one of the worst jerks I’ve ever been around too. And I was a big Creedence fan. And I still am.
So the attitudes didn’t affect how you felt about their music?
I almost wanted them to. I probably keep more Van Morrison on the computer than I do Duke Ellington or Elvis Presley. I love Van Morrison. It probably affected it a little bit, but not so much that I can’t hear how good those records were.
I know you tour Europe frequently. How’d you build up an audience there?
The first European trip was only to Germany, and it was because of Rock Bottom. Rock sent some of my CDs to some European promoters and one made its way to this German promoter. I saw Rock a week later and he said, "Well you’re Wolfgang Pieker’s favorite singer-songwriter in the world,” and I asked, “Who’s Wolfgang Pieker?” He brought me to Germany the first time.
I already had something of a following in Europe that I didn’t know about. When I got there and met with Wolfgang [a rock promoter] in his office, he said, "You know, German Rolling Stone
loves you." And I said, "No, I didn’t know there was a German Rolling Stone
." So he took me to the newsstand and we picked up the new one and there was a review of whatever record was out at the time.
What’s it like playing Europe?
I love playing Europe. It really seems to be more about the music than, I don’t mean than anyplace in the United States, and I realize that’s a dumb broad generalization, but they are really crazy about the music. I love the Borderline in London. They just seem to be completely fascinated with Americana. I played there one time and this record guy came up, and he said, ‘This is the Borderline and it’s fancy-schmancy, but it’s still a bar. When you play, it’s just completely quiet in here.’
Any memorable episodes?
Trying to find the place we were playing in Amsterdam – Walt Bucklin was driving. The sun was just coming up, there was still dew on the grass when we stopped on the outskirts of Amsterdam. And it’s not a big city – it’s way smaller than Tampa – and we hit a convenience store outside of town for directions. But the highway system goes around the city in concentric circles until you get to the city center … and the sun was going down and it was almost dark when we finally found the damn place. I thought Walt was going to cry. It was all day, literally.
How has the changing climate of the music industry affected what you do?
You know, I feel almost selfish, because obviously the music business itself has self-destructed and disappeared, and I kind of don’t care, ‘cause it doesn’t really affect me, I already didn’t make any money. I tricked them! [Laughs.]
There was an old joke in Dig
magazine, about little Sally. Her mother said to her, "Sally don’t stand on your head, those little boys just want to see your underwear." And she said, "I tricked them mom, I didn’t wear any!" That’s kind of the way I feel about the music business [Laughs]. I love the idea of music being free.
I know there’s a new business model coming, but I don’t have any idea what it’s going to be, and I know it’s not going to be Clive Davis or Rick Rubin who finds it. It’s probably going to be a kid. Stuff always seems to come from kids.
What wisdom do you have to impart on today’s aspiring musicians?
I was in a car three or four years ago now, with Rebekah [Pulley]. She was half-heartedly complaining about school, she was working for her certification to be a teacher, and I said, “Rebekah, this is not good news I’m about to give to you but – you’re Rebekah Pulley. That’s what you do for a living. You’re not going to be a teacher no matter what job you take.” People like that, that’s just what they’re gonna do. And maybe she’ll be rich and famous – that’d be great. She can buy me something. But if she’s not, that’s still what she’s going to do. She’s gonna be Rebekah Pulley.
Doesn’t seem like folk music is the platform for politics that it once was.
Pete Seeger is a big hero because of his activism and the sincerity he did it with — but that stuff bores me to death. I just don’t like a lot of — intentional folk music. To me, it’s all rock n’ roll and I care about it. If Butch Hancock goes off and rants and raves about politics — I’ve seen him just scorch a whole field of people like it’s nothing — but it’s still just rock n’ roll to me.
Do you have any new music in the works?
I always do. But I also have a play in the works, Live Sex on Stage
. But it has nothing to do with live sex on stage. Like those signs in New Orleans… Basically, it’s a series of vignettes centered around music but also around magic and mysticism and mentalism.
What inspires you these days?
I often think while I write, "Really, the last thing the world needs is another Ronny Elliott song." So if I don’t give myself an excuse to write new songs, I just don’t bother. But if I decide I’m going to record, I’ll immediately rattle off 10 or 20. What inspires me is pretty much everything around me. When I was a kid and they’d give aptitude tests in school, everything always showed that I was supposed to be a preacher. And I’ve figured out that’s kind of what I do. But there’s no real dogma I’m trying to spread, except "Be nice." It occurs to me that all the guys I like, Jesus, Buddha, and all of them, they didn’t really say much more than that. And what else is there?
To me that’s the whole rock n’ roll thing, too. I don’t like the dark side — I do if it’s theater and pretend, if you’re Screaming Jay Hawkins and you’re that good at it. But I don’t like attempts to make it dark…
Once I was doing an interview with a German reporter, and he asked me, “Why do you write such dark songs, such sad songs?" And I had never thought about it; it didn’t occur to me that I did. In a lot of cases, I’m trying to be funny, that’s my idea of humor. I guess if English isn’t your first language, you don’t get the dryness of it.
What would you tell someone who’s never seen you before?
I think there’s a certain honesty in what I do that connects, and I don’t know that I would pay money or stand out in the rain, in July in Florida, for a dose of honesty. But I do think that’s what I have to offer up. It’s the only thing I’ve ever come up with.
Show Details: Ronny's Wild Ride...Celebrating 50 Years of Rock & Roll with Ronny Elliott & the Nationals, Chinese Maryjane, Steve Connelly, Sat., July 5, 8 p.m., Skipper’s Smokehouse, Tampa, $10 in advance/$13 dos.