An Interview with Michigan guitarist Rusty Wright - the blues rock emotions mixed with a sense of humor

"Blues is about a feeling. A human feeling that everyone knows and experiences at times in life."

Rusty Wright: Michigan Blues Emotions

In 2004 Michigan guitarists Rusty and Laurie Wright put together the first incarnation of the group that would become the Rusty Wright Band. It was only the band's second show together when they opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Since then, Rusty, Laurie and their band have made the leap from regional favorite to enjoying international recognition and performing at music events on four continents. For the band's 2006 recording debut "Ain't No Good Life", Wright enlisted the help of longtime friend and former Godsmack drummer Tommy Stewart for the recording. In early 2009, the band's second album, "Playin' with Fire" released.

In addition to shows with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Rusty Wright Band has shared stages and billing with an eclectic array of roots and rock acts including the late Etta James, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Charlie Musselwhite, Leslie West & Mountain, Janiva Magness, Zac Harmon, Ronnie Baker Brooks, Bettye Lavette, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya, Mark Farner (formerly of Grand Funk Railroad), and many others. In their home state of Michigan the group has become a 'go-to' act for blues festivals and concert venues wanting to boost ticket sales. In spring 2012, Former Grand Funk Railroad bassist Dennis Bellinger joined the group, replacing longtime bassist Andrew Barancik who left to focus on his church and ministry. In October, 2011 the band quietly released "Live Fire." In July, 2010 the band embarked on a successful commercial concert tour through Italy, sharing billing with the late Michael Burks. The band's fourth album in 2013, titled "This, That & the Other Thing" and in March, 2014 the band Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as a Master Blues Band. The brand new album, Wonder Man (2015), is the fifth release cements Rusty Wright's legacy as a diverse songwriter who defies easy description or categorization.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Rusty Wright archive,  C. Codish, S. Quattrociocchi, S. Capaldi / All rights reserved

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues, what have been some of your musical influences?

I was surrounded by music from birth. My mother was an accomplished singer and had a nationally recognized Gospel quartet when I was a child. My Dad was from Alabama and he loved music and had a large record collection. It contained a lot of early Rock n Roll and a lot of blues which was labeled "Race Records" back then. It was all Chess recordings of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf and Hubert Sumlin. I loved the sound and learned my first guitar licks from those records.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Rock searches and experiments?

I always feel you should try to find your own signature sound in any form of music. I don't believe it's good to "Parrot" what others have already done. Yes, it's good to learn from others but once you have learned what they have to offer you need to put your own voice on it from there. Otherwise you are just reliving other musicians’ glory and doing nothing to develop your own style. I love Blues/Rock but I like to bring other elements into the mix to try and keep it current. Sing about modern topics and use different elements like moog synth or sub sonic beats etc. I'm always looking for ways to push things a little farther while keeping true to the core.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?

The blues is a fundamental expression of all the feelings you go through in life. It will console you when life is hard and it will lift you even higher when life is good. But it's a foundation and it should be expressed in your own way. That's what makes it great, because you take it and you pour yourself into it and make it something a little more than when you found it.

"Blues is the expression of the human condition." (Rusty and Laurie LaCross-Wright, Photo by Cybelle Codish)

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESMAN and SONGWRITER?

Seems like life will give you the blues. For some reason there will always come a cloud or more in your life and once you realize that bad things happen for no good reason that melancholy feeling of resignation inside is the blues.

How do you describe Rusty Wright sound and what characterize your music philosophy?

The Rusty Wright sound is "emotion" mixed with a sense of humor. I believe you follow a song to see where IT wants you to go. I never sit down and try to write by formula. It's soulless music just for the sake of playing notes. That's why there's so much computer music now. It's easy to write soulless stuff with a soulless machine. Try reaching down into that quagmire of feelings inside when your heart is broke and you just want to give up breathing and then channel it through that instrument. THAT is when something extraordinary comes out.

My music is intended to be expressive and sometimes you say it with a few words sometimes you say it with a large vocabulary. I have a very large musical vocabulary so my music tends to have many types of styles and vibes but it all comes from following the song not trying to make the song follow me.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

There's not one person. Blues is a very broad spectrum of styles and you can and should listen to everyone you can get a recording of. I am fond of SRV but I also love Freddy King and Muddy and Lightning Hopkins and T-Bone Walker and Hubert and then modern guys like Joe Bonamassa and Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes. There's something to be learned from everyone. If you keep your mind open your spirit will soar!

"One wish for the blues-that people would let it flourish by letting a younger generation learn the roots but add their own spin to it. Keeping it fresh." (Photo: Rusty Wright Band)

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Learn from others and emulate the bands you love as you learn BUT after a short while find out who THEY were inspired by and follow the influences back to the source. Whatever music you like I bet those influences will lead back to the blues eventually. Learn all the styles of music on your instrument. There's something to be learned from all of it and it will help you find YOUR voice. Otherwise you're just a parrot and there are plenty of those already.

...and what is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

Love the music, love the people with the music and let everything else take care of itself.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

I don't know if there is a "best" moment. Every day I get to play is the best day of my life. I hope I can play right up to the time I gotta cross the bridge...but if their ain't a guitar on the other side I'm comin back...LOL!

I don't dwell on the bad stuff but the most recent thing that brought me low was when Michael Burks passed away suddenly. We had met on tour in Italy in 2010 and at first I thought he was being stuck up cause he didn't say much but when I finally broke the ice after a show I found out he was a shy person who expressed himself with his music. Once he opened up and we had some laughs I realized he was a very sweet gentle soul with a big heart. We jammed together on some shows in Italy and it was a riot. He and his band were great folks. We had hoped to catch up at some festivals in the US that were booked the year he died but then he passed from a heart attack. When I heard the news it just hurt like hell. He was gone that fast and I knew we would never meet again. Like somebody just flipped a switch and this guy who was so full of life was taken from it. That sense of loss for no understandable reason....yea that is some blues.

"I don't dwell on the bad stuff but the most recent thing that brought me low was when Michael Burks passed away suddenly." (Rusty & Michael Burks in Italy, Photo by S. Quattrociocchi) 

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

I think maybe the pic of me and Michael Burk jamming side by side at Bluesfest inLiri de Sol, Italy.

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following around the world?

The emotion. A bluesman who really knows how to express it will always touch someone with the music. The whole reason for music is to be a vehicle for emotion. Joy, sorrow, anger, love, pain, ecstasy. Blues is the expression of the human condition.

Which memory from Etta James, Johnny Winter, Charlie Musselwhite, and Leslie West makes you smile?

Etta was in bad health by the time we played with her so not much to remember. Johnny Winter was also a very shy quiet sort. I met him backstage and it was a nice chat but he's also getting frail.

Charlie Musselwhite is another very gracious gentleman. We worked with him in Detroit and he was using a pickup band and they were late starting rehearsal so they ran long during the soundcheck. He came up afterward and apologized profusely for making us wait and told his band he was working with to "get it together now. There's folks waiting to take the stage and they know their parts."

I didn't meet Leslie West cause he was PO'd and stayed on his Bus. But I remember standing outside the venue in the Artist parking area getting some air before showtime and watching Mountains Tour bus rocking back and forth as Leslie and the promoter were fighting! Guess the guy didn't pay him what he wanted. You could hear the screaming and see the bus rock as they tossed each other around inside! LOL! I couldn't help but laugh as the promoter walked off the bus all disheveled and red faced. The show did go on so I guess Leslie got his money or a pound of flesh. I don't know which.

"ALL roads lead to the Allman Brothers Band! Dwayne and Gregg and Dickey Betts are the originators of what became Southern Rock. Blues and Country played through Marshall stacks and Hammond B3 with a dash of Soul." (Photo: Rusty & Laurie LaCross-Wright)

Are there any memories from Lynyrd Skynyrd which you’d like to share with us?

Skynyrd was one of the finest acts I've ever met. Marvelous gentleman and ladies one and all. I will never forget being on stage and seeing all three guitar players standing behind the side curtain watching me play. They came up after the show and said "Dude, where the hell did you come from!" It was a great night.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Zac Harmon, Bettye Lavette, and Mark Farner?

Zac Harmon nice guy, not real talkative. Bettye Lavette, had an "assistant" and didn't mingle much backstage.

Mark Farner, a very nice guy and still one of the best singers in the world. He did an acoustic version of Closer To Home that brought tears to your eyes and tore the house down.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

One wish for the blues-that people would let it flourish by letting a younger generation learn the roots but add their own spin to it. Keeping it fresh. You can't keep the blues alive by putting it on pedestal in a glass box. It will only suffocate and end up being some dead thing in a museum.

Are there any memories from “Wonder Man” studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Early in the recording process we were laying down drum and bass bed tracks and in a digital environment we save everything to hard drive. We had been going strong for about 8 hours when all of a sudden everything crashed. The computers the audio interface, hard drives all broke down simultaneously. All our work was GONE. Unrecoverable. But instead of being upset I saw it as a sign. The song arrangements were not as good as I thought they could be but we had this time already booked in the studio and we were wanting to get the CD done asap so I settled for a "good enough" kind of attitude. I wasn't really thrilled with everything but I was accepting it as it was due to expedience. When the gear all broke down at once I knew it was the cosmos telling me "this ain't right yet" so I cancelled the sessions and went back to work on the songs and two weeks later I brought the new revised renditions and it was like night and day. Everyone agreed the new arrangements were "IT". I feel if not for that freak break down "Wonder Man" would not be half as good as it is now. Sometimes you just have to step back and do what's best for the music and the schedules and plans just have to wait until its right.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think all forms of music have lost a lot of their innocence. The public is far more sophisticated than they were 30 plus years ago and they have so much high quality recordings and styles available online that they don't have as much patience for the performance.

Recordings in the past were much more spontaneous and simple in form. It was about capturing the moment and the feel of a band jamming and getting into a mindset together as one. The quality of the equipment wasn't as good as it is now so those recordings sound as if they are not as good to young listeners who are used to hearing very high fidelity sound. But what we lose is that performance. That incredible vibe from a great player or singer captured at that moment when they were at their peak. Musicians of the past really had to know how to play and sing and perform WELL because there were no pro tools studios and autotune etc. I really feel that the biggest loss in Blues or any form of music is that spontanaiety. Yea we can make very good sounding records for much less but we're not using the technology to develop and create great performers. I would like to see a return to more spontaneous recording. Set the band up all at once with the singer and go for it. No overdubs no studio tricks just a group of passionate players throwing down an entire CD in a day.

"I love Blues/Rock but I like to bring other elements into the mix to try and keep it current. Sing about modern topics and use different elements like moog synth or sub sonic beats etc. I'm always looking for ways to push things a little farther while keeping true to the core."

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish Mainstream media and the entertainment public would stop listening with their eyes. Judge the music, not whether the player is sexy, trendy or wears the current fashions or has a Tattoo or how many face piercings or how young or old they are. Does the song reach you!?! Then who cares what the player looks like.

What is the relationship between the blues/rock culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Most blues/rock lovers are classic rock lovers also since almost everything in classic rock is based on a blues foundation. I wish more African-Americans could embrace the blues. It seems that somewhere along the way white middle class Americans took a real interest in it and then Black America just shrugged its shoulders and moved to hip hop and rap. There are some exceptions but it seems that 20 something African Americans see blues/rock as a "white thing".

Do you know why Michigan is connected to the rockin’ blues/soul sound? What are the secrets of local blues?

Michigan was a melting pot of peoples after WW2 many folks from the south relocated to Michigan to find work in the car factories and they brought all their culture and music with them. My dad came from Florence Alabama and I lived in an area that we locals all called Little Missouri, there were others like Little Arkansas because of all the southerners in the area. You had blues lovers and Chicago was a train ride away so many acts traveled to Detroit and the surrounding cities cause the clubs were really jumpin but then you also had these hillbilly white boys and rockabilly lovers and greasers and of course Motown was huge and then when the Beatles and British invasion bands came over it was inevitable that musicians would develop that driving sound but with big guitars out front like the car factories churning out steel machines.

"Most blues/rock lovers are classic rock lovers also since almost everything in classic rock is based on a blues foundation. I wish more African-Americans could embrace the blues." (Photo: Rusty Wright and his band on stage with Detroit skylines view)

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Absolutely! Blues is about a feeling. A human feeling that everyone knows and experiences at times in life. As long as we remember that there will always be a blues music even though it may be dressed in a different suit.

Do you believe that there is “misuse”, that there is a trend to misappropriate the name of blues?

The only misuse is to play it badly. If you can't reach your audience with something then maybe you need to buy a computer and make beats at the dance club. You'll make more money and you won't have to worry about reaching anybody.

But I am utterly against "Blues Snobbery" also. If you believe that blues must sound exactly like Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker and that all innovation is bad then once again we're back to that museum thing. Those guys took their sound by emulating an earlier style and then putting their own voice and spirit to it. I am trying to do the same thing in a world that is far different from theirs so my blues is a product of my time and my experience. You start out as a "parrot" of those sounds when you are young because you need to learn the root of what you do and how your elders did it but at some point you must leave those roots and find your own thing so that you may become a new branch on that Blues Tree.

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

Pure magic. The words music and magic are very close to one another. If you feel it inside and you learn to play that instrument with great enough skill to express that feeling then you will reach your audience and if that happens they will respond to it and feed you their energy until that amazing loop happens. The more you express the more they give you back so the more you express etc. etc. Those moments are what I call "God Off The Mountain" moments.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with the Southern Rock music and movement?

ALL roads lead to the Allman Brothers Band! Dwayne and Gregg and Dickey Betts are the originators of what became Southern Rock. Blues and Country played through Marshall stacks and Hammond B3 with a dash of Soul.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

I laugh at myself LOL! Keeps me honest. What touched me lately was BB Kings passing. I heard his song "How Blue Can You Get" and I remember thinking "that guy played the first 5 opening notes and he OWNED me" It still does that whenever I hear it. THAT is true greatness.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That's tough. I would want to go to so many places in time. Like Chess records when Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters were there. Woodstock for sure. I'd love to have been backstage with all those great players just soaking up the vibe. Or the night Jerry Lee Lewis set his piano on fire to upstage Chuck Berry! Or the Filmore East when the Allman Brothers did their live record. Or maybe the night Stevie Ray played at Alpine Valley. I'd give anything to have stopped him from getting on that helicopter.

The Rusty Wright Band - Official website

Photo by Simona Capaldi

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