Versatile artist Rhonda Hicks Rucker talks about James "Sparky" Rucker and the value of Blues treasure

"I miss the spirit of camaraderie that was present when the older musicians were still alive. They would play the dozens, insulting one another - all in fun  - and play music and tell stories." 

Rhonda Rucker: Νature values  of Blues 

Rhonda Hicks Rucker is a versatile performer, playing blues harmonica, piano, banjo, and bones. Rhonda appears on recordings and gigs with her husband James "Sparky" Rucker. Rhonda from Louisville, Kentucky, has played piano since the age of four. As a teenager, Rhonda also took organ lessons, voice lessons, and taught herself to play guitar. She grew up in the Methodist Church, learning many of the old hymns and gospel songs, and she substituted for the organist when he couldn't make it to church. 

In 1989 Rhonda began teaching herself how to play blues harmonica, and she began playing on stage with Sparky during that same year. She began by studying the techniques of Sonny Terry, the renowned blues harp player, but she quickly branched out to other styles of playing. Her expressive style of playing harmonica perfectly complements Sparky's guitar or banjo. Rhonda has also added clawhammer banjo and rhythmic bones to her instrumental repertoire, adding variety to their stage performances.

Rhonda has become a passionate voice in social and environmental advocacy through her songwriting. Since early childhood, she has studied the ecological challenges that face our world. Using her versatile musicianship, she has taken up her pen and created moving songs about such topics as global warming, the broken health care system, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker’s new CD, Let Freedom Ring, is a testament to the ongoing struggle for liberty in the United States.  The songs trace this history from slavery and the Underground Railroad, through women’s suffrage and the founding of the UMWA, to the civil rights movement. Rhonda Rucker's article, "Rescuing Miracle," was published in the February 2013 issue of Highlights magazine. Sparky & Rhonda Rucker were given the MLK Art Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Commission in Knoxville, Tennessee in January 2013.

Interview By Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues Folk culture?

Rhonda: To me, blues music is an original form of American protest music. It came from people who were oppressed and given very few opportunities to make a better life for themselves.  And yet, these people overcame these obstacles to create an art form that is revered all over the world.  I think about these things whenever I’m faced with adversity.  I know my hardships don’t even compare to the things these people faced.  This gives me hope and confidence that I can overcome obstacles and actually create something good out of trials and tragedies.

"To me, blues music is an original form of American protest music. It came from people who were oppressed and given very few opportunities to make a better life for themselves."

What characterize James "Sparky" and Rhonda Rucker work & progress?

Rhonda: We try to blend storytelling and history in between songs to provide both entertainment and education in our programs and performances.  We’ve often had people come up to us after a performance telling us, “I wish you had been my history teacher.” 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Rhonda: Blues music transcends gender, race, religion, national origin, and other categorizations.  It seems to touch people somewhere deep in their souls, and that’s probably why it will always be with us.  That’s probably why it also went on to influence jazz, country and western, rock and roll, rap, hip-hop, and other types of American popular music.

How has the blues and folk changed your life? Which is the most interesting period in your life? 

Rhonda: One of the things that being a musician has given me is the opportunity to give people back their music.  Blues and folk music originally came from regular, everyday, working people – not from some songwriting factory in New York or Nashville.  A lot of these songs have been filtered down through generations, changed a little here and there, and this process creates some of the most beautiful music in the world.  When we’re on stage singing, we always try and get the audience to sing along.  The looks on their faces is what I live for – the pure joy you can see when they are singing a song they learned or heard long ago. 

I feel like I’m living in the most interesting period of my life right now.  I’m always looking forward to the next project or the next performance.  I’ve been doing some children’s writing lately, trying to get some historical picture books and novels published.  One novel is based on Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy and scout during the Civil War when she helped lead the Combahee River raid in South Carolina.  Another novel is based on the Birmingham children’s crusade in 1963, in which hundreds of school students marched during the civil rights movement and helped change the nation.  We just released a new album entitled Let Freedom Ring, which includes songs from slavery, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement.  We’re continually working up new material and gradually incorporating those songs and stories into our performances.

What experiences in your life make you a good songwriter?

Rhonda: For starters, paying attention to the world around you helps you get good ideas for songs.  My experience in the medical field and my years of traveling have both contributed to my songwriting.  I have gotten several ideas while driving – either a phrase will be running around in my head or a musical riff or tune.  However, I think what contributes most to making a song good is the years I spent playing traditional music.  True folk songs have been filtered through generations, tweaked here and there until they are the best they can be.  By playing these songs, I’ve absorbed the rules of good songwriting without consciously thinking about it. 

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Rhonda: We’ve had some harrowing experiences traveling, but try to forget about those bad moments.  One of my best moments was when we were in Scotland.  We toured a castle with other people in the music camp where we were teaching.  Everyone sang together inside the castle – first we sang “We Shall Overcome” and then “Wild Mountain Thyme.”  The sounds reverberated throughout, and the harmonies were beautiful.  It made for an unforgettable experience

Why did you think that the Blues culture continued to generate such a devoted following?

Rhonda: I think this relates to what I said in an earlier answer – blues music touches almost everyone deeply.  Everybody has problems – even rich people!  Because of this, blues music will probably always be with us and never go completely out of style.

From the musical point of view is there any difference between the original Blues era & modern Blues?

Rhonda: Well, on a superficial level at least, they certainly sound different.  There are certain techniques you can do with one that cannot be done with the other, e.g. there are percussive techniques that are used in country blues guitar that can’t be used on an electric guitar.  The harmonica styles are different as well, with the instrument taking on more of a “horn” sound in electric blues.

"I’ve learned from other people as well, but none of them as much as my husband.  He’s an encyclopedia when it comes to African American culture – and also history in general." Photo by Jack Goodwin

Are there any memories from the road with the Blues, which you’d like to share with us?

Rhonda: My fondest memories are the early years that I taught at Blues Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, WV.  I got to spend time with Howard Armstrong, John Jackson, Nat Reese, and other wonderful musicians.  Other than a festival or camp that focuses on blues or black culture, Sparky and I don’t get to spend time with other African American musicians.  Many other festivals or music camps (with the exception of Common Ground on the Hill in Maryland) will only hire one African American musician, so we don’t get to spend time with these musicians otherwise.

Do you think the younger generations are interested for the Blues culture?

Rhonda: They love it when they hear it.  Unfortunately, the opportunities for young people to be exposed to it seem to be dwindling.  For many years, there has been a “Blues in the Schools” program, where artists perform in schools.  Sparky and I used to give numerous educational programs in schools each year.  In these presentations, we not only introduce students to blues music, but also music from slavery, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement.  In recent years, however, U.S. teachers have felt increasing pressure to focus only on reading, writing, and math because of standardized testing.  In some schools, music, art, and even social studies have been eliminated.  We still perform in schools (we just performed in two today and we have two more tomorrow), but we don’t do nearly as many as we used to.  Some week-long music camps are “family” camps, which means that they are kid-friendly.  I love teaching at these camps, and kids are usually wonderful music students.  I also love watching them get turned on to the music. 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the Blues culture?

Rhonda: That’s easy – my husband!  I’ve learned from other people as well, but none of them as much as my husband.  He’s an encyclopedia when it comes to African American culture – and also history in general.

You have come to known great bluesmen. It must be hard to pick, but which meetings have been the biggest experiences for you?

Rhonda: The biggest experience?  My husband!  Other than that, I’d say the same ones I’ve already mentioned – Howard Armstrong, John Jackson, and Nat Reese.  I love watching them perform, playing with them, or just listening to their stories.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from gigs and jams?

Rhonda: There’s a recent one that stands out.  I was at Common Ground on the Hill, and we headed back to the place we were staying after the evening concert.  We hadn’t planned a gathering or party, but I started playing guitar and singing some songs, then another person joined in, and another….  These people were all very dear friends.  The place where we were staying ended up packed with people, and we were all singing at the top of our lungs and harmonizing and playing various instruments.  The spontaneity, joy, fun, and camaraderie made it all priceless.

What is your DREAM and what is your nightmare for the world?

Rhonda: One of my concerns is the environmental mess the world is currently in.  Another concern is our proclivity as humans to fight one another when we disagree instead of talk to one another and work out our difference.  And since the environmental problems may eventually cause more competition over land and resources, they may bring out more of our war-like tendencies.  So my dream would be for people to switch to renewable forms of energy that do not contribute to climate change.  And my dream would also be for people to work out their problems in a way that doesn’t involve war.  I don’t claim to be a diplomat, but I have seen music help unite people who would otherwise not have much in common.  I think it sometimes helps create a bridge between people who have different points of view.

Do you know why the harp is connected to the Blues? What are the secrets of?

Rhonda: In the black string bands that pre-dated some blues, the fiddle is prominent.  Later, the harmonica seemed to take place of the fiddle.  The harmonica is cheaper and easier to come by than a fiddle, so maybe that’s the reason.

(Photo by A. Marc Shamblin)

What is the “feeling” you miss most nowadays from the old days of Blues culture and way of life?

Rhonda: I miss the spirit of camaraderie that was present when the older musicians were still alive.  They would play the dozens, insulting one another – all in fun – and play music and tell stories.  I miss them all.

What advice would you give to new generation? What is the best advice ever gave you?

Rhonda: The best advice someone ever gave me was to play what you are feeling at the time.  If you think about it and worry too much, your music becomes predictable and soul-less.  I would pass that advice on to a new generation; in addition, I think it’s important to know how the music developed and where it came from. 

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

Rhonda: Maybe this is it:  Sometimes we’ve done an Appalachian ballad or another non-blues song, and someone tells us, “That was a really good blues song.”  People assume that because Sparky is black, our songs are all blues songs.

Sparky and Rhonda - Official website

                                                                                                                 Photo by Van Meade

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