Ronnie James is living the dream that all musicians who grew up listening to the Roots Rock revival of Austin during the 80's dream of. While living in California he began his road career with Little Charlie & the Nightcats before playing with the Fabulous Thunderbirds which led to his current gig as Jimmie Vaughan's bassist. Along the way he's shared the stage and studio with a Who's Who of Blues legends, most notably the time he spent with the late Bill Willis in Vaughan's band. Now a mainstay in Austin, he sat down in early April 2010 to share his story...
"As far as playing the first thing was guitar, like most kids. I liked sports and tried to be good at it but was terrible. Then got a guitar and realized I couldn't play ERUPTION. That and Van Halen's version of ICE CREAM MAN, those two solos, I thought if I could just figure those two out I'd have it made. I don't know if anybody's every figured it out properly."
His introduction to Blues and Roots music was standard for his generation, one high-profile musician opening the proverbial twin doors to the worlds of vintage Blues and the Austin Roots Rock revival. "For one of my birthdays my dad got me a subscription to Guitar Player and it was the October '84 issue, my birthday's October, and October '84 was Stevie Ray Vaughan's first cover issue. I remember my brother just kinda happened to say, 'I heard about him, he's supposed to be pretty good.' So after that I asked my dad for tickets or something. That was the beginning of the end. I saw Stevie and every time after that I'd see the T-birds open for Stevie. Read interviews with them and then it got into this thing; I didn't know what Blues was so it took some kind of home schooling like we all did; read an article, buy a record, take a test and move on. That's kinda how I did it. That was in high school so I was probably right around a sophomore when I got into Stevie and the Thunderbirds and anybody else that came out of Austin like Omar, Anson... if it came out of Texas I'd just buy it. I don't know what my fascination was but those teenage years you just have it made up in your mind, like Alice In Wonderland kinda stuff, Austin seemed like this fairy tale land... and now I live here!"
"I had a little band in high school. All we did was talent shows, our school's talent show, and one regional talent show. The name of the band was Homemade Sausage. And the only reason we named it Homemade Sausage was because one of the guys stole the banner at the State Fair of a homemade sausage stand, so we were the only band that had a huge banner! We had to name our band that because that's what the banner said. And then I moved to California after high school and just started noodling with the bass and realized that was my true calling. I never gave any other instruments a shot, I just kept trying to be a guitar player, refused to give up and was really not that good. I play guitar better now that I'm a bass player than when I was actually trying to be a guitar player. I just kinda found my thing, what I do. Started getting with these little bands and started going out to the Blues clubs, like JJ's, at the time they had San Jose and JJ's Mountain View, and just kept playing."
After finding his niche and settling he quickly honed his craft the tried and true way. "Little Charlie & the Nightcats was one of the first big road gigs. I was actually in Mark Hummel & the Blues Survivors and Mark Hummel is friends with Rick Estrin. When I joined his band in '92 two weeks later I was backing up Luther Tucker, Snooky Pryor, Jimmie Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, all these real bona fide Blues legends, and I knew one or two things, maybe none, and realized the depth of these guys. So that was school in itself and that Mark Hummel gig got me the Little Charlie gig. And that was simply because Little Charlie wanted an upright player and I had just taken up upright when I joined Mark Hummel's band. I knew I wasn't the best qualified but I had the upright so I was in. Then I just had to figure out how to play it to their level. That's why I say those years were really my hard, hard musical education 'cause you had Estrin, who was a hardcore Blues guy, and Charlie too. But then Charlie was also a hardcore Jazz and Bebop guy. It was kinda cool. It was overwhelming, really. Sink or swim and what I learned with them trying to figure that stuff out, sometimes live, I'm no longer intimidated. Someone throws me a curve onstage, making a mistake is the least of my worries. I don't care if there's people in the audience, I think, 'My ear's developed, I'll figure it out. I'll get it.' I'm not worried about 'my God, they saw that!'
He steadily ascended through a series of gigs building a resume that would be the envy of any Blues/Roots bassist. "I was with Little Charlie for about 8 years. I joined in '93 and went to the end of 2000. Then I ended up joining the Thunderbirds February 2001. I was only out of work for about a month. It's dumb luck on my part. I was with the Thunderbirds 7 years, right up into the time we did JIMMY REED HIGHWAY with Omar (Dykes) and Jimmie (Vaughan). As soon as I left the T-birds Jimmie just kinda took a liking to me and went straight from that JIMMY REED HIGHWAY record into Jimmie's band.
While good fortune smiled on him he stayed laid back and took it all in stride. "I don't even question it or try to explain it, it's just one of those blessings that I never take for granted. I'm blessed beyond words. What can I say? It's overwhelming. I remember looking at Jimmie and Stevie and even the Nightcats when I was in high school. I set the bar pretty to a pretty attainable goal; when I was in high school I wrote a paper 'if I could just pay rent in Somecity, U.S.A. and play music that's all I really want to do.' So I can only imagine if I set the bar higher what I might have accomplished, 'cause I never thought in a million years I'd end up playing with Jimmie Vaughan, or Rick Estrin, or Little Charlie or all those Blues guys, the real guys. I try not dwell on that too much because I'll have a panic attack."
"When I first joined Hummel, after a month of playing with him we did the San Francisco Blues Festival in September '92 and here I am with Jimmie Rogers and Billy Boy Arnold, and then on that same 2-week trip they had Luther Tucker and Snooky Pryor. That was just huge. I left Little Charlie for almost a year about '96, and during that time I did Dave Meyers from The Aces. I did his only solo record because of my buddy Rusty Zinn. Kim Wilson was producing it and blowing harp on it and that's also kind of how I got into the Thunderbirds later on, working with him on that project. That was great and also intimidating; here's one of the greatest Chicago Blues bassists but he was playing guitar instead and I'm playing bass for him. That was nerve wracking, making sure he was happy and getting his approval was huge. And since being in Austin I've played with Pinetop Perkins his past two birthdays, his 95th and 96th. I hope I'm playing his 97th thus year. Billy Smith when he comes through town, backing him up. Lester Davenport, who used to blow harp behind Bo Diddley. A lot of guys I missed because I was too young. I would have loved to have seen Eddie Taylor, 'cause I didn't even know who that guy was, playing with Jimmy Reed, until that record that Clifford out out and then I dug back. That Antone's record that Eddie did, that's a great record. Him and Luther Tucker on that record is phenomenal."
Blues is a style of music that regards apprenticeship highly. There's a great advantage in learning firsthand from the ones who came before you, especially the ones who wrote the book on how it's done. "I feel lucky I got to play with some of the real guys and get their approval because you really learn so much more than you think you're going to. It's not just about the notes, it's about everything. It's something you can't just pick up a book and read about. Some of it's osmosis, you absorb it through them. I'm watching them, listening to them, listening to their stories and then you do a gig. It's everything you should learn."
Among the many older musicians he played with he was privileged to spend time on the road with one of the most significant, if unsung, sidemen in American music. A keyboardist and bassist who was a staple at the King Records studio in Cincinnati playing on now-classic albums that defined R&B at the time and continue to be a major influence on musicians to this day. "In Jimmie's band I got to play with Bill Willis his last couple years. I always think of him kinda like, as legend would have it like Snooks Eaglin, kinda like the human jukebox. You couldn't stump this guy. He knew every song. Played on half of 'em. And again just being around him listening to him tell stories about being at the King/Federal studios and staying to watch Bill Doggett, maybe Bill would show him something. He's even on some of that King early James Brown stuff, and Little Willie John, and just one of those guys that can walk around being himself. He's not a big star but has more connections and has played with bigger stars than we could ever dream of. And he can just go around to his local store. It ain't like today where there's some big star and you've got paparazzi following you. I'll bet people have been next to that guy in a grocery store and had no clue they were standing next to history, an historic musical figure of American music. That just blows my mind. Unfortunately he just passed away about a month ago (February 2010). He was a character too, he was funny. Just a good guy and a wealth of knowledge. Great to sit down and talk to somebody about people that are like superheroes, like James Brown. Back then! It's about as amazing and unrealistic as playing with him now. I just can't grasp it. So awesome."
"Someone once told me that luck was preparation meeting opportunity but I don't buy into that. I think a lot if it us actual luck of another kind because I got lots of friends that are more talented and more prepared and just and have had opportunities... it's just dumb luck. I just look at it like a blessing and try not to take it for granted. Especially now, these days. There's so much, the old me when I was partying and stuff, I don't remember a lot places or situations. They're so foggy, I don't remember big chunks of time. Now with Jimmie I wanna soak this all in and just enjoy every second of it and learn. Get all the information I can and hopefully one day be, like Bill Willis, be able to pass it on. What little I can do. Because that's what it's about, taking it in and giving it back. What good is it if you don't out it back out there? Can't take it with you!"
It's a sure bet that Ronnie James is moving into the position of mentor for younger up-and-coming players. Having played with a long list of Blues greats while spending a good number of years each with Little Charlie & the Nightcats, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jimmie Vaughan he's amassed a wealth of experience to pass on, much like Bill Willis before him. For someone who's goal was simply to be able to make the rent playing music that's a pretty cool accomplishment.
Trivia side note: Along the way he also got a taste of another influential city during the 80's, Minneapolis, when he worked with David Z (Rivkin), engineer on Prince's hits and brother of Revolution drummer Bobby Z. "I always thought he was that wrestler, 'step into a Slim Jim.' He always had the bandana tied and the same manicured beard. I worked with him on that one Mannish Boys record LOWDOWN FEELING. I didn't even know who he was, which is not saying much because I'm so far out of the loop in terms of modern things. I know who all the old Blues guys are, modern things fly over my head. That was fun, he engineered it and there was so many people in that studio at that time."