Rusty Wright Blues Band: I Ain't From Mississippi
“ An awful lot of couples I've met are nicer and more courteous to strangers than they are to each other. I just don't get that at all. There are enough people out there willing to tear you down. Your spouse shouldn't be one of them. ”
Throughout the history of showbiz, there have been married couples who have shared the stage together. Add to that list the names of Laurie and Rusty Wright, of the Rusty Wright Blues Band (RWB) from Flint, Michigan.
Coming from a hard rock background, Rusty had always told his band mates that regardless of what may happen, when he turned forty he would go home and play the blues. So when he turned forty years of age, he did just that. However, he didn't start to play the blues in resignation, but as a goal, the culmination of his musical career, something he had worked to attain.
Laurie also came from a musical background. As with Rusty, she pursued numerous musical projects which took her all over North America and abroad. But as with so many other entertainers, she worked a day job as a journalist and freelance writer. Little did she realize that a newspaper article she was assigned to do for an entertainment paper for which she worked would be their introduction, and the beginning of their relationship.
Then, when Rusty was called upon to fill in for the guitarist for the band Laurie was playing with (so her band could honor contracts to which they were committed), Rusty and Laurie discovered they also enjoyed working together. After chasing the elusive dollar by playing the music they were playing at the time, they progressed to the musical magic that they knew they could share: they decided to play the blues.
That, you could say, was the beginning of the rest of their story. They are making beautiful music together.
All About Jazz: How did you meet?
Rusty Wright: Laurie and I met when I was in a touring hard rock outfit. She was interviewing us for Riff Magazine. We kept in touch and when we ran into each other again things just "clicked" as they say.
Laurie LaCross Wright: Rusty and I met in late 1993, I think. I owned a monthly entertainment paper and interviewed him and his band for a feature story. We didn't begin dating until several years later though. He was trying to shake off the effects of a bad relationship and I had just gone through a divorce so we were both spooked about the whole dating thing. I think we both thought we could ease back into dating by going out with someone we already knew a little bit. Funny how that worked out [laughing].
AAJ: How did the Rusty Wright Band come to be, and how did you decide that you were going to perform together?
RW: The idea for the band really started in my head when I was a kid. I was traveling around playing hard rock with various bands but even when I was a kid I told my band mates that no matter what happens in this life, when I hit 40 I'm going home to play the blues till I die. So when that monumental day came I had already been planning for it for a long time.
Laurie and I started the process over four years ago. Both of us have been playing since we were kids. We have traveled all over the US and Europe doing various music projects. We didn't start playing music together until after we had been dating quite a while. I came in to fulfill some gigs for her band when the lead guitarist left suddenly. It went so well we kept playing as a duo and eventually started looking for the band members.
We began creating the music and building the act even though we didn't have a steady lineup at first. I have pretty demanding standards and there were a lot of personnel changes over the course of the first two years. The crew we have now is outstanding and I am very comfortable with them. I hope we make great music for some time to come.
LLW: We were a couple of years into our relationship before we played any music together. Both of us had our hands full with our own bands. When my band blew up in 1998 Rusty filled in on guitar so I could honor the remaining show contracts we had. We weren't necessarily playing the type of music that lights either of us up, but the money was good and we found we enjoyed working together so we just continued playing gigs. It seemed that the more soul-sucking the gig was, the more we got paid. Musically, that's a very dangerous place to wind up. We became dependent on the money but we hated what we were doing. There was no joy in it anymore.
We knew we had to make a decision. Either find the magic again or quit playing. We decided to quit chasing the dollar signs and concentrate on playing blues, which we both love. We had been adding more and more blues and southern rock to our repertoire and it was very well received by audiences. I guess because we didn't think there was a demand for it both of us spent years playing every genre but the blues.
Things started to take off fast when we finally put the band together in 2004. Our second gig with the new band was opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That is still one of our all-time favorite performance experiences.
The frequent changes in band personnel that Rusty mentions was a real source of frustration for a while. Most players just don't understand the level of commitment and amount of work it takes to truly move an act forward. Constantly having to work new players into the band slowed our progress and took time away from developing new songs and pursuing better opportunities for the band. I have a great deal of appreciation for our current team of players. Every one of them puts a lot of effort into every challenge Rusty has thrown at them.
AAJ: With all of the dynamics that affect every relationship, you have additional matters that affect performing couples. What would these be? How do you resolve these matters? Is it just a matter of Rusty remembering who is boss?
RW: I always discuss decisions with Laurie. I value her point of view and many times she gives me a perspective on things that I otherwise might have missed. Once in a while I have to make a command decision if I really feel strongly about something but most of the time we usually find a pretty good compromise.
LLW: We both have strong personalities and opinions but we get along amazingly well both on stage and off. Having a shared goal helps. I can count on one hand the number of out and out raging arguments we've had in the past eleven years. An awful lot of couples I've met are nicer and more courteous to strangers than they are to each other. I just don't get that at all. There are enough people out there willing to tear you down. Your spouse shouldn't be one of them. You're supposed to watch each other's back. For me, the biggest challenge right now is our hectic schedule. It's exhausting. We're juggling daytime schedules, administrative duties for our record label, rehearsals, duo gigs and band shows. Oh yeah, and once in a while we mow the lawn.
AAJ: Laurie, listening to your CD, it's clear that you have a dynamic voice, with an impressive range. Have you received vocal training? Also, until I saw your video on YouTube, I wasn't aware that you played guitar. What are your respective musical backgrounds?
LLW: Rusty will often tell people that I'm a singer who also plays guitar and he's a guitarist who also sings. And that's pretty accurate. I was always more interested in singing than guitar, but I wanted to be able to accompany myself. I've been playing guitar since I was ten, starting with folk and church songs. A family friend got me started playing bluegrass, country and a little rock. I even studied a little classical guitar in high school but by that time boys were a major distraction so I never progressed very far with that. As for vocal training, I practically lived in the choir room in high school. I took three or four classes per day when I could get away with it. I just needed to sing. I hate to admit this but it took years of conscious effort to "get over" my choir training and define my own voice and singing style.
AAJ: And you Rusty, what's your background?
RW: I started out when I was thirteen, playing guitar in my mother's gospel group, The Temples. After I left home at seventeen I played in my share of bar bands. I traveled all over the US and Europe as a sideman with various rock outfits, opening for people like Dokken, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath and so many others I can't remember them all. I also spent a lot of time as a studio musician playing everything from gospel to country to metal, but blues and southern gospel was where I came from.
AAJ: Laurie, you indicated that you have a background in journalism. Where did you attend school?
LLW: I fell into journalism with absolutely no formal training. I've always been an avid reader and excelled in English all through school. My first experience in journalism came when I was 19 and I began working as a freelancer for the weekly paper in my hometown. The editor had been nominated for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting earlier in his career but didn't want that kind of pressure in his life anymore. He would take on small, struggling newspapers and would try to turn them around. I think he put up with me because I would do store runs for Twinkies and Pepsibut I learned a lot from him.
When I moved up north he called the daily newspaper in Manistee, Michigan and told the editor he ought to hire me. Oddly enough, they did hire me when they had an opening in the newsroom. Eventually I was making more money at music than writing so I quit my full-time job but continued to write for newspapers and music magazines all the while I was on the road. I toured at least nine months out of the year, and writing assignments helped fill the daytime hours.
I moved back to Michigan and started my own music publication in the early '90s when my mom began having health problems. When my production cost tripled I cut my losses and folded it but continued writing for all of the regional newspapers and magazines. I stopped taking on writing assignments a few years ago when our music schedule started picking up drastically. I was burned out on writingburned to an absolute crisp. I just couldn't bring myself to do one more dance recital preview story or vanity profile on a local funeral director. Currently I work at a community college, but we are working very hard to make a transition back into full time music careers.
AAJ: Rusty, what did you do professionally before your music caught fire?
RW: I'm a freelance graphic artist and web designer in addition to running Sadson Music.
AAJ: Are the both of you from the Flint area originally?
RW: Yes, I was born here but my dad comes from Florence, Alabama and I spent a lot of time down there as well as up here. I'm just a creature of extremes.
LLW: I grew up in Davison, about 10 miles east of Flint. My parents still live there. Rusty and I moved into Flint in 2000.
AAJ: What kind of opportunities are there in the Flint area for blues musicians to perform?
RW: Well, as for music venues, the choices around here are slim for bands. Particularly blues acts. There was a bit of a blues music boom around here a few years ago but most of those clubs have since closed or been sold.
LLW: It's a challenge booking a seven-piece act. We're very happy about the number of local concert and festival opportunities we were offered this year, but there isn't much of a club scene around Flint and the surrounding area. There are a couple of teen clubs the really young bands play at, and the hard rock club in town does okay still but there isn't a whole lot going on at most of the bars. Most places just don't have the budget for an act our size anyway so we focus our energies on booking festivals and outdoor concerts for the warm months and when that season winds down we'll start putting together a series of performances at intimate concert theaters around the state.
Between everyone in the band we have a pretty good range of skills and experience in event planning, publicity, promotion, graphic design and concert production. We aren't afraid to create our own performance opportunities and that is working very well for us.
Rusty and I still play some laid-back duo gigs at area restaurants that we really enjoy. Beale Street Smokehouse BBQ in Fenton, Michigan is always fun, and Cranberrie's Cafe in downtown Goodrich, Michigan has been one of our favorite places for a couple of years now.
AAJ: For this reason, the two of you perform throughout the Michigan state area. In February, 2007 you represented the Detroit Blues Society at the year's IBC. This must have entailed a lot of planning and coordinating particularly so as you have, what, an eight piece band. Did all of the members of the band go with you? Can you share this experience with us, from possibly the playoffs in Detroit to your experience in Memphis?
LLW: Currently we are a seven piece act. It can be kind of confusing because we have two bass players who alternate shows, depending on which are available. Also, Tommy Stewart, who recorded the drum tracks for our first CD, may still be listed on some promo documents as an alternate drummer but he doesn't perform with us regularly.
Originally Rusty and I had planned on going to Memphis as spectators with the hope of doing a little networking while we were down there. We had no intention of entering the band into the competition but people kept mentioning it at our shows and we kept getting emails and phone messages from friends and fans saying "Hey! You gotta compete in this thing!" It was a little like getting pecked to death by a flock of friendly ducks. They finally wore us down and we agreed to compete.
Once the decision was made to participate, the band worked incredibly hard preparing for the competition. The Detroit Blues Society boasts the largest IBC preliminary competition in the world. In 2006 I think there were 36 acts that competed for the honor of representing Detroit in Memphis. We felt a sense of accomplishment just making it that far in the competition. I think there are more than four dozen bands that competed in the 2006 year's Detroit Blues Society competition [The Detroit Blues Society Finals were in Mt. Clemens, Michigan].
LLW: The show at the Emerald Theater was a blast. There was just an incredible wall of energy flowing off the stage from our first note and the audience sent it right back at us in waves. That's the vibe we strive for in every show. Rusty doesn't do anything halfway. We even brought in a video crew to tape our performance at the Emerald so that even if we didn't win at least we'd come away with a nice video we could use for promotion. We may have been reluctant initially about competing but once we made the commitment the band rehearsed almost every night for more than a month. Dan's sons, Brent and Brandon, had just joined the band after sitting in with us at one of our shows, so we had to create new song arrangements to incorporate the saxophones. It was a whole lot of work to be done in such a short amount of time.
Planning and Fundraising
As I mentioned earlier, we have quite a bit of collective experience in event planning so we put together a fundraising event at a large, casual country club near Flint. A friend, who is a member at that club, got us the use of the banquet facilities for free. Other friends went around collecting silent auction items from area merchants. We put stacks of flyers at the end of the checkout lanes at area grocery stores, we sent postcards and emails to everyone on our mailing list, and called everyone we'd ever known. The night before the fundraiser, the Flint Journal published a huge feature about the band and the IBC on the front page of the entertainment section. That was a huge help.
It was raining and cold the night of the event. We bravely told ourselves we would be thrilled if 300 people showed up. I think secretly most of us anticipated around 200. We were stunned when hundreds and hundreds of people showed up. The public response was beyond anything we ever imagined. We opened the doors at 6:30pm. We had printed 600 tickets. They were gone before 7 pm. The main floor and balcony was way beyond capacity by 7:15.
Fearing that the fire marshal would shut down the club if we crammed more people in the building, the manager told us we had to shut the doors. We have no idea how many people were turned away. A lot of folks never made it to the building because there was no parking available. The real diehards parked several blocks from the club and walked up the road in the rain. We have pictures of the crowd on our website. It was an incredibly cool night but we still feel bad about turning people away. We raised enough money for the trip that night.
RW: We took our seven-piece band down to Memphis as well as wives, kids, friends ... It was a huge undertaking finding accommodation for everyone, doing the fundraising, finding time for rehearsals, the pressure of trying to figure out what the judges wanted, etc. When we got there, every free minute was spent running to appointments we had scheduled with folks, attending workshops to network, and going to the music venues to see other acts performalthough we didn't get to do as much of that as we wanted to.
AAJ: How far did you get in the competitions?
RW: We performed Thursday and Friday nights at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. We got standing ovations on both nights. I'll admit, we were a little confused and disappointed at the outcome, at our venue. When we finally got our score sheets two months after the IBC we found out that one judge had given us very low scores that were way out of line with the other scores given. The other five judges gave us 8's, 9's and 10's but the sixth judge gave us 3's and 4's. We never did find out why. He was also the only judge who didn't bother to include comments on the score sheet. It's all water under the bridge now.
LLW: From the start I warned everyone in the band repeatedly that we should not get our hopes up about the competition, that having one judge who was a blues "purist" would probably put us out of the running, score-wise. And that's exactly what happened. It's extremely difficult for someone to be completely objective when asked to judge something as subjective as music. Also, the question of what is and is not blues can be a pretty explosive topiceveryone who spends any time at all surfing blues music forums on the internet learns that pretty quickly.
We have a very high-energy, fairly aggressive live sound that is blues-based, but other influences sneak in there also. We make no apologies for that. There are a lot of roads you can take to get to the blues and everyone's journey is different. Our sound is a fair reflection of who we are, musically.
All in all, we were satisfied with our performances in Memphis. We put forth the best effort we were capable of. We didn't make the finals but darn near everyone who was anyone in the blues world was at the New Daisy for our set on Friday night. That tells us we were doing something right that weekend. Heck, one Illinois couple who heard us at the International Blues Challenge drove across three states last weekend to come hear us at the Kalamazoo Blues Festival. And those are the people we pour our souls out to on stage.
AAJ: What did you take away from this experience?
RW: The "vibe" on Beale is absolutely one of a kind. The networking and the general camaraderie among the musicians was amazing. We made connections and opened a lot of doors that will help with our continued success. And no matter what happens, I get to say I got a standing ovation on Beale Street. It was a very productive trip for us.
LLW: Thanks to the IBC we have some exciting new opportunities percolating and we have a much tighter act than we did a year ago. The caliber of music and musicianship at the IBC is phenomenal. It was great to experience that. We came away with a pretty good sense of how our act measures up to some of the top touring acts in blues.
AAJ: Since returning, where have you performed?
RW: Just before the trip to Memphis, we performed with Alberta Adams and Charlie Musselwhite at the Antifreeze Festival in Detroit. Shortly after the IBC we put on our own Cool Blues and Brews concert and brought The Alligators (from Detroit) and the Blue Hawaiians (from Flint) in to perform with us. That show drew more than 500 people.
In April 2007 we opened for Leslie West and Mountain, and in May we went to Ontario to perform for the Canada South Blues Society. In June 2007 our schedule really kicked into high gear, starting with The Jackson Blues Festival, Detroit Festival of the Arts and Flint Art Fair, the Oxford Hot Blues and BBQ Festival, and some annual community festivals. We were in Nashville, Tennessee over the 4th of July weekend performing at a club called the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie, then we headed back to Michigan for a string of outdoor concerts including the Kalamazoo Blues Festival. Other blues festivals we have booked this summer include the "I Chews The Blues" Festival (in Davison) on August 4th and the Marquette Blues Festival on September 2nd.
We're starting to focus on confirming concert dates for the winter months and into 2008, and we have a verbal commitment for the 2009 St. Johns Blues Festival in the Virgin Islands. That one came about through the IBC, as did the recent shows in Nashville. There are some very cool concerts we are in the process of negotiating but can't really talk about yet because they're still tentative.
AAJ: Your first CD has received a lot of acclaim. Did you expect this first time out the gate?
RW: I am very proud of the music and I thought it would get people's attention if we could get reviewers to give it a fair listen. We're an indie label with limited resources but overall, I think we accomplished a lot with this first CD.
AAJ: You have also received airplay worldwide. Where can we expect to hear your music?
Rusty: France, Finland, Poland, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia, and a few others I can't remember. Laurie would know.
LLW: You forgot Argentina and Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, ... and the United States. We've gotten a lot of support from public radio stations, and from podcasters and webcasters all over the world.
AAJ: Also, you have received some awards for your CD, haven't you?
LLW We were nominated for two Jammie Awards and two Detroit Music Awards in 2007. If we actually won any awards we don't know about them.
AAJ: Considering the size of your band (and I know this is a tall order) would you like to introduce the members of your band?
LLW: Rusty Wright (primary songwriter and music arranger, lead vocalist, lead guitarist); Laurie LaCross-Wright (lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist); Dan Mata (drummer, harmony vocals); Andy Barencek (bass, harmony vocals); Jason Slackta (alternate bassist); Brent Mata (alto sax); Brandon Mata (tenor sax); Dave Brahce (Hammond B3 and keyboards).
AAJ: When you come to composing, can you describe your creative process? Do you both write songs? How much input do you get from the other members of the band?
RW: I usually do the majority of the writing and then Laurie will help write lyrics and melodies. The band gets a recorded demo and then we'll start rehearsing. During that process there will be more "tweaks" and the guys will throw out ideas about the arrangement if something hits them. It tends to be an evolution, a lot of times.
AAJ: What big things can we expect from Rusty Wright Blues?
RW: Well, I have new material for the next record and we'd like to begin recording the next CD in the fall. I feel these new songs will reflect the current band. Our sound has evolved a lot in the past year or so and we want to capture that.
We are working on broadening our concert and festival tours and hope to get to Europe next year, which is where a high percentage of our online CD orders are coming from. We're trying to finalize a deal with a reputable agency over there, so that is still in the talking stages.
We are also talking to an entertainment company about a distribution deal which would put our music in major chain stores throughout the US. And of course we will continue to play our hearts out for all the marvelous folks who come to hear us!
LLW: We really love doing theater concertswe just did did one with Etta James at The Whiting here in Flint that was more fun than should be legal. Its a beautiful venue and we were really touched by the number of people who came out to hear us and support us that night. We're working on more of those kind of shows for next fall.
This year the band will be traveling a little further afield playing shows throughout the Midwest, including Bayfront Bluesfest in Duluth, Minnesota, which is one of the top ten blues festivals in the country, and we're already gearing up for the St. John Blues Festival in 2009. We've got a friend working on a travel package for people who want to travel down to the US Virgin Islands with us. That festival gig came about as a direct result of our participation in the International Blues Challenge, and we're very exciting about going down there to perform.
We have some really nice shows lined up for this summer, with more being added every week. Right now we are waiting for confirmation on a really cool tour we are very excited over, but can't talk about yet because it's still tentative.
Rusty Wright Blues Band, I Ain't From Mississippi (Sadson Music, 2006)
Individual Photos: Tim Richards, courtesy of Rusty Wright Blues Band
Group Photo: Dave Groves, courtesy of Rusty Wright Blues Band