Kellie Rucker: Harmonica Player of the Month

By Jaine Rodack

Written by Jaine Rodack on . Posted in Blog: Harmonica Articles, Harmonica Players

Ask Kellie Rucker where she grew up, and she’ll tell you that her roots are spread all across the country. “My family moved a lot,” she explains, and so there was no home town as such; more like a series of them, which is why, when asked where she’s from, she replies, “I’m from every-where.”

And she’s not just whistling Dixie, or Connecticut, or Colorado, or Virginia, or California or Florida. Her life is a living TripTik® that zigs and zags, crisscrossing the country until it runs clear off the map. And yet, she says, if she had to pick a spot where music took on a particularly important role, it would most likely be Connecticut, where, as a youngster, she picked up the guitar for the first time. It would be her instrument of choice for close to 20 years, with the harmonica moving into first position over time.

That connection began on a day warm enough to break out the ice cream machine, the old-fashioned kind that required a bit of elbow grease. “My brother and I were at the side of the house,” she recalls, “and he was making ice cream and playing the harmonica. And at one point, he handed it to me and said, ‘Why don’t you try it?’”

And so, she did.

As to who and what influenced her sound, she says, “I never really listened to hours and hours of traditional blues harmonica players; I listened to guitar players a lot, and horn and Hammond organ players and all these different types of instruments. And I was a big fan of the J. Geils band, so I just listened to all that stuff. And I’d take long walks and pretty much figure out the songs.

“And then I’d start jamming with people and learning the ropes. I never really thought about earning a living; I was kind of in the moment.”

A reluctant performer, Kellie says there came a time when, in her words, “people started shoving me on stage against my will.” It was slow going at first, “but when you get the evil eye enough, you learn what to do and what not to do. And then as time went on, I started getting gigs with the bands I was playing with, and then I went to LA and that all changed.”

Rucker was in her early 20s, still a rookie and, by her own admission, not the greatest player in the world. But, as she said, LA was a turning point. Quote: “That’s where I got good.”

She certainly got lots of practice. “At one point, I was in something like five different bands and doing session work, but it wasn’t always easy. You get your butt kicked in those places,” she says, referring to the clubs where she learned her craft. But, hard as it was, she believes it was worth it. “I really learned a lot from a lot of real pros, and it made a difference.”

Not only did Kellie get good, she got going. “I played with Debbie Davies’ band,” she says, “and then BB Chung King [the late Alan Mirikitani] in LA for a long time, and we toured all over the world.”

It was King who produced her first record, Ain’t Hit Bottom, in 2006. The record opened doors, allowing her to perform under her own name rather than as part of someone else’s band. She had been there as a 21 year old, but this time, it was different, a learning experience of another kind.

Instead of traveling as a band member, she was the leader, hiring pick-up musicians as she went along. “Being a band leader is something you have to learn how to do,” she says. But learn she did, and, once she got going, there was no stopping her. To date she has performed in over 15 countries.

She says that language has never been a problem ─ at least not in Europe. “All of the European musicians speak English,” she says, “because they’re studying American music.”

And, in case you were wondering, she says that she’s never had a problem with what she refers to as, the ‘the woman thing’. “I’ve never had a problem with the woman thing” she says, “because when it comes down to it, man or woman, you have to be a really good musician, period. And this is really important for the up-and-coming musician. You can’t skate. Being ‘good’ for a girl will never get you anywhere. I never had a problem because I could hold my own. I also hauled my own gear and never expected special treatment.”

Anything changed over the years? Kellie Rucker pauses for a moment before answering. “Well,” she says, “these days I get my own hotel room [She laughs]. I didn’t always in the past.”

And her future is looking brighter than ever.

“I was in Italy in my little apartment, and talking to some people over Skype about making a demo.” Their plans had been stalled by the fact that their lead singer wouldn’t be available for a while, and they weren’t sure what they were going to do.

“And I said, ‘Why don’t we do something?’”, noting that she had a well-timed 10-day break coming up between gigs. “And if we’re going to be in the studio [anyway], why don’t we make a whole record?

“So, I flew home and, in 10 days we wrote all the songs and recorded the entire record. And it was like magic.”

The group, which consists of Rucker, JJ Holliday and Michael Barsimanto, is in the middle of writing two more songs to add to the album, which they plan to release through a French label next year, followed by a tour with their band, Soul Return, “to star, and onward from there.”

Putting together the album has been a great experience for Rucker, the culmination of years of writing and performing. She says that when she wrote her first record, she wasn’t really what she would call “a song writer”. That came with years of writing and rewriting, and ─ as with her harmonica playing and producing skills ─ learning her craft. “You never lose being a song-writer,” she says, “but it’s not easy. You’ve got to practice that too.”

These days, Kellie Rucker can be a bit choosy about where and when she plays, be it at festivals or clubs. “In Europe, the work is rewarding in that they pay you and treat you well, and while the audience may not recognize your name or know your work, they know you’re pretty good because of the club’s reputation.”

Back in the US, where she lives in Florida to be closer to her siblings, Kellie says she enjoys playing with people she likes in clubs she likes, “because it’s good practice and fun.”

It’s also a way to stretch her musical legs. “I don’t really play in a traditional style,” she says, “but I can do that. I like playing rock and country and jazz and all kinds of stuff. The harmonica can really fit in a lot of different genres”.

Today Kellie Rucker enjoys what might be described as the best of both worlds ─ or continents ─ as she travels from the US to Europe, and back, making music, and enjoying life to the fullest. As for what lies beyond this latest album, Kellie says, “I have so many different interests. I’d love to make a country recording, and am always looking for people to write for and play with and staying busy.”

A Lee Oskar certified player, Kellie’s instrument of choice is the Lee Oskar major diatonic. “I’ve had a long-standing relationship with Lee Oskar that started in LA at least twenty years ago. Their harmonicas are top notch.”

To sample and/or purchase cuts from her Ain’t Hit Bottom and Church of Texas albums, head over to Hard copies of both albums are available in concert.

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