I went a long time without telling this story, but now that Peter “Madcat” Ruth is Harmonica.com’s Harmonica Player of the Month, I will (and be sure to check out his videos, below!)
During the 2010 Buckeye Festival, Danny G and I were in a side room with Peter Madcat Ruth, who was the headliner that night and waiting to go on. Peter was sitting at the edge of a table, piled high with Madcat CDs he would sell after the show.
I had my pocket knife out, scraping paint from the back of my 48 chord harmonica, to clean a spot where Tony Sgro and Al Smith – both Harmonica Rascals chord players, to sign.
Peter was at one end of the table and I at the other. I noticed the table in front of me rising very, very slowly.
Very slowly, the table’s rise accelerated. While my end was going up, Peter’s end of the table (with Peter on it) was going down. I reached out a hand to stop it. But I was powerless.
He fell hard. Danny and I weren’t really sure he was OK even. All his CDs, pamphlets and the like were strewn about the floor.
Peter – and I mean this literally – leaped to his feet and says “gee, I hope I didn’t hurt this table” and immediately starts inspecting the underside of it for possible damage. Once convinced the table had suffered no harm, he was smiling again.
As Danny and I helped him clean up the mess – only after Peter repeating telling us we didn’t have to – he continued the conversation as if nothing had happened.
You certainly can tell a lot about a person, certainly, by how they behave in situations (like an embarrassing fall). I’ve always known Peter to be perpetually calm, kind and an all-around wonderful, even-keeled human being.
On the stage, however, he’s an atom bomb – each note, chord, split an explosion, like a velvet-covered covered fist to the ear.
Peter is comfortable playing any imaginable style. He’s best known for blues and crazy multi-tasking vamps alternating between harp and whoops or kazoos or whatever he’s in the mood for, he’s also a master of german-folk-style tongue blocking. He is equally at home with blues, folk, country, rock n’ roll and he’s even played some classical with bonafide classical musicians. He is simply a man who loves music. He can be a one-man band when he’s in the mood for that.
What awes fans most is his Sonny Terry-style whooping vamps.
“I started doing that right away. The first harmonica I ever listened to was Sonny Terry. The only reason I started playing (in 1964) was because of Sonny Terry,” he said.
About three years after he started playing, the young Peter Ruth took lessons from blues legend Big Walter Horton.
“I met him at the liquor store,” he said. “I’d pay in advance, then he would buy whiskey or something to drink and we’d have a lesson. It wasn’t him explaining technique. He’d never tell me anything – the only thing he would say was the key. It was more like he’d play something and then say ‘now you do that,’ but I really learned a lot from him.”
Written by David Payne Sr.