By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
It's nearing 6 o'clock on a golden Sunday afternoon, and the hush of wind through the fan palms and the occasional restless bird are the only sounds outside Elegbaland Studios. Hidden within a ramshackle mother-in-law behind a green-and-yellow bungalow in Lake Worth's College Park neighborhood, the place is unlikely and unassuming. But behind its rickety wooden door, John Ralston, long-haired and rough-bearded, is brazenly letting loose. He and his three-piece band are prepping for the upcoming release of his first solo album, Needlebed, and a ten-date East Coast tour. Ralston sips a Miller Light and asks for another run-through of "No One Said It Was Easy," an aching, rollicking lament and one of Needlebed's highlights. The band jumps on cue, shuffling through an upbeat, rockabilly climax as Ralston sings in a faded rush, "No one said that this was easy/No one handed you a free pass for the ride/No one said that this was easy/Keep your chin up/Someday maybe things will play out right. '"
It took the 27-year-old Ralston 12 years to get to this room. The first four of those, he was a teenager, learning guitar from his mom, writing songs in his bedroom, devouring the Beatles and Dylan and the Beach Boys and Springsteen. The last eight have been spent helming the quintessential, beleaguered local band, Legends of Rodeo. No one would say it's been easy for the Lake Worth native, but the look on Ralston's face right now says everything's been worth it. Ask him how he got here and he has a surprisingly modest response.
"It's probably luck," he shrugs, finally content to let life dictate its own course. "And no expectations. That's also a part of it."
Ralston knows a thing or two about expectations. In the early '00s, Legends of Rodeo came up side by side with emo giant Dashboard Confessional, opening shows for the Coral Springs band in tiny dives like Ray's Downtown in West Palm Beach. (Interestingly, in 2003, Dashboard leader Chris Carrabba told an interviewer that Ralston writes "far better songs" than he does.) But Legends made a name for itself on its own, mostly on the road, where it spent some 250 days in 2002 and 2003. The endless touring was in support of the band's major-label full-length A Thousand Friday Nights, which was released in early '03 by Bieler Bros., a Pompano Beach-based subsidiary of MCA.
"We worked our asses off to get the album out there," Ralston recalls. "Up until that point, you had a band that had done everything on their own; then all of a sudden, you get all this money thrown at you to make a record. No million-dollar deals, but for us it was a big budget. We got a van and a trailer and an equipment budget. We spent a whole year on the road -- none of us even had places to live -- we'd just crash with friends and family when we came back. We didn't have any worries."
During a stopover in New York, the band did a photo shoot with a well-connected admirer who passed along an unreleased Legends of Rodeo demo to the prodigiously talented Jay Bennett, formerly of Wilco. Bennett, thirsty for fresh bands to produce, was interested. Things couldn't have been going better. "It was a great year," Ralston says. "We came back [from touring] ready to record an album."
The archetypal rock 'n' roll story always turns cynical:
It was in early 2003 when things started coming undone.
"So we're getting ready to do this," Ralston says of the major-label follow-up, "and the label's, like, not really enthused about the songs. Which is kinda hard to swallow at any time. And then we find out that MCA is getting dissolved."
As Bieler Bros. and MCA split, the bands caught in the middle suffered. Legends were given the option of waiting until things settled with their contract or backing out of it. The band wanted out.
"We came to [Bieler Bros.] and said, 'We want to try our hand elsewhere -- no hard feelings,'" Ralston says. "We asked out of our contract and pretty much gave up any rights to that money that had been allotted." A year later, the band finally got free of the contract. Ralston and friends were still ripe with new tunes to record, but the funding was gone, the connections cold, and prospects suddenly nil. The luck had seemingly run out.
"You go from feeling like you're on top of the world," he says, "like you're making a dent, and then you can't tour, you can't record. It was the hardest time for us."
Ralston, a relentlessly passionate and prolific artist, was scraping bottom with no outlet. Of course, he did the only thing he could do. He wrote music. And the music brought back the luck.
A chance conversation at a Lake Worth restaurant brought Ralston in contact with Michael Seaman, a recording engineer with a studio in his historic Knoxville, Tennessee, home. Seaman (who would later introduce the singer to his uncle, Marc Ward, owner of Elegbaland) and Ralston had an instant rapport. Last summer, the engineer invited Ralston to Knoxville to hang out, maybe record some tunes.