By David Rolland
By David Rolland
By Liz Tracy
By Liz Tracy
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Falyn Freyman
By Fire Ant
By Alex Rendon
"Just driving up there, we could feel it," Ralston says. "It was exciting again, liberating." He and Legends drummer Jeff Snow spent five days recording songs old and new with Seaman. "Five days, no sleep, a lot of Pabst Blue Ribbon, way too many cigarettes," he laughs. Without meaning to, the three had recorded an album. "I played pretty much everything except for drums on Needlebed," Ralston says. "It wasn't meant to be a record; it was meant to be a refreshing time. It turns out we're staying up till 5, 6, 7 in the morning. It was like one endless night. I don't know if it was the catharsis of the whole thing or the record we were making, but everybody was so excited." Full of sweeping, dramatic arrangements, broken promises, and late-night longing, the songs that became Needlebed reflect their tumultuous origins. The album is the soft-focus snapshot of a conflicted artist finding a meaningful answer to an ongoing question.
Knowing he had something good on his hands, Ralston sent a rough copy to Jay Bennett. Bennett was impressed enough to invite Ralston to his Chicago studio in January, ostensibly to overdub a few songs from Needlebedwith his astounding selection of vintage instruments and high-tech gear. Again, some sort of madness or magic took hold. Twelve songs later, another album -- There's Always an Ambulance Around the Bend, to be released this summer -- was born.
"I thought it was gonna be more intimidating than it was," Ralston says of recording with Bennett, "just because the options are sort of endless. But me and Jay really hit it off. He's that guy that lives and breathes music too."
Given the Bennett connection and Ralston's dedication to the great American rock song, it's not surprising that much of Ralston's new material stands alongside Wilco, Bright Eyes, and Ryan Adams. That trio is, of course, beholden to Bob Dylan, who's a contemporary of Tom Waits, who worships at the boxcar-and-bindle altar of deceased hobo troubadour Townes Van Zandt. Waits and Van Zandt, Ralston says, are his biggest influences. The indelible, painfully true-to-life songwriting that emerges from Needlebed is a reflection of those two poetic, prophetic masters.
"Not that it's really interesting, but where I don't see it as luck is in the songwriting," Ralston admits. "That I don't consider luck. I work hard to be as good as I am, and I'm still working to be better."
Coming around full-circle, the archetypal rock 'n' roll story always brings the curtain down with a glorious redemption:
"I feel proud to have made these records, because no one cares if I make them or not, honestly," Ralston says. "It's a new way to look at things." That music-for-music's-sake enthusiasm is what the friends he's made along the way -- including pros like Bennett, Seaman, and Ward -- are all drawn to.
"I keep knocking on wood and thinking, 'When is the shit gonna hit the fan?'" he says. "Not only have I not exhausted my potential but I haven't exhausted my credit card limit or the fact that people are saying, 'Keep doing it. '" It is two solo records and the long-awaited Legends of Rodeo full-length follow-up, all slated for release by the end of the year. If you're keeping score.
"I don't know how to say it, but writing music is my art," Ralston says. "I spend 90 percent of my day thinking about it or doing it. I came to a point, when we got out of our last record deal, that I vowed to myself that while I'm not in a contract, until I find one that's right for me, I'm just gonna put out as much music as I possibly can. Nothing is guaranteed, you know?"