Backstage: John Ralston on Influences, South Florida Music, and Memories of Wilco's Jay Bennett

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: John Ralston discusses his local progress ahead of tonight's gig opening for John Vanderslice (more on that here). 

John Ralston is not your typical South Florida muso. Tall, lean, and long-haired, he bears the image of an archetypical Americana insurgent, the sort of guy who has plowed his chops in the gritty backwoods of Alabama, Georgia, or Tennessee, as opposed to the well-groomed, sunshine-splattered environs of Lake Worth. And while his music comes across as tough, tenacious, and resilient, it's unapologetically pop perfect on his latest, Shadows of the Summertime, without a hint of the extraneous additives that often define our southerly sound.

Ralston and his old label, Vagrant, parted ways prior to the release of this new album, but if Ralston harbors any regrets, it doesn't reflect in the music. With its indelible hooks and compelling choruses, it grabs attention on first hearing and gets under the skin from then on. Hopefully we'll hear a good portion of that disc live when a support slot finds him opening for John Vanderslice, a rare high-profile gig that we'd expect to see more of from this local legend. Naturally, then, we couldn't wait to seize the opportunity to chat with an artist we're delighted to call our own. 

New Times: How about giving us an idea of your earliest influences and who you're currently grooving to? 

John Ralston: My first memories of music consist of Neil Young, Beach Boys, the Band, the Beatles... records like that. Those are kind of the mainstays. Then in high school, someone hands you a Pink Floyd/Zeppelin mixtape and you wander around there for a while. But Nirvana, Geto Boys, Minor Threat, NWA, Smashing Pumpkins, P.J. Harvey, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, and Sunny Day Real Estate took me into my college years. Tom Waits. Velvet Underground. I love Otis Redding and Al Green. I walk around the house pretending I sing like Al Green all the time. I don't really have an iPod that works, and I am not online much, so I don't know what's current. I love every Fruit Bats record that comes out. Oh, all the Kurt Vile stuff is amazing. That new Dawes record is gorgeous. And Cass McCombs too.

All-time favorite albums? Probably Harvest by Neil Young. Pet Sounds, Revolver...

Your new album is self-released, like your first album. What happened to the deal with Vagrant Records? 

Yes, sir. Self-released like Needle Bed at first. My time with Vagrant was fantastic, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But in the end, I didn't sell enough records to justify them spending any more money. But I still have great relationships with the people there. And I wish commerce wasn't a factor. But for most record labels these days, the bottom line is the bottom line. I wasn't enough of a radio-friendly unit shifter. 

You've gotten a fair amount of national attention, but locally that fame doesn't seem to resonate all that much. Do you have any thoughts about the South Florida scene in general? And what holds you here? 

I actually feel a lot of love from around here. There are people at my shows. Press has been kind to me. I play out quite a bit these days, but I don't make a lot of noise about it. And I don't lobby for attention. I am happy to be recognized for my work, of course, but I don't concern myself with attention or lack thereof.

As far as what I think about the current scene -- I feel it has never been better. I have lived here my whole life, and I couldn't be prouder than I am right now. The Jameses, Dewars... all these guys are mind-blowing. Surfer Blood is killing it. Just got the Cop City LP. Fantastic! Chris Horgan. Everymen. Evan Mui. Blackfinger. Still jamming that Guy Harvey seven-inch. I am leaving people out, but everywhere you look... It's a great time to be from here. I am a big fan. 

You include an RIP to Jay Bennett on the back of Shadows of the Summertime. I know he was a fan of your earlier work, and you worked with him on some new overdubs for Needle Bed, but nothing subsequently came from that -- the resulting album, There's Always an Ambulance Around the Bend, was never released. Is there any chance it might still see the light of day? And did you remain in touch with Jay? 

Yeah, I actually met Jay when Legends of Rodeo was looking for someone to produce our second album, which we never ending up making. But I stayed in touch with Jay. He was the kind of guy where you call him up and you enter this alternate universe where there is no real time. You hang up and realize two hours have gone by. He was the sweetest, the absolute sweetest. I read a tribute to him that was in the back of a tape op a while back. It was my story exactly. Jay was a guide. A big star that you could use to light your path musically. He was a brilliant man. I miss being able to call him. He was also David's mentor/best friend. A tribute to him felt right since that's how Dave and I became friends. And that record will come out someday soon for sure. Those were some of the best days of my life up there in Chicago.


Are you pleased with your musical trajectory so far? 

Needle Bed, Sorry Vampire, the White Spiders EP, the "Jesus Christ/A Marigny XMAS" single, Shadows of the Summertime... I am pleased with all those releases. I feel like each one is its own piece of work. They all have lives of their own, and I am proud to have been a part of their processes. Musically, I am satisfied with my body of work, but I am always looking to the future.

The friendships that have evolved out of each recording process are the things I keep with me. Jeff Snow and I traveling to Knoxville for five days to record a few songs -- that became Needle Bed. Mixing with Charles Dye through the wee hours of the morning, Jonathan Wilkins leading the final charge up to Knoxville with Dan and I to reimagine what became Sorry Vampire. Recording with jazz drummer Deric Dickens for "Marigny/Jesus Christ." Soooo many people have become a part of these songs. I feel honored by their presence on the tracks. Dan Bonebrake is really the key to all this too. He has been with me every step of the way, and without his influence, these recordings wouldn't be the same. The irony being that he hates the studio! 

Any chance you might revisit Legends of Rodeo? 

Of course! I think we will play a show here and there. Steve, Nathan, Jeff, and I always have fun. I just hate rehearsing old songs. I would love to do a new record with them. 

What's next? 

Living the dream one day at a time. That's my sarcastic mantra. Musically, my plan is to first finish my next record. It's almost done. The vinyl packaging for that is gonna be special. 

John Vanderslice, with John Ralston. 8 p.m. Thursday, September 1, at

the Speakeasy Lounge, 129 N. Federal Highway, Lake Worth. Call

561-791-6242, or click here.

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Lee Zimmerman