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.
"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 Needlebed with 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?"