Jeff Hart & The Ruins – If Jesse don’t like it
Like the basketball junkie who gets labeled a “gym rat” — you know, the guy who’s looking for a pickup game the morning after the last game of the season — Jeff Hart is a music-bar rat. Whether he’s with his band the Ruins, one of his several side projects (including Kinks cover band, the Dedicated Followers), participating in the local Songwriters Alliance, or just up on a stool doing the solo thing, Hart is as much a fixture in Carolina nightspots as “Carolina on My Mind” on the jukebox and an anti-Jesse Helms bumper sticker on the wall behind the bar.
And instead of a basketball autographed by Pete Maravich, James Worthy and Billy Cunningham, his prize possession is a guitar signed by over a dozen of his heroes, including Paul Westerberg, John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen and Matthew Sweet. Fittingly, a combination of that foursome provides a decent approximation of Hart’s sound. (“Tom Petty was supposed to sign it,” Hart offers, mentioning another touchstone, before adding rather cryptically “but a Hell’s Angel signed it instead.”)
Hart first tried to harness this musical hyperactivity in a three-piece outfit called the Hanks in 1987. “Just about everybody in the band was one generation removed from the farm. We were doing this very innocent roots-rock, country-rock thing, yet we were also trying to be Big Star. But we couldn’t do it,” he concludes with a laugh as his Carolina accent rears its head. “We talked funny.”
Next up were the Ragdads, a brief post-Hanks distraction. It was with that group that he met Chip Robinson, now of Raleigh honky-tonk heroes the Backsliders. Hart and Robinson did some duo shows in local clubs, and as the ’80s came to a close, they formed the first of many incarnations of the Ruins. The musical partnership thrived for a bit, but after about a year, Robinson moved on; soon after, the Backsliders were born, a series of events that Hart describes from a Byrds-eye view. “I went with my Roger McGuinn instincts, and Chip went with his Gram Parsons/Clarence White instincts. I was pre-Clarence White Byrds, while Chip stayed with Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.”
Those Hanks and early Ruins days were captured on a self-released album called The Singles 1961-1990. Among its 12 cuts are at least a half-dozen mighty fine efforts and one shoulda-been career maker, a gritty waltz called “Rose of Sharon” featuring haunting, Springsteenish back-up vocals from Robinson. The next four years saw Hart issuing two cassette-only releases, one a chronicle of a particularly sharp live show, the other a four-song singer-songwriter showcase in a Steve Forbert vein called Love You Long Time. “[On the latter] I drifted back to country because it was mainly just my voice,” Hart explains. “It seemed natural to add pedal steel and fiddle.” And it was an appealing drift, yielding another unsung gem, the questioning “Love in Return”. Still, not enough folks seemed to be paying attention.
The latest from Hart & the Ruins reflects another slight shift in musical direction. The blueprint for the new album, Glances From A Nervous Groom, was “to try to sound just like we do live, meaning electric guitar instead of acoustic guitar” — and they nailed it. As always, Hart’s attention-to-detail songwriting is on display, typified by “From Now On” and its late-night snapshot: “Colder than the backside of your pillowcase, second-guessing every last scenario/The only lights you see are on your radio, fading in and out of stereo.”
So far, sales of Glances aren’t as brisk as Hart had hoped, but it’s an album he’s proud of, and some new distribution avenues and a growing fandom in the Orient (The Ruins Live In Budokan?) have him feeling optimistic. Plus, he and the band have songs slated for two Austin-based compilations: a roots-pop winner from Glances called “If You Don’t Want Me Now” will appear on CHICKEN RANCH, VOLUME 2, while the self-described “Duane Eddy in Hawaii” instrumental “Theme from the Hollow Men” — featuring ex-dB Chris Stamey on guitar — has a slot on Reef Madness.
In addition to Stamey and Robinson, Hart has played with a bunch of other North Carolina notables, including $2 Pistol leader John Howie, producer Jerry Kee, ex-Woods guitarist Ron Bartholomew, and two of Robinson’s Backslider mates, Steve Howell and Danny Kurtz. Through it all, he maintains a great sense of humor about his place in the local music scene and his journeyman role. His chuckling summation: “What was it that B.B. King said? Wait, it was Bo Diddley. ‘I stood there holding the door for everyone and was left with the doorknob.'”