Ronny Elliott – A novel approach
“South By So What?” No doubt that song on Ronny Elliott’s 2000 release, My Nerves Are Bad Tonight, speaks for hundreds of artists for whom the annual confab is a boondoggle. Elliott thinks the song hurt his career, but more likely it simply confirms his established knack for a typecasting novelty song. To this day, Elliott says, showgoers most often mention his diptych “Tell The King The Killer’s Here” and “Tell The Killer The King Is Dead” as the songs they remember him by.
At least those songs find occasional airplay on Elvis commemoration days. Elliott’s new Poisonville also offers radio programmers an add to their Martin Luther King Day programming in “Letter From The Birmingham Jail”, with its anthemic refrain and Elliott’s spoken-word outro of King’s most memorable exhortations. Fewer prospects await “Room 100”, about Sid Vicious awakening to Nancy Spungen’s lifeless body and reflecting fondly on their mutually assured destruction.
But such songs belie the range of Elliott’s personal and revealing songwriting, resonant of middle-age acceptance of his own past, but still passionately concerned with social justice, and ruminating on five decades of pop culture. Elliott crafts his songs soulfully into classic structures, recognizably influenced by early rock, blues, soul and country music. And he’s backed by expert, locked-tight musicians, the Nationals, journeymen of the virtually anonymous Tampa music scene. He might be mentioned in the same breath as Butch Hancock and Robert Earl Keen had he not hailed so far from Texas. But Elliott says that being in the wrong place at the wrong time is the story of his life.
“The first country record I ever made was in 1966, at the height of psychedelia,” he says. “We were basically a psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll band, but I wrote a hillbilly song for us to put out as a single, which wasn’t a real smart marketing move. I’ve sort of had a career of making those kinds of decisions.”
A great storyteller, he talks freely of always having been this close to greatness. “Elvis offered to teach me karate,” he says. “Jackie Wilson showed me his scars. Doug Sahm brewed me coffee from his special stash. I fought with CCR when they tried to make me turn off the car radio because Chuck Berry came on.” Elliott’s loyalty to Berry is understandable. His band Duckbutter (on Paramount for a single in the early ’70s) opened for and backed Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and the Coasters on a retro mega tour.
Until 1996, Elliott’s own story was a sideman’s tale. “I’ve never had much of a desire to be the guy up in front, but I finally realized I’m not going to live long enough to go through it again every time someone in the band quits or dies or goes crazy or moves or gets married,” he said. “And so it’s kinda by necessity that I started to do things as Ronny Elliott.”
He thinks Poisonville is the most personalized record he’s ever made. It is in fact hard to imagine anyone else writing the thesis of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road into one song (“Burn, Burn, Burn”), and the careers of modern artist Modigliani, Grand Prix driver Count Wolfgang Berghe Von Trips and rockabilly trenchman Benny Joy into another (“Bury Him Like A Prince”).
“I’m not quite able to ever get in step with what’s going on,” Elliott says. “I finally realized that I only enjoy doing whatever I enjoy doing.”