We've heard the songs before, so what makes Kermit Ruffins' "We Partyin' Traditional Style" special?
[Updated] My relationship to Kermit Ruffins' music is complicated. When I've been most down on it, I thought he sold nostalgia for a moment that never existed; when I've been most enthusiastic, I've celebrated the clear, uncomplicated humanity in his musical voice. There are times when I felt like he'd held himself to too low a standard, letting some vocals make it to record that really weren't there, but he has also loved New Orleans in a way that goes deeper than the lyrics in his songs about it. He's a success story who merits the attention he's received, but the attention invites backlash at the same time. When I was at OffBeat, someone sent a subscription card back with the image of a Kermit cover on it with the message in capital letters: "Find another negro to stalk."
Ruffins' career has become like many New Orleans musical success stories: He found his thing; now what? Once he established himself as leading advocate for good times in New Orleans and the Treme, where was there to go? He cut a live album at Vaughan's that was fine, but it was nowhere near as much fun as being at Vaughan's on a Thursday night. He did a good Christmas album, but Christmas albums are placeholders in almost every artist's catalog. He dressed his sound up, he played standards, but there was little there that wasn't implied by his musical persona. Nothing gave a greater sense of what it means to miss New Orleans, or a richer understanding of a Treme Saturday night.
That said, how much musical ambition does he have to have? In the first episode of Treme, Davis (Steve Zahn) asks the on-screen Ruffins, "D'ja just stand there and tell me all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?"
Kermit answers, "That'll work."
NPR's Josh Jackson wrote about that exchange: "I think there's a little tension, the kind that comes from the frustration of someone putting their own aspirations on someone else's shoulders. Kermit Ruffins isn't against fame and fortune. Like everyone else, he just wants it on his own terms." And it's hard to argue with a musician with sane priorities. If we had our lives set up so that we could drink beer and barbecue with friends, bullshit about the Saints, play softball and play music on our schedule, we'd take it. He tours if people make it worth his while, but he makes them really want it.
In fact, he embodies one of Treme's most accurate observations in the way that the show treats New Orleans' musicians not as artists but as workers. Music is what they make and it's important to them, but if touring means missing half of the Saints season, priorities snap into focus. When it comes time for a new album, he could explore new ground, or he could cut We Partyin' Traditional Style and do songs he knows and loves such as "Chinatown, My Chinatown," "Careless Love," "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," and "When the Saints Go Marching In."
As familiar as the song list is, one of the places where Ruffins' do-whatcha-wanna aesthetic serves him well is that he performs with the best musicians he can get when he goes in the studio. As such, on this traditional jazz-oriented album, he is joined by Shannon Powell (drums), Steve Pistorius (piano), Richard Moten (bass), Don Vappie (banjo), Lucien Barbarin (trombone), and Tom Fischer (clarinet), who kill throughout. Their contributions bring out the best in Ruffins, and the arrangements consistently put his trumpet and his voice in their best contexts. He frequently sings the larger message of his songs - "I love New Orleans!" - instead of the sentiments the words express, but on We Partyin' Traditional Style, he's present in the song and trusts the ensemble efforts to deliver his bigger messages.
I'm often like Davis outside Vaughan's on Treme, frustrated that Ruffins refuses to be a part of the musician narrative - become big locally, tour, release more music, get bigger nationally, etc. - because there's something so powerful about having people from all walks of life all across the country connect to the same thing. It's a feeling that we get most viscerally at concerts and sporting events, and it's part of the subtext of American Idol and The Voice, as millions of people are responding to something at the same time, even if they can't see or hear each other. At a time when people can find a million ways to subdivide us, those mass moments seem even more valuable.
At the same time, carrying the hopes and wishes of millions is heavy business, and it's remarkably sane of Ruffins to scale down his career to the point where it meets his needs, not ours. Time and again we see artists and events that grow not because they should but because they can, and they suffer as a result. And if he services his career with recordings as solid as We Partyin' Traditional Style, then there's not much we can complain about.
Updated June 5, 10:28 a.m.
The Soundcloud player with "Over the Waves" was added to the story after its initial publication, and after the questions in the Comments section about whether readers would like the album.