Phil Ruff MerleFest award winning songwriter

Published 7:00 pm Thursday, May 15, 2008

&bsp;Last month one of the largest music festivals in the state drawing around 80,000 people from 48 states and eight foreign countries took place in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. When a short press release appeared stating that a local songwriter had won in the songwriting contest it caught my attention. The notice was very short and simple, yet I knew in the world of Americana music it was far more noteworthy than winning American Idol.

I contacted Phil Ruff and asked him to sit down for coffee and tell me more about the experience.

So, you&squo;ve just won a songwriting contest?

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MerleFest has a Chris Austin songwriting contest every year. He was a songwriter from this area who was part of Reba McIntire&squo;s band. There are four categories of the competition in gospel, country, bluegrass, and general and I entered in Gospel.

Do you show up and enter, or how does it work?

Only the finalists are in the show, you enter in advance. I play in a band called Mama Said, and Nancy Owen recommended I enter &dquo;Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.&dquo; It was a song I wrote and forgot about because we weren&squo;t playing it in our show. So, at her prompting I entered it. Jim Lauderdale hosts the contest that&squo;s been going on for years. I don&squo;t as a general rule enter contests, but I entered this one.

I&squo;ll admit, I recognized Jim Lauderdale&squo;s name, but couldn&squo;t tell you who he was until I looked him up. Oh, yeah, he&squo;s been recording albums and writing songs for Nashville for the past 20 or so years and, in addition to three Americana Music Awards, he won a Grammy in 2002 recording an album with Ralph Stanley. I&squo;m sure all the fans of Americana and Bluegrass reading this are shaking their heads at my ignorance.

So what does it mean to be a finalist?

As a finalist we were invited to the festival and put up for the weekend. Each of the finalists performed at the Chris Austin stage on Friday before an audience and judges. We were allowed one person to perform with us, so I had Nancy on mandolin with me. At that point I was selected as a winner and performed later that evening on the Cabin stage in front of practically the whole audience at the festival. Doc Watson played the stage before they brought us up and the festival is basically in honor of him and Merle Watson.

I&squo;m guessing it&squo;s not like American Idol with a record deal at the end of the competition.

I won some cash, an epiphone guitar, and enough strings of my choice to last a year. I&squo;m going to keep the guitar around the house as my writing guitar. I was happy to get it. Mostly there was the thrill of making it that far when they told us they&squo;d had over 1,000 entries. Fortunately we already had a record deal and just released a new album.

What is the new album?

Oh, I should tell you about that. Our band is called Mama Said and we have a record deal with Americana Records in Colorado. They financed our entire new album &dquo;Take Root&dquo; which was just released Monday May 5 to all the Americana stations. The way you make the chart, each Monday the charting stations decided what songs they will add and which songs they will remove from their playlist. For the first week we were in the top five of the most added. So we&squo;ll continue to see how many &dquo;adds&dquo; we get and then whether the listeners request us and we continue to stay on the chart.

Can you be heard on local radio?

At WNCW Kim Clark has been good to us there and they&squo;ve brought us in to play live in Studio B. WGWG at Garner Webb 88.3 also has us on their playlist. Nancy works there and can&squo;t simply choose to play our music there herself. However, they did have us in to play live before our Westville Pub gig.

You said you live in this area?

I live on the edge of Rutherford County and this is the tenth year I&squo;ve had a job with ICC Polk Campus teaching adult high school. I grew up in Rutherfordton.

How long have you been working with Nancy?

Actually ten years. When I joined this band we started working on our own music instead of cover tunes and I took the job at ICC. This is our fourth album and the first time we have a record deal that the people &dquo;put the money where their mouth is&dquo; you might say.

Were you playing prior to this band?

I was always in bands. I traveled and then lived in Nashville two times for two years each and then came back with my tail between my legs after working with bands there. It&squo;s a hard town to make a living in Nashville as a musician. We have such a great area here for Americana music. There&squo;s good competition because there are a lot of good people around here.

Are all the songs on your album original?

On &dquo;Take Root&dquo; we did Long Black Veil, Cotton Fields, and Columbus Stockade Blues which are traditional tunes that we arranged, but the other songs are all original. Like I said, our focus with this band was to create original music. However, I think our version of Long Black Veil is particularly interesting. Usually it&squo;s recorded as a male solo, but we arranged it as a male and female duet.

How did you find Nancy?

I came back from Nashville and Sandy Carlton invited me to come rehearse with a band he was working with that included Nancy. Originally it was a band of four, but then Sandy and the other fellow left and so now Nancy and I remain the core of the band. Josh Hamrick plays bass for us on a regular basis. Also, Jim Brock, one of the greatest percussionists and session players in the area, played in the studio and occasionally will play on gigs with us. Mark Williams our producer has done about 2,000 projects and had a lot to do with making the album the best thing we&squo;ve ever done. He knew how to do it correctly.

Were can we catch you live locally?

We play the Purple Onion quite a bit and have played the BBQ festival in the past, and we just played the Spring Fling in Spartanburg. Some other favorites include the Festival in the Park in Charlotte, Flat Rock Music Festival, and the Art of Sound Festival in Shelby is a wonderful festival in the fall. We like to play listening rooms and festivals; we&squo;re not a dance band even though we have some tunes that are upbeat. Our current schedule includes: May 18 at Broad River Greenway in Boiling Springs, May 24 at Pewter Rose in Charlotte, a lovely vineyard setting on June 14 at Wolf&squo;s Lair in Dobson, and July 3 at the Purple Onion in Saluda.

You can also hear samples of Phil and Nancy&squo;s beautiful harmonies with flavorful guitar and mandolin picking at or request Mama Said on WNCW or WGWG while you&squo;re waiting for them to play Polk County again in July.