Album Reviews

Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers

Little Black Heart

Artist:     Ruby Dee and the Snakehandlers

Album:     Little Black Heart

Label:     Catty Town Records

Release Date:     07/22/2016

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Ruby Dee’s story is as compelling as her music. Her story will astound you. Her music will get you dancing and tapping your feet with her mix of rockabilly, swing, country and small hints of R&B. She and her band were voted Best Band in Seattle by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005. But that was a while ago… so what has happened since? Here is Austin-based Dee’s brief explanation, directly from the liner notes: “In 2006, I was in a pretty bad accident that left me with moderately severe TBI [traumatic brain injury]. The side of my brain that was affected dealt with language – I couldn’t remember words or names and couldn’t speak whole sentences, let alone write songs any more. I was devastated. After spending some time being depressed, I began to work my ass off to come back from this injury, and finally a few years ago, I started being able to write songs again. Lyrics and music used to come so easily to me. Now I have to work harder to put a song together. It takes so much more out of me, but then again I just feel like I’m putting so much more into the songs now. And I honestly think these are some of the best I’ve ever written.”

Remarkably, Ruby wrote every song on this record except “The Way I Walk” from Jack Scott. Considering that her self-described trauma would have sidelined most, it was exacerbated by the lack of insurance for after care. She basically bounced back on her own, eventually writing a cookbook, Ruby’s Juke Joint American Cookbook, to prove she could assemble words on a page. That was a natural way to go for her, because in addition to her work with the Snakehandlers, prior to her injury Ruby had successfully owned and operated three restaurants in Seattle.

Even if you were unaware of Ruby’s survival story, you’d probably be drawn to this record. Ruby has that natural, smoky dancehall quality in her voice, her band swings and lyrics cover a wide range of subjects from her own stories to topical issues of today as well as healthy doses of humor like “You Underwhelm Me.” The title track is a murder ballad colored by haunting pedal steel.

Master honky-tonk pianist, Earle Poole Ball, is aboard throughout, as is her songwriting partner, Jorge Harada, who plays an array of guitars. You’re left with an upbeat feeling, both because of the music and knowing that Ruby Dee is back with her signature brand of rockabilly and roadhouse swing.

-Jim Hynes

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