Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ralston Bowles' music: "It takes a village."

Everyone I know in the music business has their eye on What's Next. Sometimes, you can't see beyond a week or two; other times you can have your entire year mapped out for you. Everyone I know likes a full calendar, and most of us have a fine work ethic. Some people are driven exclusively by financial gain, while others are driven only by artistic integrity. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, hoping that artistic integrity has a pay day.

Recently, I've been experiencing a pay day of unusual proportions. It hasn't yielded a single dime that I know of, but I'm enjoying the fruits of my labor nonetheless. It's a recording of Michigan folkie Ralston Bowles.

Ralston is someone whom I've been acquainted with since the late Seventies, when I was a part of the Phil Keaggy Band. Our paths have crossed a few times over the past 30 years; he's always been a supporter of the arts, and even brought me up to play a gig in Grand Rapids back in the '90s, at a little club called The Pony. He brought my cds over to WYCE, Grand Rapids' premier radio station, and stirred up their interest for other little known artists, as well.

Though I'd known him for many years, I hadn't been aware that he was a singer or songwriter, so low key had he been about his gifts. But when the Millenium arrived, Ralston started making records. He recorded a CD with the acclaimed Gurf Morlix, and another with Marvin Etzione of the band Lone Justice. Once in a while, we'd be in touch and he'd talk about doing a record with me in Nashville, but the idea never materialized, for a number of reasons.

In the beginning of 2008, Ralston lost the job he'd held for 15 years. A month later, he discovered he had colon cancer.

Six monhts later, I was driving back to Nashville from Asheville when I got the urge to call Ralston. He sounded tired, the regime of chemo-therapy already in full swing. I was frank with him, and said "I don't know if you have lots of records left to record, but I know you have at least one, and I want to produce it. No charge." I figured if we paid a drummer, I could do everything else.

September 22, Ralston Bowles drove down to Nashville and recorded 13 songs in my little studio, Plant of the Tapes. Bryan Owings came over and sat behind my old Ludwig drums while Ralston played guitar and sang in the control room, mic'd up, come what may. After getting about 5 songs, Ralston took us out to Famous Dave's for some ribs. We came back, washed our hands, and finished by dinner time.

When Bryan was packing his cymbals up, I handed him the money Ralston had brought with him. Bryan shook his head, newly aware of the situation, and refused the cash. "I can't take this", he said, "It wouldn't be right."

The next thing I knew, Gordon Kennedy was asking if he could donate some guitar to the project. The light finally came on, and I realized that there might be other musicians who would want to play on the record. Thus, I wrote a letter to everyone I know in the industry, asking each musician for a track of guitar, fiddle, pedal steel, tambourine, whatever. I asked engineers to donate time, and music business thinkers for their ideas.

I heard back from nearly everyone.

In October, I went on the road with Emmylou Harris. I took a laptop and edited the songs in motel rooms, bus lounges, and dressing rooms. Chris Donohue played the bass parts as our tour bus lurched from Madison, Wisconsin to Nashville. By the time we got back home, I had the foundation laid- Ralston on guitar and voice, plus bass and drums. I started sending out mp3s of different songs to folks who'd said "yes". I trusted the instincts of everyone I invited, and when their parts were emailed back, I was usually elated, never disappointed. Everyone gave a little more than the project required.

As a multi-instrumentalist, I'm used to playing a number of instruments on a record, and have at times relied upon myself for nearly everything except drums. So, I made a rule for myself- I could only play one instrument on a given song. If I had played guitar, I'd have to ask another musician to play accordion or Hammond organ or something else I might have played. That rule made me reach out to fellow keyboardists, whom I rarely get to work with. I called Tim Lauer and Jodie Moore for some accordion, Dennis Wage and Tim Akers for Hammond Organ, and Richard Souther for piano.

Richard Dodd, who has engineered recordings for Tom Petty and George Harrison emailed and offered to master the project. Mainstay Todd Robbins offered to mix.

Phil Keaggy donated guitar and ukulele! James Pennebaker played some amazing fiddle and pedal steel guitar. With a budget of $0, I was able to assemble a team of major players, technicians, and singers, based on the combination of my willingness to ask and their willingness to respond.

Between Emmy trips and recording and songwriting, I played organ on a track for former Monkees drummer Micky Dolenz. Keaggy had also played on the recording and had mentioned to Micky's producer, David Harris, what we were doing with Ralston. David asked Micky if he felt like singing on a record of someone he'd never heard of. Micky responded by recording 10 tracks of harmonies on one of the songs!

As our bare-bones project gathered flesh, Ralston felt energized. Pulverized by chemo, he would wake to another note revealing what new musical additions had been flown in the night before. He would call me, excitedly, and say he was being re-charged.

We won't know for some time whether Ralston's disease will go into remission, but I do believe that this process gave him something that all the money in the world can't buy, a taste of pure goodness. He has been given an amazing gift from strangers who assume he's their brother.

One of the ways that I benefited from inviting all these players, was simply being in touch with many musicians I'd worked with, and many that I'd never been in the same room with. But the main thing was experiencing the kindness of so many fellow travelers and minstrels.

As we're closing in on finalizing the project, I am amazed by the goodness of just plain folks. I'm proud of the community of musicians I belong to, women and men who offered up a gift of spirit and soul for someone most of them didn't know.

It's easy to look around the world and find the evidence of Evil; name your government, name your country. Yet, more often than not, if you ask someone for a hand, you will see the evidence of Good.


Thanks to everyone who has participated in this project. It has given back more than one could ever have imagined.

So far, the credits read like this:
Drums: Bryan Owings
Bass: Chris Donohue
Percussion: Dennis Holt, Steve Hindalong
Guitars: Phil Keaggy, Kenny Greenburg, Paul Gordon, Derri Daugherty, Marc Byrd & Andrew Thompson from Hammock, Gordon Kennedy, Dave Perkins, Kenny Hutson, Gurf Morlix, Colin Linden, Mike Roe, Lynn Nichols, PM
Banjo: Dave Perkins
Pedal Steel Guitar: Al Perkins, James Pennebaker, Michael Flanders
Mandolin: Kenny Hutson, David Mansfield
Mandocello: David Mansfield
Fiddle: Jake Armerding, James Pennebaker
Accordion: Jodie Moore, Tim Lauer
Hammond Organ: Tim Akers, Dennis Wage, PM
Piano: Richard Souther

Synthesizer / waveform shaping / electronica: Greg Taylor
Harmony Vocals: Molly Felder, Katy Bowser, Patricia Conroy, Micky Dolenz, Terry Taylor, Dug Pinnick, Glenn Spinner, PM and just about every musician who played on the tracks...
Additional Engineering: Glenn Spinner, David Harris, Nate Baldwin


  1. Thaks for telling the story! That is very cool; I can't wait to hear it.


  2. Phil painted the portrait you see here of me while I was at his place and we were working on the recording. It is framed and hanging in a local gallery where people are complimenting and asking about the artist. My ploy to eventually get Phil a show up to Michigan with more of his art and maybe a little music on the side.

    I don't know where to start to thank everyone who has contributed to this project. I truly am moved by the out pouring of talent and love shown to me through the efforts of each person listed above. Thank you and I hope I can meet each of you in person someday to extend my gratitude and give you a copy of the fruits of your labor. Love & peace and grace to you all.
    - Ralston

  3. I look forward to hearing this project. I think we know some gallery folk in town for a show of Phil's work...

    Congratulations to both of you.

    John Despres

  4. Wow, what an awesome project. I can't wait to get my ears around the end result.

  5. Hi Phil.
    I've really enjoyed reading these -- nourishing on many levels (and what a great writer you are). Inspiring!
    Thank you, and may you keep it all up.

  6. Wow! I am blown away by the way God has taken a terrible disease in Ralston and blended it with His fruits in Ralston's life, creating a wonderful project that bears the aroma of His grace and mercy. I cannot wait to hear it! Kudos to Ralston, Phil and the contributing artists!

  7. Absolutely remarkable. Thank you for your energy and excitement on this project. I cannot wait to hear the finished product and am in awe of your ability to give.

    Ralston has been working behind the scenes promoting the music and artists of West Michigan for years and years, unbeknownst to most of the people who live here. He's the most unselfish individual I have ever met, and it's wonderful to see "The Smile That You Send Out, Returns To You!"

    Thanks to all those who have toiled at their own expense to make this happen! The good that's being done for Ralston is indeed payment for all that he's done for others.

  8. Phil, when you mentioned the Ralston project I had no idea that this is what you all were doing.Well written, engaging true story of love in action to let someone else's creativity shine. So glad I read this. Love to hear the good that comes out of the hearts of so many talented Nashville friends and your friend Ralston. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Thanks everyone. Lori, I should say that the musical community represented on this project stretches beyond Nashville, because of the internet and the ease of recording via email. I think the represented places include:

    New York City, Dallas, Austin, New Jersey, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Sacramento, New Harmony Indiana, a tour bus lounge, and other such places.

  10. What a line-up! Question: is the Tim Akers in your credits a Wheaton grad, class of 95? He won't likely remember me, but he was on my "brother floor" one year.

  11. Jenn, it's a different Tim Akers. This one is an amazing keyboardist who plays on many of the mainstream projects coming out of Nashville. That's great that you're reading liner notes!

  12. Will this be available for purchase, Uncle Phil? I really want to hear it! Sounds awesome.

  13. Not sure when this will be out, but we're nearly ready to mix, and the artwork is in process.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm