Things that do not go together: An upright bass and a dance beat. Crafting parties and honkytonks. New York and hillbillies. Instagram and romance. Tones harkening back to Hank Senior and a sound fresh enough to turn country music on its ear. Somehow, Curb Records newcomer Ruthie Collins doesn’t just bring those polar opposites a little closer, she connects them in a way that makes perfect sense. The effect is stunning – nowhere more so than on her debut single “Ramblin’ Man.”
When sounds reminiscent of Hank Williams’ mournful call are joined by Collins’ ethereal vocals over a completely unexpected backbeat, traditionalists instantly know the track is no mere cover of the 1953 chart-topper. Listeners unfamiliar with Williams – or even his son – simply realize that someone has taken country music to a place they never imagined it could go. As both groups get to know Ruthie and her introductory EP Vintage, the convergence of these seemingly disparate realities is convincing them that something truly unique is happening.
“I am a really old-fashioned person living in 2014,” Collins says. “I drive a 1984 Jeep Wagoneer with wood paneling, but there’s a backup camera and an iPod dock. I am obsessed with rustic farmhouse decor. I have a garden. All these things are very country, we just don’t always think about young women in that way. But they’re out there and they’re having crafting parties with their girlfriends. Whether it’s something that’s timeless or something brand new that aspires to that, I am drawn to things that speak of permanence. And that’s how I feel about my music – the upright bass and bluegrass instrumentation modernized and brought into the present day.”
Both as a singular epiphany and a catalyst for the music that follows, “Ramblin’ Man” is the culmination of a journey that started near Buffalo. “I’m from New York Country, as opposed to New York City,” Collins says. “It is very, very rural – they play George Strait in the Walmart. My high school mascot is the Fredonia Hillbillies, so that pretty much says it all.”
Ruthie grew up with three sisters on a vineyard that’s been in her family for more than 100 years. Her father is a storyteller by trade – yes, a storyteller. And her mother is a musician. “I was a little clone of my parents because I loved the storytelling from my dad and the songwriting and music from my mom,” she says. Church music featured prominently, with country coming into the picture in middle school. “My boyfriend’s parents would play country on the radio,” she says. “I was like, ‘What is this? This is awesome!’ Garth Brooks, Jo Dee Messina, Trisha Yearwood – ’90s country was just amazing.”
Her first big decision in music was a bit of a hedge. “College came down to Berklee College of Music in Boston and Belmont University in Nashville,” Ruthie says. “Even though I knew I wanted to write and sing country, and I did love Nashville, Berklee gave me a big scholarship.” Boston it was, but not without doubts. “I didn’t really know who I was,” she says. “I knew that I loved to sing country music, but I was surrounded by girls who had these giant voices. My mom says I came back from my first semester, sat down at the piano and was screaming Faith Hill songs. She was like, ‘What are you doing?’
“I was always known for having a really sweet, pretty voice, but I was trying to belt because that’s what everyone was doing. Why don’t I sound like Martina? I want to sound like Martina!”
The searching continued as she made her next steps. “When I left college, I had to decide whether to go for the crazy goal or take the logical job with a salary.” Ruthie ended up as the contemporary vocal director at a very large Texas church. She quickly realized she needed a more creative outlet, and soon relocated to Nashville. “I wrote with anybody who would write with me for the first year or so.”
She also connected with a fellow waitress in a duo that competed on the short-lived singing competition Can You Duet. “It ended up being a credit that helped me get a lot better co-writes,” she says. “So my writing really took off and that’s when I signed at Curb.”
Even signing with Curb fell short of completing the picture. With the label’s blessing, Collins spent time in a band in hopes of finding a connection that clicked, but to no avail. Having seemingly exhausted indirect approaches, she finally began chiseling away at her own vision as a solo artist.
“I was trying to find my sound, my voice,” she says. “I’ve learned over the years that my voice just doesn’t cut through as much when there’s so much layering. So I started experimenting with my band. I was playing guitar and singing vocals with an upright bass player, fiddle and percussion. That was it. And I found myself singing totally differently.
“We ended up with some really pretty recordings, but I felt like they needed a shot of vitamin B or something,” she says. “Trying to find a way to bring all that together, I had the idea to sample an old country song.”
She and producer Curt Gibbs decided on “Ramblin’ Man.” “When I heard Hank Senior sing ‘I love you, baby,’ it just sounded like this guy talking to his girlfriend,” Ruthie says. “So we ran with that idea threw in a pedal steel lick, changed the pace and switched to a key that I could sing. Then I just started playing guitar over it.”
That’s when something almost unexplainable happened. “I was playing a six-chord and a five-chord,” she says. “Curt was saying the five-chord doesn’t work and I told him, ‘I know, but just record me doing this. It doesn’t quite work, but I think it’s going to be good.’ Music theory says it shouldn’t work, but it does.
“Originally we were going to write lyrics around it, but it is Hank Williams and I thought maybe we should just go with country royalty. So I Googled the lyrics and went in to sing a scratch vocal, changing it a bit to be from a female perspective. I don’t know where that melody came from, but I sang it off-the-cuff and we haven’t changed it a bit. The first time I did it, it was all there.
“It just poured out of me. I feel like there was a lot of divine inspiration that day – it just happened,” she says. “And it’s a bit scary. I don’t go to discos. I don’t go clubbing, I go honky-tonking. So the departure wasn’t the least bit intentional, but the energy was just undeniable.”
And it showed her the path she’d been seeking. “I had always just struggled with going for it,” she admits. “Berklee was great, but I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I got to Texas and it wasn’t right … I still needed to go for it. Then I got to Nashville and knew I wanted to write and, ultimately, perform, but I still honestly just didn’t know that could happen for me. All the steps along the way – the duo and the TV show, the band, the record deal – it’s been a really long lesson of you-really-can-do-this. I just had to dream bigger than I’d been dreaming. I had to completely go for it.
“Ramblin’ Man” changed how she thought about the music she was still writing and had already recorded. For instance, “Get Drunk And Cry.” “That’s also a go-for-it because the lyric is a little aggressive for me. I’m a Christian and I was worried about putting that out there, but I had to be vulnerable and admit to being the girl who has some wine and cries, rather than pretending I have it together all the time.”
And then there’s the EP’s title track. “Vintage” may be the perfect summation of her worldview. “I played it at a show I opened for Scotty McCreery and all these girls were coming up to me after and talking about that song,” she says. “Even now, I’ll get Instagram messages from seventh grade girls tagging the hook – ‘I want to love you until our love is vintage.’
That affirmation only confirms what she has finally come to believe. “So, I can just be myself?” she asks rhetorically. “I don’t have to try to be a lot cooler than I am? I can actually talk about Pinterest and gardening and crafting? It’s okay that I don’t sound like Martina? I’m just laying it out there. It’s different and kinda scary, but a leap of faith.” In the end, making music and being exactly who she is are two things that go together perfectly for Ruthie Collins.