* Ronny Spears: Behind the Scenes With An Unknown Legend…
And Why You’ll Know Him Soon Enough *
Anybody who’s been around music in north Texas much at all over the past twenty years or so is at least tangentially aware of Ronny Spears. Folks in other parts of the state, or elsewhere in the world? Maybe not so much, tangentially or otherwise. S’Ok, though. If you’re in that category with those caught unaware by the name, we here at Outlaw Magazine offer help and direction all the time. Hell, it’s a fundamental part of our mission, trying to point the way toward musicians and artists whose efforts are sincerely worth your investment.
So where does one start with a guy like Spears? Where one always starts, of course: at home. Home’s been one place that’s mattered most, and also been lost the most, throughout Spears’ life. On the one hand, you look at his life and you see a mama who didn’t hold up her end of the deal and a daddy who damn sure tried his best. His efforts made profound impacts, the kind that still influence Ronny’s life today. On one hand there was the dad who drove to west Texas and took his son from a mother whose lifestyle and new boyfriend simply weren’t going to help a boy grow up to be a man. It was a tough period for Ronny, one he looks back on and says with no trace of doubt would have resulted in his death or imprisonment if his dad hadn’t come and pulled him out. Though the two men had their differences later, as fathers and sons will now and again, the underlying lessons of love, commitment, and dedication to craft that Ronny took from his father still help shape his life today. Early on in Spears’ music journey, when he made it clear that pursuing the art was going to be his goal, it didn’t sit well with his dad. Again, not an uncommon thing; particularly in light of the elder Spears’ established and solid career in real estate. The father just wanted more for his son, and expressed a view that music is a nice to have sort of thing, just a soundtrack for all of life’s important pursuits. Ronny disagreed, made a vow to himself that his work would never be just background music. That commitment stuck, and it’s always good these days to see his dad out at show listening, singing along. Sometimes sons can teach fathers some things, too, and that’s when the tired old circle of life cliché can start to get interesting.
Next stop on the “who the hell is Ronny Spears” express lands us in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. Quarter of a century back, the point where it all really started to gel. Spears and his first band, The River’s Edge, won some local notoriety and made a habit of playing legendary (and now fondly remembered but sadly gone) nightspots like the Three Teardrops Tavern. More myths have been spun about that joint than maybe any four or five others currently in business in the state, long as the Broken Spoke and Gruene Hall get left out of the discussion. And the myths aren’t even half of the truth; the Teardrops was a once in a lifetime place and those who frequented it wax misty in the same sort of way that folks in Austin sometimes get choked up reminiscing about the Armadillo World Headquarters. Spears and The River’s Edge made a big splash, but burned out too quickly. When the band didn’t last, Spears teamed up with Donny Ray Ford and formed an outfit called Liberty Valance, kept tearing up Dallas and north Texas with abandon. Attention started to wander in from some very interesting corners, and before long Ronny and a new band, Honky Tonk Hardcore, were working on a record titled Modern Day Outlaw. In case you’re still wondering at this point who Ronny is, or why you think you’ve heard of him but aren’t sure, or why he’s getting attention from this publication, let’s do a quick rundown of folks who participated in the making of that record. Try this on for size, hombre:
Piano – Sam Hendricks
Bass – Bill Clark
Steel – Diamond Jim Richmond
Mandolin/Guitar – Don Richmond
Bobby Rambo got in on the action, too.
If you don’t know who those guys are, get thee to Google post haste and educate thineownself. If you do know (and you should), then you understand something already about Spears’ worth as a songwriter, performer, artist, and entertainer. Players of that caliber do not hop onstage and lend their names to hacks and wannabes. And Ronny Spears has never been either of those things.
Modern Day Outlaw built some buzz; it was a terrific little record perfectly geared to that time period when the whole New Traditional concept was taking Music Row by storm. Remember Clint Black’s first couple of records? The first two from Garth? Doug Stone singing “Better Off In A Pine Box”? Sammy Kershaw? Alan by-God Jackson? All of those guys, and more, stepping onto the national stage and lining up with George Strait as if to say “this is country music, and we will not let it be bastardized.” Well, for a minute, anyway. Until the paychecks come rolling in, and then we’ll sell out Texas Stadium and wear ugly shirts with flame patterns on them and pretend the Beatles and Aerosmith were really from Beaumont. Yeah. That’ll work. Well, it worked for the bank account of the man who’d later try to become Chris Gaines, and it worked for plenty of others who followed his path. Not for Ronny Spears, though. Yes, Nashville called him. And yes, he went on up there and gave the place a good look. But the machine didn’t sit well with him, and even then he could see where the train was headed. Lacking a desire to hop on the crazy train and get turned into a caricature of Kenny Chesney before Chesney could even hit the public eye as a parody of himself, Spears turned his boots back south and headed home for Texas. Kept his weekend gigs with the band, and started picking up weeknight acoustic shows with friends and peers. His weekly gigs with Brian Burns at Love and War In Texas (www.loveandwarintexas.com) were the stuff of legend, and countless people who came for dinner at L&W wound up leaving with a heart full of longing for Texas music. Through those shows, Ronny and Brian honed their craft and earned fans while setting up their own careers for long term success. Spears during this time also shared acoustic billings with icons like Rusty Wier and Ray Wylie Hubbard, proving that he could hold his own with the big dogs. (Burns of course did the same, as we’ve shared with you repeatedly here at Outlaw Mag).
Life and family and the day job got the better of Ronny for a time, though, and while he never stopped gigging, he did pull back on the music for a bit to focus on the things his hardworn and time tested priorities told him were most important. Family was at the top of that list, particularly as his Mamaw fell sick and eventually passed. Ask him about that time, and Spears will tell you that while it was rough as could be, he wouldn’t trade a moment of it. The knowledge that he was able to give back to her after she’d spent a life giving him so much, the memories he was able to make simply by making time for her at his career’s expense? Worth every second of delay. Death has been no stranger to Ronny’s life, and while we’ll spare you the details and him the scrutiny, suffice it to say that in Ronny Spears you’re dealing with a man who knows intimately both the lows of loss and the highs of success. And what you get from him, day in and day out, is a resilient consistency that’s rooted firmly both in faith and in the knowledge that he’s taken this world’s worst punches and is still upright and playing.
Spears’ voice matured during that period, changing from a capable and effective instrument into something very deeply moving. Hearing him sing these days is a treasure not to be missed; his vocals are simply tremendous. There was a time when Ronny Spears was a solid singer, a solid songwriter, and a great guy to be around. He’s still that great guy, the kind of man any decent person would be honored to claim as a friend. But he’s become a terrific singer, and the depth and nuance of his songwriting has moved to a level that the early ‘90s could not have foretold. The new record coming out late in 2012 will bear that out; we’ll tell you when it drops and give you a review. You’re going to want it, and it’s going to make your life better. Spears can do straight up honky tonk as well as George Strait; it’s no stretch to imagine Ronny singing “80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper” and bringing the house down. But he can also get into the crevices of your heart with his own songs like “Continental Street” and it’s almost tough to think of George pulling that one off. Timing’s everything in the music business, and Strait fans may balk here at the idea that someone might be as good as King George. That’s fine. If you’re balking, come on over to my place. We’ll throw some steaks on the fire pit and start comparing tunes. Ronny Spears is in that league in terms of pure singing and talent, even if life has thrown curveballs and the commercial success hasn’t come. He’s okay with that, too. Understands what he’s worth, and understands that making his music because it’s coming from his soul is more important than selling a billion copies of some stupid ditty like “The Fireman.” Give him credit.
Ronny Spears. A hidden treasure lurking in the wings of Texas music, but not for much longer. If you’re tired of the Red Dirt Retread BS, every band trying to sound like Pat or Stoney, Ronny’s one of the guys you can look to for salvation. His music is familiar, yet fresh. His observations on life, on love, on loss and the time we get on this earth are startlingly brilliant in their simplicity. It’s a Jersey Shore world out there in the mainstream, but where the real people live and love and win and lose, it’s a Ronny Spears world and always will be.
Photos By Red Texas Photography
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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