Ronny Elliott is not fond of phonies. He doesn?t care what anybody else thinks of him. He eschews popular musical trends and blatantly disdains the inflated egos that rule the music biz. Elliott is the antithesis of what is currently dominating the radio these days. He is too honest and coarse for Music Row and too much of a hillbilly for the slick rock formats.
His songs range from heartfelt, tender ballads such as ?Talkin? to the Man in the Moon,? a tune that would fit nicely in the hands of George Strait, to ?Postcard from Jack,? a haunting cut in which Elliott sings from the first person perspective of the infamous Jack the Ripper ? delivering the detailed lyrics in a disturbing, dead pan style reminiscent of Eminem or Nick Cave.
Elliott is no newcomer to the music business.
?I?ve been writing songs and playing in bands since 1964-65,? he said, after another killer performance at Skipper?s Smokehouse in North Tampa.
Lounging backstage with a bottle of Rolling Rock, his youthful demeanor and broad smile belie his 53 years.
?I love Skipper?s. This is the only place I?ve played in the U.S. that is just like playing Europe,? Elliott muses. ? If it has any competition at all, it is the Surfer?s Club down on Madeira Beach … but that place has been closed now for 30 years.?
In 1966, Elliot?s band, the Soul Trippers, recorded a cover of blues legend Slim Harpo?s ?King Bee.? Their revamped version sold 20,000 copies regionally and appeared to have all the markings of a national hit. However, when the immensely influential R&B radio programmer John R at WLAC in Nashville discovered Elliott and his Floridian band-mates were white, he refused to give the record a spin.
That?s pretty much the type of luck Elliott has had with the music biz for the last 35 years. He has played across the states and Europe, opened for Jimi Hendrix, recorded for a handful of national labels and had more doors slammed in his face than a Jehovah?s Witness. Fortunately, it all pours out of him when he performs.
In ?South by So What,? from his 1999 release, My Nerves Are Bad Tonight, Elliott snarls, ?I can?t tell one record company executive from another, but before I kiss you?re a? I?d rather die.? After spending years trying to make it on their terms, the iconoclastic Elliott now does things his own way at Blue Heart Records. His Web site reads, ?I don?t make good records. Or bad ones. I finally make Ronny Elliott records. I?m happy and blessed to be an artist. I do what I have to do.?
The Genesis of the Nationals
The latest phase of Elliott?s colorful career began in the mid-1990s when he and some other seasoned local musicians formed Loco Siempre. Their self-titled release was a loose hodgepodge of country and rock tunes. Elliott wrote and sang lead on the majority of the songs in addition to being the album?s producer.
?I really started writing often just before Loco Siempre – when I decided I?m gonna have to do this by myself ?cause I can?t depend on other fools to do it for me,? he said.
Before a second album came to fruition, Loco Siempre disbanded, and Elliott went solo. He took Siempre drummer Harry Hayward with him and formed The Nationals. Elliott and The Nationals have released four albums in roughly as many years, each one coalescing a little better than the one before.
?We just threw the band together and said we were going to go out and play,? Elliott said. ?Our first show was opening up for Jimmy Lafave at the State Theater in St. Pete around 1995. Our lineup hasn?t changed since, except for the addition of Jim McNealon (on pedal and lap steel guitar).?
In the liner notes to his latest release Poisonville, Elliott states, ?I love the Nationals. They?re all bada?es. They don?t play like other people.?
Along with Hayward, the Nationals include backup vocalist Natty Moss, multi-instrumentalists Walt Bucklin and Steve Connelly. Before teaming with Elliott, Connelly spent time touring with Byrds founder Roger Mcguinn.
Country Rock Iconoclast and Music Aficionado
Elliott has been playing a mixture of country, rock, blues and soul since the mid-1960s. When his group, Your Local Bear, opened for Jimi Hendrix, they were described as ?country-rock.? This was during the height of the psychedelic craze; several years before another Florida native named Gram Parsons teamed with Chris Hillman to form The Flying Burrito Brothers ? the band most often credited as the first country-rock group.
Elliott continues to create a unique amalgam of sounds. Mixing Louvin Brothers style mandolin and a crying pedal steel with a Steve Connelly electric guitar riff that would make Jimmy Page proud, Elliot?s songs are difficult to assign to one particular genre. It is this same characteristic that makes critics such as the ones from Rolling Stone Germany and Mojo Magazine drool and record companies cringe.
Elliott has a low, craggy voice that ranges from an angry growl to an earnest plea, depending on whether he is telling a tall tale, mourning over unrequited love, or, as he does on ?Bitter Breeze,? explaining how the United States stole Hawaii from its rightful owner.
In a time when few recording artists have the courage to tackle such sticky topics, Elliott plows forward undeterred. On his previous album, he attacked the U.S. government for its policy with Cuba in ?Dogs of Havana.? On his current release, Poisonville, he discusses the wrongful jailing of Martin Luther King Jr.
?The thing I read about my stuff is that I?m heavy handed ? my preaching,? Elliot said. ?And it is. I see no particular reason to be subtle. We should be ashamed about some of this stuff.?
Whether writing a song, or simply giving his opinion, Elliott pulls no punches. ?George W. Bush, f— him. I don?t see no reason to tip-toe around what an a?hole he is.?
Elliot has also drawn criticism for his songs being too dark.
?One night I was playing in Germany and some lady looked up at me and said, ?lighten up.??
Referring to ?Postcard from Jack,? Elliot explained, ?I think of it more as silly. All my dark songs I feel are closer to novelty songs. My idea was that it was the point of view of the killer. Nobody ever writes that. I thought, ?Well, murderers don?t think they?re crazy. If they were singing, they would be rationalizing and justifying (their actions).??
Elliott?s songs frequently pay homage to Sun Records gods such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash as well as Chess luminaries such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters.
?I don?t miss just like a year of music, I miss a whole era,? he said.
Whether speaking with Elliott or listening to his records, one immediately senses that he sincerely loves and respects the history of popular music.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Elliott sells more records in Europe than he does in his homeland. ?The music business in the United States is, for the most part, ?F?- you. Who gave you this number???
Elliott shakes his head, allowing his gray hair to flop across his eyes and takes another pull from his Rolling Rock.
?Why do you even have a phone. You know? I don?t understand.? Despite his many setbacks, Elliott has no plans of hanging up his rock ?n? roll shoes. He is already laying down tracks at Zen Den Studios for a new release tentatively titled Beatnik Breakfast due out early in 2002.
?I would think I?ve lost my mind except that in Europe it still seems to be like it was (in the United States) when I was a kid. It was about music and people. I?m not willing, though, to let it break my heart here,? Elliott sighed. ?I?m dying to play more than I do.?
Each of his four solo albums have sold better than the one before and received increasingly favorable reviews from major publications on both sides of the Atlantic.
?It keeps me from slitting my wrists,? joked Elliott. ?It does that. It gives (the music) a validity that at least keeps me from giving up and saying there?s no reason for doing it.?
When Elliott performs, he steams with attitude and burns with passion. He writes and records with equal conviction. In a world dominated by pre-fabricated pop, sentimental country tripe, teen-angst rock and posturing gangsters, there is very little room for rugged individuals, such as Elliott, who are unwilling to compromise no matter the stakes.
Listen to one Elliott record this semester and you will glean more about history and human emotion than you will from any psychology or pop culture class. On his first solo release, Ronny Elliott and The Nationals, the time-tested troubadour sings:
Now they tell me I?m too hip for the radio/ That?s why they won?t play me on the morning show / For 30 long years I?ve been playing it the same / I guess I just love the game.
Elliott?s next scheduled performance is Sept. 22 at the New World Brewery in Ybor City. For more info, visit his Web site at
Wade Tatangelo is a senior majoring in creative writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org