INTERVIEW WITH RUTHIE COLLINS, SINGER AND SONGWRITER
“GRAPES, GHOSTS AND GUITARS”
by Andrew M Collins – October 2023
With two remarkable studio albums already under her belt, an unwavering commitment to her craft, this engaging and charming songstress hailing from the heart of Nashville, Tennessee, is making waves both in the US country music scene and beyond.
Ruthie Collins has already proven herself as a force to be reckoned with in the world of country music. She already exudes the grace and wisdom of a seasoned artist and her music resonates with the authenticity of life’s experiences, weaving tales of love, heartache, and the beauty of everyday moments. An extraordinary talent whose relentless graft and hard work has gained her a lot of respect and fans in the country music world.
Her journey began in the pews of a Gospel choir, where her voice first found its wings and where her deep-rooted love for music began to flourish. Since then, she has embarked on an extraordinary musical journey. Leaving New York, she studied at Berklee Music College in Boston for several years. Leaving a semester early, Ruthie then moved to the heart of country music, Nashville, Tennessee to properly pursue her singing career.
She was in a singing duo with Victoria Gordon who she met in Nashville in 2007 called Wild Honey, performing on a TV show, Can You Duet, before going solo and signing with Curb records in 2011, going on to produce several singles, an EP and two albums. She also did three live stream sets and the well received Jam In The Van sessions. She’s also performed at many festivals, and toured in the US and here in the UK, most recently supporting U.S. singer-songwriter Sam Outlaw on his tour in 2022.
But Ruthie is far more than just a talented musician and writer. She’s a woman of conviction, using her platform to advocate for more female representation at a higher level in the music industry. Her commitment to making a difference is as strong as her vocal prowess. Now, she has set her sights across the pond again and has just embarked on a 12 date UK tour (Cross The Pond) with country singer Matt Hodges who’s from the UK.
In this exclusive interview, we delve into the world of Ruthie Collins, exploring the stories behind her music, her early years, her struggle to gain a foothold and rise up in a male dominated industry, some spooky encounters and plans for the future.
I’d arranged to talk to Ruthie via zoom and she appeared exactly on time, always a good sign. It was refreshing to do an interview away from the usual strictly controlled factory type media access in-and-out of press slots. Here she was, beaming charmingly from ear to ear and looking fresh as a daisy in her house in Nashville. You can’t get more authentic than that. After exchanging pleasantries, we started talking, naturally, about her early life and what led her to a singing career. She grew up in the small town of Fredonia in New York state, hosting less than 10,000 people.
‘Very small. Yeah. College town in western New York. It’s about an hour from the Canada border between Buffalo, New York and Erie, Pennsylvania. But that might not mean much to people in the UK. But right on Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes. I grew up in a farm that’s been in my family for almost 200 years, which is quite a long time in America. And we have 15 acres of grapes, so we’ve got vineyards. And the grapes mostly go to Welch’s grape juice.
‘I started singing in church with my mom because she was a church organist. So that was like the obvious way to start in music, because there wasn’t a gig environment, my tiny little town, you know, there certainly weren’t any country singers. But I think back to those days, there wasn’t even any … there was no kid who knew how to play acoustic guitar that could be like, “Oh, let’s start a band.” You know, there was nothing. There was choir and musical theatre a little bit that in high school. So I did that.
‘There was no real music scene to speak of at all. I think there would be a little bit today, but not when I was a kid. So I just sang in church with my mom, but that was pretty much it. And just in school stuff. And then when I was 18, I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and that was basically just because I wasn’t good at anything else, you know, besides music.
‘And they had a commercial music program. But I knew I wanted to major in modern music. I wasn’t so much interested in classical or jazz. I like country music. I like singer / songwriter music, pop music. That was what I wanted to study. So that’s what got me to Boston.’
I figured it must have been quite a shock to move from a small town to a bustling city, but apparently not. Collins just took it in her stride.
‘I really loved it. And there was no transition. I mean, my college campus was down-town Boston. It was four buildings on four different city blocks right down-town. There was no real campus. It’s not like Harvard in Boston. They have a proper campus with the trees and the gardens. It wasn’t like that at all. So it was really like being thrown into city life. But I made friends quickly and I really liked the city.
‘I loved the fact that in Boston, I think this is quite common in the UK, but not in Nashville, you walked everywhere and that was nice. You could walk to the restaurants and the grocery stores and the pubs and everything. And that was new for me because I lived in a tiny town out in the country where the nearest mall was an hour’s drive. So I really loved that that side of it. And I still really like that, that part of Boston. So I think I kind of thrived there. I liked it a lot.’
Following her study in Boston, Ruthie re-located to the beating heart of country music, Nashville, Tennessee. She worked in the hospitality industry for a several years before meeting someone who she would partner up with on a music project, Wild Honey.
‘Wild Honey? Yeah. I had just moved and I was waiting tables at a place called the Cheesecake Factory, which is a very basic American restaurant. It was in a fancy mall in Greenhills, Nashville. And I met Victoria, and we both played Martin guitars, so we bonded over that and knew we had to be best friends immediately because of that one little thing. And so we started writing songs together and we were just having a ball.
‘We started a little duo project and started playing shows around Nashville. She had tried out for a show called Nashville Star, which I think Miranda Lambert got her start on, and she didn’t make that show. But the producers called her a few months later and they said, Hey, we’d like you to come audition for the show called Can You Duet? We can put you in a duo, but it’s about duos. And she said, “Well, that’s really interesting because I’m actually in a duo with a girl called Ruthie Collins.”
‘So that is really what gave me my start in Nashville. It was just like a little something to put at the end of my name and it got me in the room with better songwriters, got me better co-writes and got me some label interest as well. So that’s really how it all started. And the duo didn’t last very long, but it was a really good big boost, you know? Round town for me.’
Pursuing a solo career, she signed with Curb records in 2011, and released an EP, Ruthie Collins, in 2014 before recording the albums Cold Comfort (2020) and Cold Comfort + (2022). All were met with critical acclaim, garnering plaudits such as “incredibly powerful” and “complex, deep, personal and intimate … a masterpiece”.
STRUGGLING TO BE HEARD
However, it wasn‘t all smooth sailing at the beginning, with Collins feeling that the record label were not doing enough for her. They had already told her that they couldn‘t release her music as “women just aren‘t working“. She eventually took matters into her own hand.
‘Yeah. People are always like “Oh, you have a record deal. It’s incredible. “Like, it is where the work starts. Then you have to convince your label to release music. And I … I haven’t been very successful on that. You know, to get my last record out, I had to sneak into the studio basically and record it. And they said “Well, you know, people get dropped for this”
‘And I said, well, you’re already not releasing my music. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re not going to release my music. I’m in the same boat as I am. Fortunately, they they did release the record. You know, we didn’t have a country single off of Cold Comfort and then we we put Hypocrite out and they, you know … I did get one radio guy from Curb that had never done radio before to promote it for me (laughs) … that was something, you know, but yeah … sometimes labels are a hindrance. Sometimes they’re a help, you know.’
RADIO PLAY AND MALE BIAS
The question of gender imbalance in the country music business is clearly and understandably a passionate subject for Collins, and one for which she became very animated her during our interview.
‘For country music, it all comes down to radio. And so you have syndicated radio stations. Well, you have these radio stations that basically play Country music. They pay for the songs, right? There’s only 120 of those in America. All the other country stations, you don’t as an artist get paid if they play your music.
‘So the country industry has focused on those 120 stations, and that’s all they care about, right? So of those 120 stations-ish, there’s really three companies that own all of them. So it’s a huge monopoly. You know, those big conglomerates. So there’s one man at the top in three different companies who’s controlling everything.
‘All those stations, they all play the same three playlists … the reality when you look at how many current female artists are getting added to country radio, it’s worse than it’s ever been. We had this whole ‘tomato gate’ 2016 or whatever it was back when I was focused on it. This one radio guy said, when you’re programming a radio station, you need to look at it as a salad. And the men are the lettuce and the women are the tomatoes. So you sprinkle a couple on top and then you’re takencare of, right? So that’s really how they look at females in the industry.
‘People are counting on the radio to be the soundtrack of their lives, you know? And what are you giving them? You know, you’re giving them songs about partying on a Friday night. Well, that’s great. I love to party on a Friday night, but I’m much more than that. And I would like a little more substance to my salad personally. But it’s very strange. It’s a real problem. I don’t see you going away anytime soon, unfortunately.’
Her last album, Cold Comfort + has been very well received, and the first single taken from it, Hypocrite, has been making waves also. However, it’s one of her other songs that resonates very powerfully with Collins. Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree National Park in California is a very special place and holds meaning and resonance for many people. It’s at the crossroads of the Mojave Desert and the Colorado, where the two eco-systems come together. Collins considers this the place that holds the deepest meaning for her. The song of same name was inspired by a doomed and utterly tragic love story between country singers Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. She says the song feels “like a lucky charm”.
‘There’s really something about the creativity out there. So a lot of bands will go record out there. And I am a huge Emmylou Harris fan, and so she’s always been a big inspiration to me. And when I heard the story about her and Gram Parsons, it really broke my heart. So Gram actually discovered her in a bar, I think, near D.C. singing and brought her on the road and they started a project together.
‘And then they were touring and the story that I heard was that they were kind of in love with each other, but no one had the guts to say anything. And then finally she decided she was going to tell him, but she was too late. Yeah. So then he passed away in Joshua Tree. So that was the story of the music video for Joshua Tree. We kind of did like a modern day version of that because he OD’d in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, and we actually filmed the video in the room that he passed away in.’
THE SPIRIT OF GRAM PARSONS
Ruthie has mentioned this is in other interviews, and it fascinated me. The thought that some connection remained with this world. And perhaps her song manifested his spirit in some way. So was there any truth to it?
‘Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s true. So yeah, after after we recorded that song, we released it for maybe like six months. The strangest things would happen every time I would sing Joshua Tree, I went to some Reiki healer and she claim that Gram Parsons was there and told me all this stuff, that there was no way she could have known about the song because the song hadn’t come out yet. She, you know, it was really weird.
‘And then I remember there was this one time we were playing Joshua Tree in Santa Fe, and right when we someone took all these pictures of us and there were all these weird orbs and in the pictures, in the videos while we were singing that song. But for the rest of the set, there was nothing. I remember one time I was playing a show outside and it was like beautiful sunny weather. And then as soon as I played Joshua Tree, like a huge storm came in … thunder, lightning. I mean, it’s just bizarre. My dog will freak out when I’m singing that song. Yeah, it’s very strange, very strange.’
A lot of successful creatives cite positive mental attitude as a key to their success. Working through the myriad self doubt and ubiquitous struggles and torments of life. Collins’ music is often very personal, based on her own relationships, on past trauma, on lost love, on hope and dreams. She’s a sensitive soul, with an obvious passion for writing and the country music genre. Struggling to move forward, as mentioned earlier, she decided to change her way of thinking.
‘I wanted to control what I could, and I was like, Well, I can control my attitude, right? And I realized that there were so many, so many artists out there who would die to be me crying on my couch because I had a record label and I had a publishing deal and I got paid to write songs. And that’s amazing. You know. So I said to myself, I’m just going to concentrate on that. And every time I’m having a hard time in life, I’m just going to think, you know what? I get paid to write songs, I get paid to write songs.
‘And I just focused on that about being just like unapologetically, radically grateful for that one thing. I just put all of my effort and concentration into that, and before I knew it, I had all these good things happening and it was like the snowball effect, and I had more things to be grateful for and the label even started treating me better.’
It’s full steam ahead for Ruthie. With her current UK tour underway, and over 200 songs already written to choose new recordings from Ruthie is in enviable and strong position, with a new album planned for 2024. However, she’s not one to rest on her laurels, exclaiming: “there’s always new stuff to be written.”
And making country music more popular in the UK is a real motivator?
“Absolutely,” replies Ruthie with total conviction. “It’s my mission.” She continues: “I do think it’s happening quite organically, even from when I was coming there a couple of years ago. It seems like the community is growing. I would just encourage people to get with like minded people who love country. And it’s a whole lifestyle, you know? I mean, it’s not just the music. ‘The music is the best … and that’s the heart of country, obviously. But it’s a lifestyle. It’s a fashion statement. And, you know, it’s a whole thing and it’s a beautiful life. You know, … it’s sort of a simple, heart centered way of living that is a bit old fashioned in some ways. It’s slower paced life and it’s setting your values on things like family and close friends and community and it’s fun, and it’s about having a good time and being with the people you love. So I think country music is amazing. I think the UK is a wonderful place for it to thrive.”
CROSS THE POND TOUR is taking place until October 27th at various venues around the UK.
“Cold Comfort is one of the most stunning, layered and complex albums we have heard in a while.”