Harping Through Life: Peter Madcat Ruth celebrates his 70th birthday at The Ark


Peter Madcat Ruth

A breathtakingly brilliant harmonica player who’s been an essential part of the Ann Arbor music scene for decades, Peter Madcat Ruth will officially celebrate his 70th birthday on Tuesday, April 2. But his big birthday bash will happen two days later at The Ark on Thursday, April 4, when he’ll be joined by an impressive number of special guests for a roof-raising celebration. Joining Madcat at The Ark will be Howard Levy, Chris Brubeck, Joshua Davis, Corky Siegel, Shari Kane, Seth Bernard, Rachael Davis, Drew Howard, Michael Shimmin, Mark Schrock, Dominic Davis, William Apostol, Dick Siegel, and Joel Brown, with the proceedings emceed by WEMU-FM music host Michael Jewett. 

Madcat is understandably best known for his virtuosic harmonica playing, but he’s also a gifted vocalist and just as impressive on ukulele, guitar, and a host of other instruments.

Recently I spoke to the laid-back, always friendly American roots music practitioner about his career, his upcoming birthday bash, and some of the top artists he’s worked with over the last 50 years or so.

Q: Let’s go back to the very beginning of your career. When did you originally start playing harmonica?
A: It was around 55 years ago I first heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the radio. There was a folk music boom going on back then -- Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio and all that. Sonny Terry’s harmonica playing completely captivated me. I said, “Wow, I’m going to have to learn how to do that.” My dad had one harmonica around the house and I got a record that had some Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry on it, and I got that harmonica out and played along with the record. For the first two years, I only listened to Sonny Terry, and then I got the new Junior Wells record Hoodoo Man Blues, I got the new Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and I got other blues records like Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter. I was right there in Chicago; I lived in the Chicago suburbs. I’d already been playing ukulele and guitar but my interest in harmonica really picked up; it’s so portable, there’s more chance to practice. I’d practice in high school between classes. On the way to school and on the way home from school I’d play harmonica riding my bike no-handed. I never took my eyes off that high school hobby, I just continued doing it. 

Q: What led to your move from Chicago to Ann Arbor?
A: I met Chris Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck, just by chance in Chicago in 1968. He was still in high school and I was just out of high school. He said that he wanted me to join his band [New Heavenly Blue]. So in 1969, he graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and I went up there and made a demo record. That led to our first record, New Heavenly Blue, on RCA Records. Then he moved to Ann Arbor to go to U of M and I moved to Ann Arbor in the spring of 1970 to be in his band. Then everyone in the band moved to New York except for me and I stayed here because I was married and I like Ann Arbor.

Q: It’s going to be so special to have Chris Brubeck as one of the guests appearing at your 70th birthday bash at The Ark. Can you talk about just a few of your other musical friends who are going to be there? This is a dream lineup!
A: One of the most amazing harmonica players I’ve ever heard in my life is Howard Levy, co-founding member of [Bela Fleck’s band] the Flecktones. He can pull more music out of a harmonica than anyone I know. I consider myself a very good harmonica player but he’s technically more advanced, I’d say. So he’s invited -- someone to keep me humble! Corky Siegel will also be there. When I first started listening to people other than Sonny Terry, his records were out, too. Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and Siegel-Schwall Blues Band were the first blues bands of that new generation. Corky became an influence on my playing for sure. Later on, we met and became friends in the late 70s. Howard Levy and I met at approximately the same time. 

Q: You’ve played on well over one hundred albums in your career. Can you pick just one or two that were particularly memorable?
A: The albums I recorded with Dave Brubeck when I was in my twenties would have to be at the top: Two Generations of Brubeck, Brother: The Great Spirit Made Us All and Truth Is Fallen. That last one was with Dave Brubeck and a symphony orchestra. 

Q: What’s the story behind your Grammy Award win for the 2004 album you worked on, Songs of Innocence and of Experience?
A: I got this call from William Bolcom, a professor at U of M, asking if I would do this thing. That was crazy because they had to build the stage bigger at Hill Auditorium. They had to take out the first five rows because they had two full choruses and the full orchestra and all these other opera singers and extra musicians of all different sorts. He asked me to strum guitar and sing this song in 3/4 time -- he put the poetry of William Blake to music. So I did it and it was an amazing experience. Then I get a thing in the mail a year and a half later from the Grammy Awards and I thought it was a fundraising thing. I thought it was junk mail. I almost threw it away; I didn’t open it right away. I finally opened it and I said, “Dang, I won a Grammy and I didn’t even know I was nominated!” I won for featured soloist.

Q: So many other talented musicians have not been able to keep their careers going as long as you have. You and I both know how difficult the music business can be. Do you have any advice for an up-and-coming musician about how to make it in the business and sustain a career?
A: If anyone asks me if they should go into the music business I say, “No,” unless you are so passionate about it you can’t do anything else. If you’re that passionate about it, then OK. It’s absolutely not a good business plan. I did it because I was passionate about avoiding any other kind of work, but also because I was very versatile and harmonica is a versatile instrument. After I was touring the world with Dave Brubeck I said, “Then what?” And I got into the folk music scene and then that kind of dwindled and then I got a blues band together and then during most of the 1980s I was mostly doing elementary school assemblies, kid’s music. Then I got a duo together, then a quartet, then back to solo playing country, blues, folk and Americana music, and jazz. Being versatile is what saved me.

Martin Bandyke is the morning drive host and Music Director at ann arbor’s 107one, WQKL-FM.

Peter Madcat Ruth's 70th birthday bash is Thursday, April 4, at The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, Ann Arbor. Doors open: 7:30 pm; show starts: 8:00 pm Tickets: $30.