Mason: ENG's blues-jazz-rock songbird
By day, she's Ruth Mason, a mild-mannered academic administrator. By
night, she's Ruby, a sultry-voiced blues crooner who appears in some of
Boston's hottest nightclubs.
Mason, director of ENG's department of manufacturing engineering, has
maintained this dual identity ever since she started working at BU 15
years ago. She sings with a popular local band called the Sky Blues.
"I've wanted to perform live music ever since I saw the Beatles on
the Ed Sullivan Show," she says, recalling the Fab Four's television
debut in 1964. "It's a really hard business sometimes, but it's also
exciting and wild."
Mason and her husband, guitarist Bill Mason, have performed together since
the early 1980s. As a duo or with a band, they have produced four critically
acclaimed CDs and warmed up for several famous artists, including David
Crosby and Jonathan Edwards. They have played major clubs in New York
and Boston, including the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Cafe.
Yet at times Mason finds a small neighborhood bar a welcome change of
pace. One of her favorite venues is O'Leary's in Brookline, a Beacon Street
pub just a few blocks south of her BU office. The narrow, deep dining
room has no space for a keyboard or drum kit, but she doesn't mind.
"It's a really fun, interesting night because we have to take a totally
different approach to our music," she says. "It's all acoustic.
I spend the night playing harmonica and melodica [a wind instrument with
a keyboard] and singing. The music takes on a simpler, bare-bones quality
that I like because you can capture the essence of a song that way."
A farmer's daughter from the tiny village of Graham, Mo., Mason was a
soloist in her church gospel choir and later studied voice and piano at
Northwest Missouri State University. The Masons met and joined a band
while Ruth was working at the University of Arizona, and subsequently
the entire group moved to New Hampshire. "It was a whole different
scene back then," Mason says. "There were a lot of big clubs
in the resort and ski areas that paid very well, and we did a great business."
After four years of touring the Northeast, that band broke up, but Ruth
and Bill found their niche in Boston's thriving blues-rock community.
Meanwhile, in 1986, Ruth resurrected her career in academia, taking a
job in the dean's office at the College of Engineering. The couple launched
the Sky Blues in 1991 with two former bandmates.
Today the Masons produce their CDs in a recording studio that Bill runs
at their Roslindale home. They have a large circle of talented musician
friends, who annually attend a giant summer party at the house.
"It's an all-day and into-the-night jam session," Mason says.
"We invite the whole neighborhood, people of all ages. Even the local
politicians show up."
Like those gatherings, the Masons' club performances are filled with improvisation.
"You have nights where everything goes well and the audience is so
supportive that if you were to die tomorrow, it's OK -- you've had your
night," Mason says. "There are also nights where you're playing
in unbelievably seedy clubs. Sometimes the whole place breaks out into
a brawl, and you're not sure if you should keep playing or get off the
stage. These kinds of things happen, although not as often as when we
were starting out."
Outdoor music festivals are usually an ideal venue, but there are exceptions.
"Once we were performing at a big show in Englishtown, N.J., for
5,000 people," Mason says. "We were paid lots of money and it
was a great gig by any musician's measure -- but it rained the entire
day. There was mud everywhere, and we had to lug heavy equipment through
it and our shoes were sinking in it, so by the time we finished the set
we were exhausted and covered with mud from head to toe. So much for the
glamorous life of a musician."
At the moment the Masons are preparing to release a new CD, with guest
appearances by members of the Tar Box Ramblers, the Roys, and other well-regarded
Boston groups. The band will also announce its new identity: the artists
previously known as the Sky Blues will become Bird Mancini, named after
a fictitious third performer the Masons invented back when they were performing
as a duo. Ruth Mason has tested the name out on some friends, who tell
her it connotes jazz saxophone legend Charlie "Yardbird" (a.k.a.
"Bird") Parker as well as pop composer Henry Mancini.
Mason likes the handle, she says, because it "covers a wide, undefinable
genre." She and her husband both grew up listening to the Beatles,
intrigued by the style-mixing that made the band hard to categorize as
purely rock 'n' roll. The Masons and their bandmates, Sven Larson and
Dave Roy, likewise incorporate diverse musical traditions. Along with
the standard blues instruments, they improvise with violin, accordion,
and gangkoqui -- a type of East Indian drum.
Their new CD, which Mason hopes will be released before January, also
offers a taste of bossa nova and Western honky-tonk. There is even a touch
of the old-time gospel she learned back in Missouri. But through all the
band's music runs a common thread that she calls "bluesy, jazzy,
"We just want to write good songs and present them in the best way
that we possibly can, without trying to fit into any particular genre,"
Mason says. "There's still a lot of blues going through our music
and it's still the base of what we do, it's just that we're going in a
"It's too bad the music industry feels the need to categorize,"
she adds, "because we don't feel the need any more. If the industry
wants to catch up with us sometime, that's fine. We'll just put it out
For upcoming concert dates, visit www.lollyland.com/skyblues. For more
information, call 617-325-0604, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.