“I never went looking for ghosts,” Melissa Ruth sings on the title song of her self-produced fourth album, Bones. “They walk alongside me wherever I go.”
The album is, indeed, infused with spirits — artists, lovers, seekers, sinners, everyday people who sometimes triumph, sometimes suffer. In the lyrics of these 10 well-crafted songs, they spring to life, building cultures or lamenting lost ways; breaking free of society’s shackles or remaining forever locked in; finding happiness in small moments or longing for larger ones.
Raised in Western Canada and living in rural Oregon, Ruth’s deep sense of place led her to imbue this album with a sound evocative of the spaces she loves. Using a gentle percussion thrum in one moment, an almost-whispered vocal or a slowly unwinding guitar-piano interlude in another, she creates a contemplative, even quiet mood she calls North-Country Western — not to be confused at all with country-and-western. In fact, the closest it comes to twang is “Holding the Light,” a song about treating one another with kindness. Written in response to 2020’s socio-political turmoil, it touches on a style Ruth affectionately refers to as “doo-wop twang” — until it takes a lovely gospel turn.
“This album is a collection of songs that surfaced as a result of slowing down and re-focusing my energy on process,” says Ruth. “Some are very old songs and some were urgent and written a few weeks before recording. They all feel necessary.”
In “Edith Piaf,” Ruth pays homage to one of her earliest musical heroes; the atmospheric “Passage of Stars” traces her paternal lineage across Canada. “Nashi Lyudi (Our People)” laments the heritage lost when her father, born into a religious sect whose followers had escaped tsarist Russia for Canada, became one of 200 children taken from their parents and sent to a Canadian residential school. “Yoncalla Moon,” which seems genetically connected to the Neville Brothers’ “Yellow Moon,” celebrates the “unsung” — souls Ruth describes as “the pioneering women and people of color and the Native people who contributed greatly to making the West what it is today.”
“Wild Roses” and “Logger’s Lament” address the complexities of a place, its people and its precious resources, from very different perspectives. “Poor Man’s Daughter” is an up-tempo, almost jaunty testimony about the determination it takes to escape hardship. The bluesy “A Good Man” is a love song for her husband, lead guitarist Johnny Leal, whose handiwork appears throughout Bones. Ruth also plays guitar, mandolin and percussion on the album, further accompanied by bassist Scoop McGuire, drummer Cameron Siegal, keyboardist and trumpet player Matt Hill, and on “Holding the Light,” harmony vocalist Stacey Atwell-Keister. Don Ross handled recording, mixing and mastering, as he has on every album Ruth has made since her 2011 debut, Ain’t No Whiskey.
Bones took shape during the Covid-induced period in which Ruth, a touring musician and music educator in a rural Oregon school district, could neither perform before live audiences nor engage with students in classrooms. Because of that, she says, “This project felt, in many ways, like casting a stone into water on a moonless night. There was a lot of darkness. Making this record — casting that stone into the water just to hear the sound — felt like an act of curiosity, of resistance, of hope, and even of defiance.”
Born in the Canadian province of British Columbia, Ruth started studying piano at 5, practicing on a paper keyboard. At 9, she began playing flute, euphonium and drums in her school band. After studying flute and music education at what is now California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, she began teaching, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in music via Kent State University. In 2018, she was named educator of the year in her school district and is the current Small Schools Advocacy Chair for the Oregon Music Education Association.
In addition to her own albums, Ruth produced the 2020 album Live and Kickin’ for Slow Ponies, an all-woman band of mostly septuagenarians — and Ruth — concentrating on cowgirl music from the golden age of the silver screen.
That might help explain the cinematic feel some of Bones’ songs possess. The fact that she and Leal share a wide-open space of their own — a 20-acre ranch on which pets, cattle and wildlife roam — might also have something to do with it. Of course, we can’t discount all those long stretches of highway she’s traversed while on tour — which she can’t wait to do again. Catch her at the following venues, and check her website for more to come.
Melissa Ruth tour dates
March 29 – Live from the Basement (streaming on Facebook and Instagram)
March 30 – McMenamins Grand Lodge, Forest Grove, Oregon
March 31* – Three Legged Crane, Oakridge, Oregon
April 1* – Coast Fork Brewing, Cottage Grove, Oregon
June 14 – Edgefield Winery Tasting Room, Troutdale, Oregon
June 16 – Side A, La Grande, Oregon
June 28 – The Drunk Brush, Quincy, California
(*as Melissa Ruth & the Likely Stories)