by Laura Youngs
We had finally gotten some relief from the hot Texas weather and when I walk into the local restaurant to do our interview Ruben V is wearing a black knit cap in place of his signature bandana. But you cannot hide “cool” and the powerhouse blues guitarist is definitely that, although he would be the last to say it. Born Ruben Gerardo Vela in Corpus Christi, Texas he came from a musical family. His father and uncle owned a bar and at ten years old the young Ruben would wash dishes there. One night his father got up to sing and he told me he had one of the best voices he had ever heard, even up to this day, and thought “When I grow up I want to be that”.
And so he has. A self-taught guitarist , he learned to play by slowing down old 45’s and listening to the notes. He began playing in bands at the young age of fifteen and his heavy metal band, Final Assault, landed a record deal and they hit the road. It was one of the most fun times he says he ever had but does not care to talk about it because of the painful way that it ended. His bass player and close friend died and the group never moved on. Ruben did move on, however, but found himself growing in a different musical direction. That music was the blues.
The road of a musician is not an easy one and this held true for him as well. He was able to learn much about his craft in Austin and would hang out at popular blues clubs such as Antone’s and Steam Boat to hear the top players. “I loved Austin”, he says, “but no matter how many shows I did with these guys I was just never part of the cool club. San Antonio was the most welcoming”. This is where he met local blues legend Jimmy Spacek, “the coolest, kindest guy I had ever met and still is to this day”. Ruben learned a lot from seasoned professionals such as Spacek, Randy Garibay and the late Chris Holzhaus. who would be at times brutally honest with him which helped him grow better in his craft to become not only one of the cities top guitarists but a prolific singer/songwriter as well. He began playing to packed houses and became a fixture at clubs on the once thriving St. Mary’s Strip. His manager at the time did not want his welcome worn out by playing too often so booked him only once a month. Although this strategy did work to keep packed houses it was not a successful financial strategy and the popular artist had to live out of his car for a time. Eventually he moved in with various friends for a few years while constantly playing. Instead of it being embarrassing he thought of it as a humbling experience. Humility is evident in his character and demeanor as well as faith. “I’m a big faith guy”, he states”, knowing things are on God’s time. Ninety five percent of my material is faith-based but you just don’t know it because I am not going to force it down your throat. It’s on of those things that if you get it then it’s like “Oh, that’s what he is talking about” and if not then it is just a cool song.”
Through the years he has recorded ten cd’s of “cool” songs and shared the stage with artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Los Lonely Boys and Buddy Guy, too mention a few. The relaxed and frank Ruben V sitting across from me becomes a force of nature when he gets on stage. His handsome rock star looks, brilliant smile and enormous energy are so engaging that you cannot help but get immersed in the music. Although he plays only his original songs you get a sense that somehow you are familiar with them already. Perhaps this is because they touch our emotions, which is what he has endeavored to do. “Every night I play my music, my songs. There are only five things I know about – love, out of love, family, faith and loneliness”. His longtime fans still request his first song ‘Baby Girl’ and says he has played thousands of weddings and funerals because his songs were “their” songs. “It gets emotional because” and he pauses to say “that’s my song and people relate to it”. Fortunately for his legion of fans he did not take the advice given to him by the late Texas music star Freddie Fender who told him that he should learn to play La Bamba because as an Hispanic everyone will ask him to play it. After 45 years he says people ask him to play that or Santana (which he plays neither). “If a Mexican is holding a guitar they become Santana”, he says jokingly. “All my life I have been told that you’ll be famous if you’ll just be Mexican. It’s such a weird place to be”. He is not hung up on this fact, just aware of it. His diverse audience is reflective of how his songs cross all boundaries, especially the ones we can so often set upon ourselves.
So what is next for this talent who is already considered Texas blues royalty? Several years ago Ruben suffered the passing of his father who was also his best friend. He talked to him daily all through his adult life and his death profoundly impacted him and he had stopped writing for a time and has just recently begun again and in preparation for his next recording. “In the past two months I have had to make a personal decision to snap out of it because no one is going to fix you. I think my dad would want me to”.
His fans do also!