Rising star Ruthie Collins heads back to the UK this month as the Curb Records artist hits the Millport Music Festival and Nashville Meets London. Rushonrock editor Simon Rushworth caught up with one of country music’s most engaging characters.
Rushonrock: The road from grape farm to Music City is a rarely trodden route…can you provide a glimpse into your childhood?
Ruthie Collins: The farm’s been in my family for about 200 years. I guess that’s not very long in UK terms but where I’m from that’s pretty old! Most of our grapes go to Welch’s — they’re famous for their Concord Grape Jelly and Concord Grape Juice. I was always around the farm as a kid but I didn’t have to work the crops as such. I have two older sisters — they’re 17 and 18 years older than me — and I think they had to work the grapes a bit when they were kids. But by the time I came along my family employed workers. It was just a quiet, rural, really beautiful place to grow up.
Rushonrock: What did you get up to as a kid?
RC: Oh well let’s see…trouble? No, not so much. I spent a lot of time doing jobs in and around the farm even though I wasn’t involved with the grapes. Looking back I was a bit of a pioneer really. My job as a kid when I got home from school was to shovel out the driveway so that mom could get her car through the snow when she got back from work. I’d let the dogs out and start a fire in the woodstove so that the living room was warm enough to hang out in. For an 80s or 90s child that was pretty pioneer! The house was really old and didn’t heat up too well in the winter so we’d gather round the fire in what we called the ‘addition’. Our living room was an addition to the farmhouse in the 80s and we still call it that. We’d just hang out there all winter long and try not to freeze…or get buried in snow.
Rushonrock: And was there plenty of music in the house during those long, cold winters?
RC: Sure. My mom was a church organist and a piano teacher. So my music comes through her. I have three older sisters and everybody played an instrument. We all play piano and we all played a stringed instrument. I grew up playing the violin and classical music and I’d started singing. I think I sang my first solo in church aged three. It was one of those situations where I’d just end up going to work with my mom and playing down by her feet. One Sunday, during rehearsal before church, she was like ‘who wants to take the solo in verse three’ and I just put my hand up. She reminded me that I couldn’t read but I wanted to do it anyway. The story goes that there was this grumpy old man in the choir that nobody liked. He was really mean to everyone. And I got to the part where I was supposed to sing but I got scared and I didn’t do anything. I just kind of froze and this old man reached down and he held my hand and then I sang the solo. So yeah, there was a lot of singing in church growing up and then just normal school stuff like musicals. After that I went to Berklee College of Music.
Rushonrock: When did you open your ears to different kinds of music?
RC: When I was a kid, like I said, my mom was the main influence and she really only played classical music. And so it was really just what was in the car and back then pop radio was the only thing I really had access to. When I was in middle school my very first boyfriend — in seventh or eighth grade — was a hockey player. We would drive to Buffalo to see his games and his parents played country music in the car. And that’s when I was like ‘what is this?’. The storytelling and the songwriting wasn’t like anything that I’d heard on the radio before. I think, in those days, pop radio for girls was probably Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and that kind of stuff. I was thinking that the chances of me running around on stage, you know, cropped up were pretty slim… although I do wear crop tops now! But, you know, they were like, excessively sexy people and I was just a girl from a small town and I never imagined I’d ever do what Britney and Christina were doing. Country music just seemed more my style. I just love the stories. And there were all those great women in the 90s. You know, Reba McEntire, LeAnn Rimes and Jo Dee Messina to name but a few. I just fell in love with it.
Rushonrock: How easy was it to get hold of new music when you were living on the farm?
RC: I mean there was a Walmart not too far away but the bigger problem was that I didn’t have any money. Here’s an example. I’d just started college and was home for my first summer. I found a $20 bill on the ground in the park I was working at and the first thing I thought was ‘I’m going to buy a record with this’. I ended up buying a Jessica Andrews CD — she was an emerging country singer at the time. But there was no record store. Just that Walmart. I had cassettes growing up but the first CD I bought was Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness by Smashing Pumpkins. I got a Green Day record in seventh grade. But really it was only at Christmas when I’d get something new. The rest of the time I’d record country music off the radio onto blank cassettes. By the time I got to college in Boston I discovered Newbury Records and it was so cool listening to all of the latest vinyl. Back home there just wasn’t anything like that.
Rushonrock: So beyond the church was there much of a music scene when you were growing up?
RC: We didn’t have a record store and we didn’t really have anyone who was into music! When I got to the point where I wanted to perform there were no venues or gigs. I might play to a Rotary Club audience with my mom but that was it. There wasn’t even a kid at school with an acoustic guitar who I could jam with. There was just nothing!
Rushonrock: So moving to Nashville must have been a dream come true?
RC: Actually when I first arrived in Nashville and started releasing music I got a bit chewed up. I just wanted my label to release something, anything. It was just so hard to get them to pay any attention to me at all as a new artist. My first single was a really bizarre version of the Hank Williams song Ramblin’ Man — it was almost like bluegrass meets dance. It was so bizarre but really I was just trying to shock the label into noticing me. It worked as they released it… but it was just too weird for country music radio. It did start my touring career a little bit but it was tough in those early days. After that I got lost in the shuffle of ‘no-one wants to release females in country music’. We’ve been through a lot of that in Nashville. People don’t even know that’s been going on.
Rushonrock: How tough has that been?
RC: As women in the country music business we’ve had a really hard time in the last 10 years. It wasn’t just that country radio wasn’t playing us — record labels weren’t signing us. It’s a bad business decision. I mean, venues in the States will literally go on record and say to you ‘well, obviously girls don’t sell tickets’. They’ll say that right to your face because that’s their experience. So it becomes one of those chicken and egg things where we don’t really know why it’s happening but it’s a negative cycle. In the 90s the women were huge superstars. And then they got this this reputation for being kind of hard to break and so no one was really releasing music from females. It got to the point where no women on country radio became a wider social injustice.
Rushonrock: How bad did it get?
RC: There was this famous thing that they refer to as Tomato Gate in Nashville. Supposedly there was this really prominent programme director who was consulting for all the radio stations and he said to the DJs that you should think of country music as a salad and the women as tomatoes. So you have the men who are the lettuce bulking it out and then you just sprinkle a few tomatoes — or female artists — on top. If you have three tomatoes then you’re good to go. So I think we had Taylor [Swift], Miranda [Lambert] and Carrie [Underwood] and the music execs felt like they were good. They had everything they needed.
Rushonrock: Did you allow that to dent your confidence?
RC: I did let that become my story for probably five or six years. There was just so much shit talking about it in Nashville. We would just get together and all the girls would be like ‘oh no they just won’t play us as a country artist’. It was just a terrible, vicious, negative cycle and I got sucked into that. I got so stuck in that cycle that everything bad in my life was country radio’s fault for not playing women. And, you know, my relationships weren’t working and nothing was good. It was all negative talk all of the time. One day I just decided that I didn’t want to be part of that conversation anymore. I got bored of the negativity because musicians love to sit around and talk crap — we really do! And Nashville can be a very bitter place if you concentrate on the negatives. It’s pretty attitude driven. That was probably four years ago but I’m done with that narrative.
Rushonrock: How did you free yourself from such a negative mindset?
RC: I just said to myself that there are so many people in this world who would kill to be me crying on my couch right now because I have a publishing deal and at least I get paid something to write songs for a living. And that’s amazing! So I just decided I was going to be super grateful about that every day of my life. And as soon as I started doing that, I started getting more opportunities with my label. And somewhere during that time of greater positivity — albeit I was still relatively ignored — I snuck into the studio to record my last record Cold Comfort.
Rushonrock: And those recording sessions were a significant turning point…
RC: Yes. I thought I had the luxury at that point of my record label not paying any attention to me and realised that I could go into the Curb Records studio and do whatever I wanted. Naively, I thought no one would notice, at least at first. But about a week into this process my CEO took me to one side and caught wind of what I was up to. He said ‘you know, people have been dropped for this before’. And I was like ‘well you’re not releasing the music as it is so what’s the worst that can happen?’. My whole attitude was that there’s really nothing to lose here. Curb ended up really liking the new music, thank God. But I basically just went to the studio with my guitar player and my best friends. We recorded all of the songs that I just wanted to sing when I wasn’t worried about getting played on country radio. That’s how Cold Comfort came to be.
Rushonrock: Did you have some difficult decisions to make when the record was ready?
RC: We decided that we would release Cold Comfort to the Americana community because that’s a genre that’s more inclusive for women. I thought, you know, I’m not going to keep beating down this [country] door that doesn’t want me to walk through it. And since that time, it’s got a lot better. And now country and Nashville is much more inclusive and they’re really trying to break some great women right now. So it’s become a really good time to be a female singer songwriter in Nashville again. We released Cold Comfort right at the beginning of the pandemic. And Bob Harris played it in the UK quite a lot. And then Bobby Bones played it in the States. And basically, because of a few people like that, who put their stamp on it, people finally started to sit up and take notice. The powers that be suddenly decided I needed to release a country single and so we released Hypocrite. Ultimately, we added three more songs to the original record and issued a bonus version of Cold Comfort earlier this year.
Rushonrock: How much are you enjoying playing that record to your UK fans after so many false starts?
RC: It’s great. It was so surreal to be in the UK with Sam [Outlaw] earlier this year and I’ve been counting the days to come back again. You hear about these famous UK audiences for years and years and years. And I’ve always been told, like ‘oh, you’re just gonna love touring the UK because the fans listen and they care’. It’s not like America where, you know, especially in Nashville, they stand at the back of the room and everybody wants to be doing what you’re doing. It’s a strange atmosphere. So coming over to the UK this year has just been wonderful. I came over in October 2020 hoping to play some shows when we thought you guys were going to continue opening up and then the whole thing shut down again. I was over here for a month and didn’t get to play any shows! Coming back this time, the very first show I played was C2C. Who gets to say the first time they toured the UK they played the O2? It was just crazy and so surreal. But I instantly understood why everybody raves about playing in the UK.
Rushonrock: Is Cold Comfort finally gaining the wider audience it deserves?
RC: I always felt like it deserved more exposure because it was the record that I poured my heart and soul into without asking for permission or even thinking about what someone else wanted to hear. I’m so lucky that I got to do that — most artists don’t get that chance unless they’re wildly successful and they have the artistic and the commercial freedom. So at first, when we released it in April 2020, I was pretty bummed. Everything got cancelled. And I ended up doing a Facebook Live record release show. My mom’s grand piano with dial-up internet was not what I wanted at all. But then I realised that I had made this super emotional record at a time where we were all feeling very emotional and had no idea what was going on in the world. So looking back, I think that it was meant to be. I’m proud that I released a record that hopefully gave people somewhere to go with their emotions that was a safe space.
Rushonrock: Two years after Cold Comfort was originally released you must have plenty of new material in the bank?
RC: After returning from the UK in the spring I spent most of April writing and getting ready for my first headlining tour, which took up most of May and June. And then this summer we’ve been back in the studio to start recording the next record. So I’m very excited. And I feel very bad for the producer who has to sort through thousands of songs with me. It’s weird to be back in the country radio game in the States because it’s a whole different ballgame. I got back there by singing what I wanted to sing from my heart. But all of a sudden I’m trying to write a song about being back on that dirt road, drinking beer and sitting in a truck. I didn’t do that last time but of course the record label suddenly wants more radio singles and I kinda get that. I need to understand where I go from here. I think Hypocrite is a really good balance between Cold Comfort and some of the more Americana singer songwriter songs and the stuff you hear on pop radio. And I think it’s getting some traction in the States because it does sound different. But at the same time, if I want to keep releasing music, I have to keep the record label invested. It’s about striking a balance. I’m not sure where we’re gonna go with the new album — it’s gonna be a surprise to me as well as everybody else!
Ruthie Collins plays Millport Music Festival on August 20 and the Nashville Meets London Festival on August 24.
The deluxe edition of Cold Comfort is out now.