The Music of Chance

An artist of the accidental, Jim Ruiz croons a lounge music of personal loss.

At 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7, 1998, Minneapolis City Council member and local-music fan Jim Niland mounts the makeshift stage in the Let It Be record store to deliver a new civic proclamation. Behind Niland, the four members of the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group--Jim Ruiz on guitar, his wife Stephanie on bass, his diminutive look-alike brother Chris behind an organ, and friend-of-the-family Allison LaBonne on second guitar--stand bashfully, staring at the floor.

"And, whereas," Niland reads, "the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is one of Minneapolis's finest bands; and, whereas, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group is known for their excellent previous album, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?; and, whereas, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group has celebrated our city in their great single 'Minneapolis'; now, therefore, I, Sharon Sayles Belton, mayor of the city of Minneapolis, do hereby proclaim Sunday, July 5, through Saturday, July 11, 1998, Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week in the city of Minneapolis, and urge all citizens, especially music fans, to recognize this event." Applause.

At which point the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group slides into a shimmery version of the song "Stormtrooper." The in-store performance is the Ruiz Group's first gig in a year, and the band is rusty; in fact, LaBonne has only been playing guitar for a year, and Stephanie Winter-Ruiz only picked up the bass in April. The band breaks down on the bridge of the first song, and the cheesy drum machine starts too up-tempo on the second. But Jim's cocktail-jazz guitar solos are flawless, and the audience applauds at the breaks.

When he gets a chance at the end of the show, Ruiz finally comments on the implications of an official Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week: "People ask me how it feels, and, well, I feel pretty important!" he gushes. He pauses: "Not that I deserve it or anything."

Ruiz, 33, hasn't courted widespread attention in any concerted way, but his growing résumé betrays him. He has a record deal with Minty Fresh, the Chicago boutique label run by Geffen executive Jim Powers, best known for launching Veruca Salt and the Cardigans and for promoting stylish international indie pop. When Ruiz rendered a decade of his life's highest and lowest experiences on 1995's Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, local sales of the disc reached nearly 5,000.

Along the way to that taste of success, Ruiz has been a ska kid, a mod-rocker, and now a bossa nova crooner; he's lived in Holland, and found his most appreciative audience in Japan; and just last month, after 15 years, he finally received his B.A. in history from the UM. And while Ruiz scarcely registers on the national level, underground pop fans serve as an international network of fierce advocates. "Jim Ruiz is a very pure soul," says Gail O'Hara of New York's Chickfactor, a cosmopolitan pop zine that regularly features the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group. "They're one of the most charming bands around, and outside of Minneapolis and Japan, they haven't gotten the recognition they deserve. But Jim and Stephanie both need to know that mass acceptance does not equal success, and to me they are the epitome of success. In a just world, Jim would be set up with a mansion and the studio of his dreams, and he wouldn't have to worry about the music business that haunts him."

But instead, the quiet bohemian couple shares a tiny apartment overlooking I-94, and their bouts with the biz have been frustrating. Jim was recently dropped from a fat music-publishing deal with Sony, which had provided advances on his albums; tour-support funds from Minty Fresh might be drying up as well. The situation has forced the Winter-Ruizes to take a long look at their finances and become, as Jim terms it, "a fiscally responsible band." To do that, he recently laid off the band's umpteenth drummer and dumped plans to tour as a six-piece. Keyboardist Chris Ruiz has reverted to part-time status and Jim's remaining members are brand new to their instruments. Necessity has bred a bit of innovation: For future live shows, the band will use canned drum tracks engineered by Rod Smith, the local loungeaholic and mixmaster.

And so, at a moment when Ruiz is celebrating a new album release and the novel honor of Legendary Jim Ruiz Group Week, the future is unclear. (The day after the Ruiz declaration, in fact, newspaper ads appear trumpeting Sayles Belton's proclamation of "Smashing Pumpkins and Rock 100.3 Day.")

"I guess I thought being on an indie label, you'd get a lot more freedom," considers Stephanie in her mild northern English accent--she was born American but raised in Norfolk. "But it doesn't seem to happen for us."

"But I just don't think it's quite as black and white as that," Jim interjects.

"Oh, you love to put things in black and white, Jim."

It's a funny exchange, because in the legend of Jim Ruiz's life and career, almost nothing has been so simple.

About three years ago at a Washington, D.C., gig, the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group shared a bill with the Mexican cabaret roots-rocker El Vez, a performer known for adopting a militant stance regarding his ethnicity. "His band came up to me before the show and they're like, 'Hey man! We've read about you! It's great to be playing with you, man!'" Ruiz remembers. "And I realized the reason they're saying that is because I have a Spanish last name. I think they were really disappointed that I wasn't very Mexican. I may be racially mixed, but I'm more Minnesotan than Garrison Keillor."

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