Ring 'round the tail

Bill Sheffield keeps acoustic blues quiet so audience will listen

Inside the Perimeter, music fans have a smorgasbord of venues, a ripe buffet of entertainment from which to choose. Finding music outside the Perimeter, however, is more like a scavenger hunt, leading fans to small, unassuming neighborhood bars and out-of-the-way performance venues.

On any given Friday night, such a search might lead to the Blue Raccoon in Marietta, where Bill Sheffield & the Ringtail Rounders play acoustic blues with a relatively quiet, yet still electric, intensity.

Sheffield, 49, has been performing in the Atlanta area since the Nixon administration. In the '70s, he recorded with guitarist Roy Buchanan as well as performed with vocalist Big Mama Thornton (author of Elvis' "Hound Dog") and blues harp wizard George "Harmonica" Smith. Adding to his list of notables, he later played with harpist Thom Doucette (the Allman Brothers) before spending five years as vocalist for Cool Breeze.

Much of the '80s he spent touring the East Coast as vocalist/guitarist for the XLs, while during the '90s Sheffield worked on various other projects. He currently is wrapping up a reissue of his 1999 CD, Penny Candy, remastered and with new material, for June release.

CL: What's a Ringtail Rounder?

Sheffield: It's a Southern colloquialism that a lot of Southerners haven't heard, apparently. It has to do with the raccoon, it's a leader-of-the-pack, top-cat kind of compliment to somebody to say they're the ringtail rounder. I thought it worked great, but nobody seems to have ever heard it before. We're coming up with a logo with a raccoon's ass on it, so hopefully we can clear it up.

Could you describe what you're trying to do with this group?

I played electric [guitar] for a long time, and I still like doing that, but a big part of what I've always done has been acoustic. It finally occurred to me that the quieter you play it, the better you have to play it, to get somebody to listen to it. Can you get them to listen to you do it quiet? You can force-feed 'em with volume, you can make them listen. But can you get them to want to listen? That's why I wanted to do an acoustic band.

Other than the challenge you describe, what is it you like about acoustic music?

For me as a guitarist, it has to do with that finger-picking [playing with fingers versus a flat pick]. Single-note work and rhythm work is basically a flat dimension for me. When you start working with your fingers, you have the potential to play ragtime. You create the bass line and you do the lead line, and that's what fascinates me. You can do a certain amount of it on electric guitar, but it really seems to fit the sound of the acoustic.

How did you get interested in blues?

When I started, there wasn't any live blues. In the black culture, it was considered passe and Uncle Tom. So when I started, it was all through records. I took the Paul Butterfield to John Mayall to B.B. King route, although I did have blues in my house. My father loved Jimmy Reed. I had a copy of The Best of Jimmy Reed that I treasured. I learned my earliest blues off that record.

What can folks expect when they come to see you at the Blue Raccoon?

I don't want them to think that it's sedate, because it isn't that. The thing is to create that kind of tribal atmosphere — get people to dance, to move with the music without making the music just blisteringly loud. That's what we're trying to accomplish.

Bill Sheffield & the Ringtail Rounders perform every Friday at the Blue Raccoon in Marietta. For more information, call 770-426-6400.

This column is a weekly feature covering music outside the Perimeter. E-mail or mail "outside" music news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045.??