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Ralston Bowles, Jammies Legacy Award 2016 recipient, talks music, community

Musician Ralston Bowles has been called the godfather of West Michigan's folk scene. Now he's being formally recognized for it with a Legacy Award at this Friday's Jammies.

/Christopher John Wilson, Courtesy of Ralston Bowles

See Ralston Bowles at the Jammies

Ralston Bowles is performing at the Jammies this Friday, Feb. 19. For more information and the full lineup, visit the event's Facebook page. A suggested $5 minimum donation is requested at the door.

When Ralston Bowles left Gary, Indiana for Grand Rapids at 16, he wasn’t planning on building the legacy that he’s being awarded for at the Jammies this Friday. Feb. 19.

But WYCE Station Manager AJ Paschka, who organizes the awards showcase, says Bowles’ contribution to local music in Grand Rapids has been immeasurable.

“He connects, protects and assists aspiring musicians while creating avenues that bring musicians into organizations that can help the music community,” he says. “Ralston has put the hard work in, is generous with his time and has left an indelible mark for the integrity of music in Grand Rapids.”

When Bowles threw his acoustic guitar in the back of his car and left everything he knew 150 miles behind him, he wasn’t planning on lifting the careers of countless other musicians, either.  

But he certainly helped. In 2003 he created a weekly local music showcase at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, helping local bands play for tens of thousands of music fans. Ten years later, the Grand Rapids Press called it “West Michigan’s premier local-music showcase.”

Bowles says he wasn’t planning on launching a music career at all. In fact, he wasn’t planning on doing much of anything.

“I just wanted to get out of where I was,” he says.

After finishing high school at 16 he followed a friend to Grand Rapids, having heard from him that the city was an interesting place.

Once there, he worked odd jobs, studied at Calvin College and even lived out of his car for a time. He enlisted in the Marines, but got an honorable discharge during basic training due to a genetic heart condition.

All the while, he was playing music. He met a few other musicians along the way, and they performed at coffee shops around West Michigan.

“We’d drive out and play for nothing,” he says. “It was that romantic part of the whole thing that you fall into where you don’t have a lot of responsibility, you don’t have a lot of bills.”

“That became kind of an addictive thing, to get in front of an audience and feel that energy,” he says.

In those formative years, Bowles had yet to find his voice as a songwriter. Rather than the highly personal folk music he’s known for today, he wrote comedic novelty songs.

“Somewhere along the line I thought if I can get people to laugh, I can get them to like me,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with myself.”

In some ways, getting comfortable with himself turned out to be a long journey for Bowles. While he started playing festivals and bigger shows in West Michigan, he had yet to commit any of his music to tape. In fact, he didn’t record his first album, “Carwreck Conversations,” until age 52.

Listening to his favorite records, Bowles didn’t think it was possible for him to create something of the same caliber. It wasn’t until his eldest son encouraged him that he began to consider making an album.

Even when he got an offer to come to Nashville and cut an album from producer Marvin Etzioni of Lone Justice, he still dragged his feet.

“It’s sort of like how they say anyone who really, really wants to be president probably shouldn’t be. This guy said, ‘you don’t want a record, but you’re probably the guy who should have one,’” he says.

Eventually Bowles did decide to go to Nashville. Once there, things escalated quickly. Etzioni called in session musicians to provide additional instrumentation. Bowles found himself singing into microphones worth a sizable chunk of his house payment. He wanted to go home.

“All of the sudden I’m like, ‘this is getting real, and it’s getting scary,’” he says.

His son, who accompanied him on the trip, urged him to stay and finish the album. He did, and it paid off. The album was critically acclaimed and allowed him to perform on stages across the world.

While he’s now released five studio albums, Bowles still doesn’t care for recording. The exchange of energy between performer and audience that drew him to music in the first place simply isn’t there, he says.

Search for him on Spotify, and you’ll only find one of those five albums. His music is scattered throughout the web—an album here, a few songs there. He says he doesn’t have enough control over where his music goes online. He’s found his albums on foreign streaming services he’s never heard of, and he’s fairly sure he isn’t seeing any money from them.

Instead, Bowles prefers to sell physical copies of his albums at shows. Because he doesn’t have the backing of a record label, keeping a stock of physical product can be difficult. Bowles says he sometimes relies on a convoluted system where he buys copies of his own CDs online and either sells them at shows, or ships them to fans on the other side of the world.

“That’s my business model secret,” he says with a laugh.

Most people measure a musician’s success with dollar signs. Platinum albums, sold out arenas and late-night TV performances are the traditional trappings of success in the music industry. For Bowles, success is a more abstract concept.

“Personally I wouldn’t want to be Cher, or any of those people who play Vegas and make millions of dollars. That much money is probably poverty on a lot of other levels,” he says. “I enjoy my friends, I enjoy a nice cup of coffee and if I can play a song that makes someone happy or evokes some sort of emotion for them, what else do I need?”

Bowles attributes his grounded attitude to growing up in the Midwest. He says musicians who have roots in the area may develop a better work ethic than those who come from more glamorous places.

Rather than move to a more well-known music hub such as Nashville or Los Angeles, he prefers to help build the music scene here.

“I think it would be cool to make this the next Seattle or the next Athens instead of going out and trying to fit in somewhere else,” he says.

When asked about the legacy he wants to leave here, he references a song of his called “Friend of God.”

“I don’t want to be remembered for things I might have done, climbing social ladders rung upon each rung. I don’t want to be remembered for any song I have sung,” the song goes.

“I just want to be known as a friend of God.”

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