WYAT: Who do you usually find in the audience when you play, new faces or random passersby?
John Rankin: I don't tour and travel because of my teaching, I've played mostly in the New Orleans area for the past 30th year. I started playing Jazz Fest in 1981, so I've built up a lot of friends. Some people call them fans, I think of them as friends and I have a pretty good reputation. Some people think of me as a good guitar player; a fun guy to be around as far as music goes, maybe not as a teacher. So it's word of mouth that gets the fans there, and what I do is keep a gig going. I played a residency at Maple Leaf for 5 years in the 80's, also on Sunday, only on Sunday. It was the only Sunday gig in town. I did Madigan's for seven years, every other Sunday. I was the Sunday Night King. People would call me up, "Hey, I got a Sunday night gig!" And I just figured, Rankin Sunday Night. And then I started the Columns in '98. At that point I had given up playing clubs for a while and decided to try it again. So I keep club gigs going. I played Snug Harbor and better gigs Chicky Wah-Wah with a couple of guitar players. I'm not really into going to Check-Point Charlie's and playing a 3 AM gig anymore, although they have great music there. I'm just not in the place anymore.
WYAT: So what's been your history gigging and playing in New Orleans?
JR: Well, I was raised in New Orleans and I started playing guitar in High School. I was playing on Bourbon Street at 16. I was playing Cosmo's Bar on Burgundy and Governor Nicholls. I was raised around Preservation Hall and around traditional Jazz and Second Line culture, because my mom worked at the Jazz Archives at Tulane. Radio was also very Roots oriented then, so I was listening to New Orleans R&B and that was all part of it. I left and went to college in Lafayette at USL which is now ULL otherwise known as Ooo-La-La. I studied theory and composition, and took flute because they didn't have guitar. I took some Jazz Guitar lessons and studied theory and learned how to learn and I learned how bad I really was. I had to start over with learning Jazz and Classical. I loved them both and I had to start from scratch to learn how to play them. Through my twenties I toured, played in bands, wrote songs, and taught myself classical guitar. Then, when I was 29 I came back to New Orleans and went to graduate school at Tulane doing Classical Guitar and later adding Business. That's when I got really focused on my Guitar Studies instead of just music. I was writing songs and singing, playing bass guitar, flute and keyboard; but, when I moved back I really started focusing on Solo Guitar and because I was out of the working network of the town, I became a niche marketer. The niche was solo guitar. Piano Players do this all the time, but there's not many guitar players that do this. This just happens to be what I do. It's not the end all and be all, but it's what I do and other people don't do. So that's what I built up as my market and did it by regular gigs in clubs. I worked all the clubs and toured and traveled a lot. Although the reason I came back to school was because I had been in the Boston Area teaching at a school called the Guitar Workshop. I was making 12 bucks an hour. I felt like was stealing when I was making that kind of money back in 1978. I felt like I could get rich off of that and in 1978 it was a lot. So I realized my Dad was a professor at Tulane and I realized that teaching was a gift for me. It was something that I loved. I really enjoyed teaching as much as I did playing. Some days I'd enjoy it more. Some days I'd prefer to play. It goes back and forth. It's kind of like having two relationships and getting away with it. I really love teaching and once I found that out in Boston, then I realized I had to go back to school. Everything fell together really quickly at that point. So, I came back to New Orleans, I finished school, toured and traveled, put out an LP (that was 1984), in 1985 I got offered a lot of different teaching positions at different universities. I began teaching at the College level and kept gigging in town to keep my visibility up. I was trying to do high dollar jobs close to home. So that was my strategy. Keep my name out by playing bars and clubs. I defined success as being able to keep learning and playing music, having the respect of my peers, and being able to make a living. In my late 20's, I'd say that's what was important to me. I wasn't going to be rich and famous, because I don't push myself that way. I'm not out there trying to make it. I'm out there just trying to play music. Once I realized that and was honest with myself, I figured out what my goals were, I went about trying to achieve them.
WYAT: When you step onto the stage do you come on as a Showman, or as a Songwriter or a Guitar Player or do you combine them all?
JR: I started out trying to show off my Guitar Playing. I became a singer-songwriter because I loved it and because business school showed me that's where the money was. I didn't get a lot of support for my singer-songwriter work because I was a bad singer, and my songs didn't have hooks, they weren't focused, they were clever and good but they were too self-pitying or a little too cute. I had a few good songs, but they weren't commercially viable songs. So after that I focused more on what I called performance as opposed to entertaining which was more like, "Here's a fancy fast guitar piece and here's a song I wrote." I tried a lot bang 'n clang. I took a twelve string and played the fastest instrumentals and took the harmonica breaks really fast. It was all whiz bang, but I burnt out on that. Then that's when I took my break When I came back and I did a novelty song randomly in a set and I got people laughing. Then I realized making people have fun was a very incredible feeling. I'm trying to make people enjoy being with each other.