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Max McRuiz: No Labels Please

By Johnny Griffith

In the music world there are all sorts of labels for musicians: guitarist, drummer, keyboardist, country artist, pop artist, R&B artist, etc. Then there are those people who transcend any attempt to be put into a box and are constantly evolving their skill and style as they grow.

Allow me to introduce you to Max McRuiz.

Born in Lindale, and raised in Longview, Max inherited a musical past from his grandparents on both sides of his family. Max attended Spring Hill high school where he excelled in the music program. A four-time All Area 1st Chair, and three-time State 1st Chair winner in drums, his passion for music translated into several scholarships and the opportunity to continue his education in music at the collegiate level where he continued to develop skills on several instruments. After studying music education/performance at Kilgore College as well as SFA, Max was a student teacher at Kilgore High School. It was during this time that he realized he probably wasn’t destined to be a band director so he started teaching music on the side as a hobby to keep his skills sharp and fresh on his mind.

A veteran of several successful musical projects in the area, Max has recently devoted more time to solo projects and building a new trio for local gigs across the area. I sat down with Max recently for a chat.

Johnny: When did you first start to develop an interest in music?

Max: I developed a love for music at a very young age. My parents would place my crib next to the TV when I was only 8 months old so I could stand up and dance to The California Raisins as they would sing old Motown hits like “Heard it Through The Grapevine” and “Sign Sealed Delivered.” My love for music has only grown stronger as the years progressed.

Johnny: You’re a multi-instrumentalist. What were you first drawn to, and what do you consider your best instrument at this point in your life?

Max: I started playing drums and guitar around 1999 when my brother bought an old Samick electric guitar and Laney amp and it came pretty easy to me. As the years went on, I picked up the piano and played by ear until college where I had proper instruction on theory and reading sheet music. Although I would admit that the piano is my favorite instrument to play and compose with, I think drums are my forte. I pride myself in the fact that I am a ‘Jack of All Trades,’ so I try not to become too unbalanced as far as which instrument I am better on.

Johnny: What was your first public performance?

Max: I first took the stage when I was 7 years old for a talent show. I continued doing talent shows throughout school but it wasn’t until 2006 when I started a country cover band named Pocket Aces and I started gigging and playing shows. Once in college at SFA, I started my most successful band, Westbound 21, with friends Cody Wayne, Lyndsey Torrez, and Jason Skidmore.

Johnny: You’ve been involved in several successful local music projects. When did you decide to do more solo work?

Max: In September 2013, I decided to leave Westbound 21 and the big country music scene to play music at my local church. I just started playing solo gigs by myself and with my trio about a year ago. This time around I have the freedom to play exactly what I want without having to stay within the confines of a specific genre or style. My shows have a very wide variety from MoTown to John Mayer to Michael Jackson to Goo Goo Dolls and many more. There is something for everyone.

Johnny: How would you describe your current style?

Max: I would say my current style is easy-listening/Adult contemporary. I play with a loop station so obviously Ed Sheeran has had a big influence on my music.

Johnny: Are you creating much original content or is it primarily covers at this point?

Max: With my last band, we focused a lot on original content but now I just play what moves me. I pick songs for my set that have meaning and are fun to listen to. I play a lot of covers but tend to play them with my own style.

Johnny: About how many gigs a month are you playing at this point?

Max: Between private events, charity gigs, coffee house shows, and big shows with my trio, I play around 3-4 times a month.

Johnny: Is this still in the hobby stage for your or are you looking at a more serious push for a musical career? And if so, what direction would you like to see that path take if up to you?

Max: I have “been there and done that!” My last band played four gigs a week for five years and it burned me out. Now that I am older and have a wife, I enjoy picking and choosing the gigs that I take. Music is an avenue that allows me to express myself but I don’t want to ever make it into a “job” again. It takes most of the fun out when you start to try and make a living while attempting to make it big.

Johnny: Anything noteworthy coming up in February or March the readers might catch you at to enjoy your talents?

Max: I’ve got a couple of gigs coming up in February that will be fun nights.

February 16th (7-9pm) – Bridge 281 Coffee Shop in Longview

February 17th (7:30-10:30pm) –  Central Station in Gladewater

Stay tuned to my Facebook page for other specific dates and times.

Johnny: What has been your best memory so far in your musical career?

Max: December 30, 2013, I got to play at The Dallas Cowboys Stadium for a 30-minute pre-game show. That was a great experience and memory that I will never forget. More recently I got to share the stage with my childhood hero Bryan White a few months ago at The Central Station in Gladewater. That was very surreal and great experience.

Johnny: Besides your own music, what do you listen to currently that gets you excited?

Max: I am a huge fan of Marc Broussard, Ed Sheeran, John Mayer, Dave Barnes, Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, and Journey to name a few.

Fine Mac McRuiz on the web:

facebook.com/maxmcruizmusic

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Stefan Cotter: A Little Out Of The Ordinary

ben wheeler

By Johnny Griffith

It’s the weekend. You want to get out of your home and enjoy some time out. Maybe some dinner and afterwards, a bit of live music at one of the venues around town but you want something a little different than the usual. Not that the usual isn’t good, but you’re just marching to the beat of a different drum today and want a soundtrack to accompany your mood. If that is the case, then you need to find where Stefan Cotter is playing and make your way to one of his shows.

Originally a product of Morgantown, West Virginia, the unique singer/songwriter eventually found his way to East Texas with his wife about 8 years ago and has been doing things a little differently ever since. With the ability to be comfortable playing multiple and disparate genres, Cotter has contributed to many local groups and continues to entertain audiences all over the region with his eclectic brand of musicianship that is definitely not the ordinary.

We tracked Stefan down to get a better perspective on what he’s doing and how he’s doing it:

Johnny: What were your earliest musical memories and what got you interested in being a musician initially?

Stefan: My dad is a trumpet player/teacher, who is finally retiring this year, and I remember him writing out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and teaching me how to read music on the trumpet. As I recall, that was about 4th grade. He also did a lot of musical theater gigs in the summer when I was little and I used to go sit in the orchestra pit with all of the musicians and I thought it was awesome fun. Those people were great musicians, some of whom I still know to this day. I also got to experience him as my high school band director, which made for a lot of great fun! One memory that sticks out was probably around second grade when he let me march with the high school marching band and play cymbals in the small town we lived in during that time.

Johnny: Your bio on ReverbNation cites your genre as reggae, rockabilly, bluegrass, and rock. That’s an unique mix, especially in this neck of the woods. What are some of your staple cover tunes that really highlight a Stefan Cotter show?

Stefan: I have a lot of “favorite” cover songs but some that have stuck with me are: “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, “Valerie” by The Zutons, “Could You Be Loved and Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley, plenty of 50’s country and rock ‘n roll, Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven,” and lots of old traditional bluegrass as well. Coming from West Virginia, bluegrass and old time music is everywhere.

Johnny: What drew you to those styles of music as your genres of choice?

Stefan: I have no logical explanation, but I assume the excitement. If the music is good, I get excited and the feet start stompin’. You know it when you hear it. That goes for reggae, jazz…anything. Also, I think punk rock/ska was my first love I reckon and there is something very punk rock about Chuck Berry, early Beatles, and early rockabilly. There’s just tons of energy. To add to that, the guy that taught me how to run a real sound system, Paul Vallett, also introduced me to REAL roots reggae, “Rock Steady,” and reggae dub. There is nothing better than testing a full on sound system when there is nobody there and just pounding that low and slow reggae. So that’s where the reggae came in I suppose.

Johnny: Who would you say your biggest musical influences were when you were discovering your “sound?”

Stefan: It’s constantly evolving, and that includes my sound too I guess. Sublime was my favorite band for a long time in Junior High and High School. Reel Big Fish was what band I wanted to be in. I was in Jazz band and the orchestra in high school so that brought in a lot of new music. Then I got into jazz/ classical music in college. I was obviously exposed to a ton of different ideas and I loved it. Again, the reggae sound system, then I found Django Reinhardt, who is my all time favorite guitarist. Bob Wills and John Prine and suddenly I get lost again on an entirely different rabbit hole. I’m also constantly influenced by the bands that I’ve played with, both as a college credit or rock bands that I played around with in Morgantown, most notably The Greens. You should check them out, those guys absolutely rock!

Johnny: Are you primarily a solo act or do you work with a stage band?

Stefan: Actually I try not to play solo any more. Its too much fun to play with other people. We’ve got Big Funky Cloud (BFC) at Stanley’s every Wednesday with Keith (“Grease”) Jones on bass, Nick Pencis on drums, Gary Freeman on keys, and myself.

Then we’ve got a string band that we call The Thing Band for lack of a better name. It is with Gary Freeman (keys), Jake Ham (drums) and myself play as a trio sometimes, and we throw in Jopi Drew (bass) for good measure when we can. Jake Ham and Jopi Drew and I have been playing music for the past 8 years or more and love it.

Johnny: About how many shows a month are you currently playing?

Stefan: I play about four shows a week. I play with BFC every Wednesday at Stanley’s BBQ and every Saturday with my old time/bluegrass band at The Grove and others thrown in there depending on the week.

Johnny: How many originals do you usually try to work into an average set?

Stefan: I try to work in about 10-12 but it just depends on the crowd and the night. Sometimes people are in the mood to dance to songs they know, but every now and then you can slip some originals in and the crowd will respond positively. Those are the nights you know it’ll be a fun time.

Johnny: Are you primarily playing in this area or are you traveling to other markets to play gigs?

Stefan: I’m currently just sticking around town. I’d like to get into Dallas but you’ve got to have some momentum to make money there and right now I’m trying to build that locally to be able to parlay that into some attention in the Dallas scene.

Johnny: How would you describe a typical set for a new listener?

Stefan: I call it “Rastabilly”which is lots of fun party-type reggae and old fashioned rockabilly/country/bluegrass all mixed with gypsy jazz. Be ready to dance!

Johnny: What’s on your radar for the rest of the year and beyond?

Stefan: Right now, just keeping busy playing shows mainly. Playing on my fellow bandmates records and hopefully being able to compile an album myself.

Be sure to check out Stefan Cotter online at facebook.com/stefancottermusic or stefancotter.com.

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Chris Oliver & Company: Making The Connection

By Johnny Griffith

If you’ve been to The Grove in Tyler recently on a Sunday morning for brunch, chances are you’ve been listening to the solid grooves of Chris Oliver & Company whether you realized it or not. Originally born in Tyler, Chris attended both Robert E Lee and John Tyler high schools before finishing at North Garland High School in 1995. Eventually moving back to Tyler, Oliver has been a mainstay in the music scene for several years. An accomplished drummer, Chris now fronts the eponymous Chris Oliver & Company and their mission is to make sure you walk away from a show with a smile on your face and the beat in your heart.

We talked with Chris recently to get more info on what they’ve got going:

Johnny: Who makes up the “& Company” portion of Chris Oliver & Company?

Chris: Chris Oliver & Company is myself, Josh Brock, Calvin Sheffield, and Dr. George Faber. That’s been the lineup since we started.

Johnny: How did you guys all meet?

Chris: I grew up with Calvin pretty much all my life and he’s been one of my best friends. We’ve played in church as well as playing in several other bands around the area including being the rhythm section for Wesley Pruitt. Dr. Faber has pretty much been a mentor to both of us since we were both young and has been playing forever. I met Josh Brock about 4 years ago and he was one of those guys that came in and fit like he’d been with us for years.

Johnny: How did Chris Oliver & Company form?

Chris: About 2 years ago, from another gig I was doing, I was asked to do a Sunday brunch show over at The Grove. I had to put together a band specifically for that and, you know, it’s not easy getting a bunch of musicians to do a mid-morning gig on Sunday after playing out till 2am the night before. That first bunch I put together is still Chris Oliver & Company today.

Johnny: You guys play a superb mix of songs…what genre would you consider your wheelhouse?

Chris: That’s a hard question. Everything has a season and I can look back and see where my musical life has been a steady progression with different styles and preferences each taking their turn. If I had to pick one singular style, I’d have to say blues-ish, but it’s really not that simple.

Johnny: You guys were invited to play down in Austin at the Heart of Texas Blues Challenge last year. How was that experience and what do you feel you learned as a band?

Chris: Yeah, we got the invite down there so Josh, myself, and another bass player went down due to Calvin not being able to make it, and we auditioned. They were impressed enough that we were invited to actually participate. We went back down in August and won the preliminary round which got us to the finals. While we were eventually beat out, it was a great experience. The finals were at Antone’s in Austin which has had some legendary players on stage over the years. That atmosphere, on that stage, you could feel the vibe and the history and we grew a lot from that.

Johnny: How far are you traveling to play shows at this point?

Chris: Right now we’re staying local until our album is finished. We will be getting ready to do a tour after that, which will take us out of state but until then it’s home.

Johnny: About how many shows are you playing a month these days?

Chris: We’re mainly hitting about four shows a month, really focusing on the album, and playing the standing brunch gig at The Grove.

Johnny: How have local crowds reacted to a band that doesn’t really fit the mold for this region?

Chris: Every time we hit the stage, I don’t care where it is, if they call us to play and you see this band and our show, I want you to have an experience. If you’re down, we’re going to hit a point in the set where we’re going to lift you up. But we’re not really there playing for the masses…we’re there for that individual and when you connect with lots of people on an individual level, something special happens.

Johnny: Are you working originals into your set list or is it primarily cover tunes?

Chris: It really depends on how we’re feeling that day. Some people who have heard our originals will ask for them but it really depends on the vibe. Sometimes we will throw some out and see what kind of reaction we get.

Johnny: How would you describe a typical Chris Oliver & Company show?

Chris: We try to get your attention, make you listen, make you have fun…we might take you to church, it just depends, but we always end with thank you and an appreciation for the audience.

Johnny: Any big plans on the horizon for the rest of the year?

Chris: Our main priority right now is finishing the album and putting together a tour to get the word out.

Johnny: So after two years of Chris Oliver & Company, what would you say has been your most memorable gig to this point?

Chris: That Antone’s gig for the Blues Challenge was easily most memorable. Everyone brought their “A” game and was on point. Again, that combined with the history of that place and the players that have graced that stage…it was unforgettable.

Johnny: Who would you say you’re listening to right now that gets you excited?

Chris: I’d say right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Donnie Hathaway vocally, but I’m just a fan of music in general.

You can catch Chris Oliver & Company at facebook.com/chrisoliverandcompany. You can also catch Chris Oliver & Company most Sundays during brunch at The Grove in Tyler.

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