Minstrel of Madison

Bladen’s ‘homegrown rock-n-roll’
produces first Regatta theme song

Madison native defies odds
in establishing his own music career

By Don Ward

(July 2002) MADISON, Ind. – Whenever Rusty Bladen sets up to play, his fans come out of the woodwork.
They know his music, they know the words to his original songs and they know Rusty – many on a first-name basis. In fact, his gigs are often like mini-family reunions, with everyone singing along, requesting their favorite Rusty Bladen songs and dancing to the music.
The Madison, Ind., native has a loyal following among residents of several southern Indiana communities. Now the 42-year-old singer-songwriter has taken his career one step further.

Rusty Bladen

Rusty Bladen

In April, a song he wrote about the Madison Regatta titled, “Ride That River,” was selected as the official theme song of this year’s Budweiser Madison Regatta, Presented by Cruisin’ Auto. Regatta board president Tony Steinhardt made the announcement in early April. It is the first time in Regatta history that the event has designated a theme song.
Bladen had originally penned the song in September 1999 during the filming of the hydroplane racing movie, “Madison.” The movie is tentatively scheduled for national release Oct. 25, and Bladen had hoped the producers would have selected his song for use in the soundtrack.
That didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Bladen was playing the song wherever he performed throughout southern Indiana, Indianapolis and Louisville. He even recorded it on his third CD a year ago.
In April, Bladen managed a coup by Indiana rock music standards by organizing a recording session in Carmel, Ind., for a new release of “Ride That River” with two members of John Mellen-camp’s band. Drummer Dane Clark and bass guitarist John Gunnell, who goes by “Jon E. Gee,” joined Bladen and Indianapolis guitar instructor Tony Burton at Ryan Adkins’ Azmyth Studio to “lay down” a three-song special edition CD to include a rockin’ version of “Ride That River,” Bladen’s song, “Red, White and Blue” and their own version of Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been to Spain,” made famous in the 1970s by Three Dog Night.
“Everything went great, and it was really an honor for me to have these guys sit in on the recording,” said Bladen of the four-hour recording session April 7.
Bladen’s association with the 52-year-old Madison Regatta is a natural, considering Bladen grew up attending “nearly every Regatta,” plus the fact he lives with his wife, Andre, and 1-year-old son, Jackson, a half block from the Regatta office on Vaughn Drive in downtown Madison. Bladen also has a 14-year-old son, Neil, and 12-year-old daughter, Annie, from a previous marriage.
Bladen often performs in Madison at The Wharf, a floating barge restaurant on the Ohio River in Madison. Last year, Bladen took over as organizer of the musical entertainment at the Regatta and again plans four night of live music, including Bladen’s own concert Saturday night, July 6, following the fireworks display on the Ohio River.
Much of the year he is booked for private parties or bars and clubs in Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and as far north as Kokomo, Ind. His music is played on radio stations in Madison, Seymour and Kokomo.
After 23 years of writing songs, performing and promoting himself, Bladen says he is comfortable with his success. The next step for him is a breakout song or CD that will expand his fame beyond the realm of southern Indiana.
“I’m looking for that one song or that one big break that will elevate my career beyond southern Indiana,” Bladen said.
Currently, Bladen is helped in his own promotion by his 40-year-old brother, Rick. Rick attends nearly all of Rusty’s performances to work the crowd for song requests and sell CDs. It’s an important part of the business, Rusty says.
“Most people don’t even know about the business side of things. They just see Rusty Bladen up there singing and playing music. But I spend a lot more time contacting people for bookings, mailing out demo tapes and trying to get my music played on the radio,” Bladen said.
Bladen realized early on that he had musical talent. But he admits that it took guts to actually do it for a living.
Like many youths in Madison, Bladen took guitar lessons from instructor Charlie Humphrey. Unlike many of those young students, Bladen stuck with it.
“Rusty was outstanding on the guitar player from the very beginning – he loved it,” said Humphrey, who at age 76 still teaches guitar lessons in his home. “I wish him all the luck in the world because that’s his talent.”
Humphrey, who himself performs on Saturday nights at the Milton (Ky.) Opry, said he recently heard Bladen play at The Wharf. “I don’t know any of his songs, but I recognized his talent. If you’re going to learn a trade, you’ve got to stick with it, and Rusty has done that.”
From those early guitar lessons, Bladen eventually honed his guitar skills, then hooked up with some friends and joined a band. Over the next few years, he was in several different bands before deciding to go it alone in 1979. Occasionally, he asks other musicians to join him on stage, but for the most part, Rusty Bladen is still a solo act.
Since branching out on his own, Bladen has recorded four CDs: “Are You Happy Now” in 1993; “Live at the Hoosier Theater” in 1995; “Everything for Everybody” in 1998 (with Mellencamp band members Gunnell and Moe Z); and “Rockin’ Your House Party” in 2001.
“Rusty seems to have come a long way with his music, and it’s obvious he has talent,” said Clark, who performs in the Indianapolis area with his own band when he is not on tour with Mellencamp.
Burton, a musician since childhood who teaches guitar lessons in Indianapolis, says making as a musician professionally is difficult because it’s like running your own business. “It’s difficult to promote yourself, no matter who good a musician you are. But you’ve got to go out there week after week and play and promote. It’s a tough business; only the strong survive.”
For that reason, Burton says success in this business is a relative term. “It depends largely on what goals you have set for yourself.”
Bladen’s goal is to continue expanding his base. Rick Bladen believes more people would fall in love with his brother’s music if they ever heard him perform.
“It’s the energy Rusty puts into his show that brings the crowd alive,” Rick said. “They come out not just to see a guy playing music in a bar or restaurant, but to take part in the show. His songs touch everybody because they are about real events in people’s lives.”
Bladen says he writes songs about things he’s experienced and people he knows. And in a small town like Madison, that could be anyone.
“Sometimes I might overhear a conversation and come up with a title, then I’ll build it into a song,” Rusty said. “Other times, I’ll just be up in my room playing music and come up with a tune, then write words to it later.”
Already, Bladen has surpassed the level that many local musicians attain. In addition to bars and restaurants, Bladen has opened for Tim McGraw, Hootie and the Blowfish and Don Henley, all at Deer Creek in Indianapolis. He also performed at Mellenfest 2000 in Seymour, Ind.
Above all, Bladen says the music business has allowed him to do what he loves best and be his own boss. “I enjoy performing and the gratification of hearing the crowd applaud and seeing them have a good time while listening to my music.”

• Bladen’s three-song CD, “Ride That River,” sells for $6 and is available at more than a dozen stores in Madison, at his live shows or from his website: www.rustybladen.com.

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