Ronnie Brandt is an Americana artist from the Jersey Shore who founded Childrens Educational Assemblies, an organization that lets him perform music and teach children about musical greats like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He's famous for wearing a cowboy hat, but his roots in the Asbury Park scene go back further than most people realize. In this interview, we catch up with the Jersey Shore cowboy.
It's rare to see you in a photo without a guitar or a hat. How did you first get interested in being a cowboy?
Well, I’ve always worn a hat even as a kid, for a long-time baseball cap, I went through a brief French beret phase back in the 80’s (glad that it was brief.) The Cowboy thing was always there, probably once I found about Rambling Jack Elliott in high school, and it’s always stuck. It’s always been comfortable and seems to work for me. Plus, I’m amazed more folks don’t wear hats, great shade in the sun and warmth in the winter, never understood folks walking around in a snowstorm or freezing rain with nothing on their heads. I got my first Stetson in Texas and they shaped it for me. It’s hard to find folks to do that here in New Jersey and surprisingly even in New York. So I still get my hats in Austin Texas at Allens Boots and shop around Cowtown NJ, but NJ is very limited. Texas is still THE place to get a custom fitted quality hat. The guitar? I was never without it once I started playing.
Your facebook photo is of you performing music among a group of children. How much fun do you have doing these shows?
This is pure joy; these kids are fantastic and always up for a sing-along. They say find something you love to do for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s true. 100% fun and inspiring.
How did Childrens Educational Assemblies first come about?
Short version- Back in 2003, I was asked to perform at a public elementary school for the 3rd – 6th graders, a fiddle playing friend of mine joined me, we played for two groups of about 250 or so students in each and put about 10 songs together that I thought told a little story about our country. Marty Robbins “Ballad of the Alamo”, Carter Family “Wabash Cannonball,” Johnny Cash’s poem “Ragged Old Flag,” Steve Goodman “City of New Orleans.” Songs like that.
I wrote a few about New Jersey and added them in there, “Banks of the Delaware” and “Talkin’ NJ Blues” added some Pete Seeger and, of course, Woody Guthrie's “This Land is Your Land” as well.
Talked about the pony express, America’s move westward, the space race, Dr King; just whatever I felt was appropriate and tied to the curriculum.
As it turned out I was very comfortable in front of a group of students, they were totally into the live aspect of the performance, engaged, interactive and sang along. I added a Q&A and man, those kids ask some great questions. I was hooked. And …. The schools have a healthy budget for enrichment. Right then and there, Children’s Educational Assemblies ( CEA) was born.
Created a website www.educationsong.org and I was on my way. Full time now since 2003, this is what I do, it’s my day job, I do about 225 school performances a year.
What is a typical set like when you're performing at a school?
Each program is about 45 minutes and is high energy from the get-go! You have to be real, kids can spot a phony in 10 seconds, if you are not on your game, they will eat you alive.
I attribute my early years to Mrs. Jays beer garden in Asbury Park for preparing me for these, playing in biker bars was good training for performing for K through 6th graders. But y’know, of course the kids have wash off tattoos, well most of them. Seriously though, it’s a fine line to keep them engaged for a solid 45 minutes, you have to keep bringing them to the next song and bring them on the journey.
I’m sure my friends Ray Anderson (Mr. Ray) and Yoshi Levin would agree. They are the only other two local musicians I know that can relate to this aspect of performing for kids that I know. Those guys are both professionals and great at what they do.
I’ve always thought the three of us could do a theatre show together and really wow those kids and teachers and bring some valuable messages to them about being a good friend and neighbor, kindness and pride in yourself and who you are. It's about reflecting positive energy and escaping all the white noise of the phones and computer screens. These kids love LIVE entertainment that is REAL and there is a true need for it in our schools.
Speaking of children, what's it like being Grandpa Cowboy now? Congrats, btw!
Thank you, man oh man, what a blessing. My daughter and son-in-law have a beautiful baby boy, names Miles. It’s beyond humbling when your children have children, and as cliché as it sounds, you feel a part of every link in the chain down the lines of family and all your ancestors. For me it’s a reminder of how precious, full of hope and beautiful life is. I’m very proud of them.
Miles behind us, miles to go.
Tell me about Asbury in the 70s... Performing at places like Mrs. Jay's, The Fast Lane, etc. Your father owned a store in AP, right?
Ok, no way to keep this part short really, but I’ll try.
When I was 10 years old, around ’71 we moved to Loch Arbor, right next to Asbury Park from Plainfield, NJ. My dad opened a gift shop right outside the Empress motel on Ocean Ave, I think it’s a bodega now. He sold all kinds of tourist stuff, like beach towels, chairs, novelty items like black light posters, lava lamps and mood rings, 70’s things.
True story, Black Sabbath is playing at the Sunshine inn up on the corner and Ozzy Osbourne comes in the store and asks my Dad where he can get some papers. My father tells him… they sell the Asbury Park Press in the lobby at the hotel. I spent a lot of time playing skee ball and peeking through the fence at Mrs. Jays beer garden, there was always a live band kicking something up there.
Flash forwards a few years, now I’m a long haired guitar playing surfer beach kid spending all my time is Asbury.
I was there at the tail end of Asbury’s hey day I suppose, 1977 to 1983, Mrs. Jays, the Pony, JV Higginbottom’s, Park Place, The Old Empire Bar ( Quack Quack) The Gold Digger, The original Fast Lane (drinks until 3am at The Jefferson. We had T-Birds, The Clover Club (now the Saint) and Crossroads up on main street. There was more but I’m drawing a blank right now.
Music was everywhere pouring out into the streets and the circuit was ablaze with motorcycles and cars of all kinds, there was a parade every night on the weekends up and around Kingsley and Ocean Ave until the sun came up.
At 17, I was working three days a week at Mrs. Jays playing the matinees. Friday, Saturday & Sunday. It was me; next shift was Jimmy Faulkner and Tim Ryan and then Big Danny Gallagher and whoever he was playing with.
Mrs. Jays was home, it was there I learned how to work an audience, put set lists together and keep playing through a bar fight, all hell would break loose, and I’d be up there playing guitar and harmonica blues, it was almost providing a soundtrack for the room in real time. It was an education in many, many ways. Some we shouldn’t get into here of course. My grandson might read this one day. We pretty much lived on Mrs. Jays hot dogs.
I also worked as an opening act at The original Fast Lane, Some of the bands then were “Hot Romance” Billy Hector's old band, “Lord Gunner” Lance Larson, Paul Whistler and the Wheels. It was a crazy time. I opened for Kasim Sultan, Sly Stone and a bunch of local bands. Bon Jovi was playing the Fast Lane then a lot also, right before he broke big.
One night I saw John Lee Hooker at The Fast Lane and me and some friends had drinks with him over at the old Jefferson bar afterwards. Pretty amazing, we sat there for hours talking to him.
There were gigs in Seaside, Long Branch, Sea Bright and The Highlands also. Back then you would work 5 days a week and have steady gigs and could build a following if you were good. Different times for sure.
When did The Brandt Brothers perform?
Funny we never officially performed as a duo or band, but jammed everywhere. He was in a band called “Fast Forward” the lead singer was this girl named Angel they had a gig at CBGBs. The whole band drove a van into the city that night and they dropped me with my guitar off on Bleeker street in the Village, I had a set to do at Kennys Castaways and then afterwards I walked to the end of the street to their gig. CBGBs was a pretty wild scene. My big brother and I always connected over old Bob Dylan and Hank Williams tunes and country blues, players like Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Jesse Fuller and George Harmonica Smith. (Who we would both later meet in Redondo Beach California, but that’s another story.) Who knows? Never too late to put together the “Brandt Brothers Blues Band.”
Your bio mentions joining Texas-based band, Freewheelin'. What type of music did they band play and when was this period? Is that when you first really toured the country?
That was 1979 to 1981, they were based out of Waco Texas, I was 18 and it was my first time on the road. Texas, Oklahoma, North & South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, all of the great mid-west. I learned tons of new songs, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon, during this period I also discovered people like Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and whatever the top 40 country was at that time. I remember playing some Bellamy Brothers, Alabama, Eddie Rabbit, Don Williams and, of course, George Strait. Coming from the Jersey shore, this stuff was brand new to me. I loved it. By the time I made to Jersey, 1982 or so, Asbury was a ghost town, it was a pretty sad homecoming, the spirit was gone and boarded up. I didn’t stay, I drove back out to California, because, why not?
Tell me about playing shows at wineries.
I love the wineries I play at, I prefer to be done for the most part by the time the sun goes down, so it’s school programs Monday through Friday and Wineries on the weekends. I mean, I still a few 6-9pm shows now and again.
Folks out there are a certain type of clientele. Everyone is generally in a great mood and their taste in music is closer aligned with mine. They actually request Towns Van Zandt, some old Dylan tunes, Harry Chapin, Steve Goodman, John Prine. Things you never hear in a bar anymore.
I prefer the wineries because they always have a nice crowd of customers seeking an experience.
And the owners are awesome people and artists in their own right. Making wine is an art.
Also there’s no games like a lot of bars still play with the pay to play scenario, selling tickets and bringing your own crowd.
That always irked me and seemed anti musician, young musicians today are still dealing with that nonsense. I mean of course you should bring in some folks, but the clubs should not rely on that alone and should pay the bands fairly whether they draw or not. There are exceptions to this rule and I do know a few very good club owners / managers. The wineries are very good to me and if you do your job right, the tip jar is generously rewarded. It’s very different than playing in a bar on many levels and I really like it.
How did you and Melissa Davies first meet?
Well, the short version is “through mutual friends” We met at a time when we both really needed someone else to trust and talk to, we became great friends long before we fell in love. She is absolutely my best friend and partner in crime.
Do you visit Key West each year? Seems like you perform down there when you go.
Melissa and I go down to Key West every year, and each year we seem to stay a little longer. I mostly sit in with friends when I go out there and do a few porch jams and catching up with friends, but I could easily make that transition and work down there. Key West is also changing dramatically, but for now there’s no shortage of gigs to be found if you are willing to work. I have a few friends down there making a rather nice living playing music.
But yes, it’s our great annual escape and re-energizes us to carry on. For us, its magic, a beautiful community unlike any other place on earth we’ve found so far.
Your last released music was in 2014, any plans for new tunes in the future?
Oh, there are plenty of new tunes. The writing never stopped, but in regard to recording...
For a long time, I kind of felt like, why? The industry has changed so much, and it kind of comes down to what do I have to say that I need to actually make a record? Why release something if you have nothing to say?
I have 4 studio Albums and assorted cuts on a few soundtracks and compilations out there.
“Rudys Thread” That I did at Sony Studio 4 with members of the Hooters from Philadelphia. “Dig A Little Deeper”, I had a distribution deal in Germany and through out Europe, wish I toured there, but it didn’t happen.
“Show me Some Heart” and “Follow Your Footsteps” were released independently.
So having said that, I have been recording here at home and at some point I will release something new, there is no shortage of songs.
But seems my focus has been being employed as a working musician, it’s certainly too late for me to turn back now.
Public gigs can be found at www.ronniebrandt.com
Finally, let's run through some standard questions for people to get to know you better.
Who was the artist that led you to first pick up the guitar? No surprise here. Bob Dylan
Favorite movie? Anything Directed by John Ford. I love those old Westerns.
Favorite television show? These days nothing, I’ve cut the cable a few years now.
I’m a 70’s sitcom kid and a Star Trek fan, Old Twilight Zone, Barney Miller, All in the Family, Flip Wilson, Sonny & Cher show, Carol Burnett comedy hour. Escapism is my comfort zone.
Favorite food? Pizza baby, Pizza.
Favorite drink? Good quality Silver Tequila with fresh squeezed Orange, Cointreau and Lime
Favorite thing to do on a day off? Take a boat out to a sand bar in the Gulf of Mexico with sweet Melissa.
If you weren't a musician, what do you think you'd be doing? I’d be miserable but would probably have more money.