by Tracy Darlington
"If you're seeking God and your dreams are still there, move on them. Be bold about it. It's not always easy to do what God wants you to do, but it's rewarding." --Dustin Ruth
Ruth showcases everything that is right about post-90’s radio/pop rock. Think Nirvana, Radiohead, Third Eye Blind, and Counting Crows. Combine that with a touch of the singer/songwriting finesse of Ryan Adams, and you have a formula for emotive melody, memorable choruses, and passionate songwriting. This is Ruth. Intimate. Dynamic. Memorable. Accessible.
If there is one characteristic, one virtue that defines the spirit of Ruth, it is hope--hope amidst real life circumstance.
I caught up with lead singer Dustin Ruth after he’d just flown back home to Portland, Oregon after some shows.
Tracy: First of all, is “Ruth” really your last name?
Dustin: Yes, but we also use it as an acronym for Return Us To Him. Originally the band’s name came from my last name, but we felt the acronym speaks from our hearts ‘cause the music keeps us closer to God, keeps us in check, and always aware of the blessing of having the songs and the band and everything. We wouldn’t want to jeopardize that by not living our lives for the Lord.
Tell us about your journey as an artist.
I’ve been playing guitar since I was 14 or 15. It was my freshman year in high school when I got my first guitar. I started messing around and writing songs right then.
I grew up in a Christian family, went to private school K-8th, and then went to a public high school. The last two years of high school I planned to move to Los Angeles for Christian music when I graduated. I did that the summer I graduated. I started living with some actors who were in the industry trying to get gigs. I slept on some couches and floors. I realized after about a year that I wanted to come home and start playing in a band. I did, playing with a group of childhood friends, but we kind of all fell away from the church and walked away from God. We started doing some drugs and partying, not really living a good lifestyle. That led to the destruction of the band. I moved in with my parents, and I’ve been clean now for 4 years. I’ve been living with my parents for about 3 years. I worked in my dad’s auto repair shop for 4 years. I started jamming with different people at that point, and God was really working in my heart to change my attitude toward Christian music and to know who He was.
My childhood had a lot of learning Scripture going to private school, and it really paid off during this time of my life when God was changing my heart. There were a lot of verses that came to the surface. It was really awesome. Then I started playing with Nick, our guitar player, about two years ago. We’ve been playing together since.
Your song “Secondhand Dreaming” has been called the theme track of your journey. Why is that?
”Secondhand Dreaming” is kind of a play on words. There’s a verse in Psalms that says if we seek the Lord first in our lives, He will give us the desires of our hearts. There were times in the last few years when God was really working in my life. I’d be really discouraged as far as wanting to play music. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, to have that dream and a relationship with God. That verse in Psalms really spoke to my heart, saying to me that the desires God has for our lives---those are the desires He puts in our hearts. It’s a fun song sharing that those desires we have are initially God’s, like for me to play music. I just kind of have a secondhand desire, since it was His initially.
The lyrics in the first verse look at an artist who’s living for himself, wanting to be a star, and the second verse is a realization that no, that’s not what I want. I want to live my life for You; I wanna be what You want from now until the end of my life. The chorus just ties it together with the idea that I was trying to live out the desires the Lord has put in my heart and take them one day at a time. It talks about, “Is this really going on? Is this for real, are these desires really what You want? ‘Cause if they are, I’m giving everything I’ve got so much that I’m barely breathing.”
A lot of the times that’s how I feel as we fly or drive from one place to the next across the country. It’s very exhausting and time consuming. You’re just saying, “Lord, is this what you really want?” I would say it’s the theme track of the record because it’s what I’ve been living out this last year and a half working on a record. Kind of a gut transition from having a full time job and part-time music, to full-time music. It is my job, but it’s also a ministry. The dreams in my heart, the ones I’ve worked so hard on for so long, finally are becoming a reality, what I really do.
What message do you hope people will come away with when they listen to the album?
All people in their youth from junior high through college and beyond have it really tough because we’re trying to find out what it is God wants for us and what it is we’re supposed to be doing. That can be a really confusing state of mind and part of growing up. That age is really tough for a lot of people. It’s easy to get depressed and lost and swayed into a life you might not want to be in. It’s a really tough, wondering time.
For the band, just to be blessed enough to be living out what the Lord has put in our hearts is such a huge blessing, but our hope would be that our journey would encourage people to take that one step at a time towards whatever it is God may be calling them to do. We need to be seeking Him first and trust those desires are what God wants, if we’re seeking Him in our lives constantly. If you’re seeking God and those passions and desires are still there, move on them. Be bold about it. It’s not always easy to do what God wants you to do, but it’s rewarding.
We live in a different generation than our parents. Our parents were very 9-5, 40 hours a week, raise a family, and do what you can do to make money, not necessarily what you’ve always wanted to be. This wasn’t wrong---it’s a blessing that our parents lived that way. But I think our generation is made up of more dreamers, a lot more people doing music or art or even just dreaming to be a doctor or rocket scientist. The opportunities to do those things are more accessible because of the freedoms we have through a lot of hard working people.
The album is a testimony of what God has done through my life, and I hope it can be an encouragement to people. I don’t think I have any power or influence over anybody, because the songs and opportunities are blessings from God. It’s His stuff and His music and His good work. I’m excited to see what He does to give hope to people.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I grew up listening to music through the 80's and 90's, and I haven’t stopped. I listened to a lot of classic rock. I love all the classic greats: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Zeppelin, the Stones. I don’t actually idolize the way they live their lives, but it was good to listen to their music. In the 80's I loved Phil Collins and tons of great 80's hits, ‘cause my sisters (who are a little older than me) constantly had those on in the house. Then in the 90's I loved the Wallflowers and Oasis and Counting Crows and all those big singer/songwriter bands of the 90's. I really loved that style of music. Now I love Coldplay and Ryan Adams---he’s this amazing singer/songwriter guy. I was really into him for quite a few years.
In the Christian industry I love Leeland. There are a lot of Tooth and Nail artists I love, and The Almost is one of them.. He’s the drummer from Under Oath. I love the heart that comes out of that album and the musicianship is amazing. I love Aaron Sprinkle and his band Fair. Most of my influences come from that 90's category of singer/songwriter. A lot of bands now are like, the drummer can do this, and the bass player can do this, and the guitar player will play this, and you get a song, and it’s very tuned into their sound. In the past it was more a writer coming to the table with a song and the band working around that song to make the song better. That’s the approach we take in “Secondhand Dreaming”.
What was it like working with Aaron Sprinkle and J.R. McNeely on this record?
It was amazing. I was really kind of nervous going in, because I never really worked on someone else’s budget. I’ve always been independent, paying my way fixing cars and selling ‘em to get money to do projects. I never had a producer. And I never had used anyone else’s bigger budget to do anything. I didn’t know what to expect. It’s really hard to describe, but there’s a protectiveness to your songs. Some artists are very protective, and it’s less common for an artist to be more open handed with their music. But because the Lord gave me quite a few years of pursuing music, He gave me a good foundation of knowing what I was willing to give up and what I was not. So when I went in to the studio with Aaron I went in open handed, like “I’ve got these songs that I personally believe are great songs, and they’re the best I can do. I’m gonna leave my hand open and deliver them to you and see what you can do with them.” Because I really believed in my heart that God put Aaron into this project, I needed to trust God to take care of the music, since they’re His songs. If I truly believed that, then this is His producer and His mixing engineer.
I really trusted Aaron, and it blew my mind, because he was so humble and open about the producing, as well. He definitely had opinions and made some changes, but there wasn’t ever one time when anybody argued or fought. Everybody was just having a blast. I noticed that a lot of people in the studio where I’ve been working for years really enjoyed the process of this project because they weren’t used to that. I think fighting for something you feel strongly about is great, and it stretches each person. But my attitude was that I’m just gonna let Aaron try what he wanted to try, and then if I didn’t like it, then we might fight about it. (Laughs.)
But I never ended up not liking too much. I mean, there were a couple things where he or I said, “Nah, let’s do this, or that.” It was never a question of anybody’s pride getting in the way. There were so many times that we agreed. It was a surreal thing. I feel like the Lord used Aaron in huge ways in this project, and he did an amazing job.
One of my favorite things was laying vocals with Aaron. He’s so patient and kind, and he hears harmonies differently than most people. He’s very, very good at trying things that aren’t as generic as most people hear, instead of just second or third harmonies. He’s very encouraging when you lay a track. He’s just a great guy.
And J. R. . . . There are a lot of talkers who sound like they know a lot, but J. R. is a prime example of a guy who doesn’t have to talk about what he knows. He just does things really well. He’s the real deal. When you get to know him as a person, he’s totally fun, but as far as business goes he doesn’t talk about what he knows; he just does things well. He doesn’t cut corners. He’s one of the hardest workers I know. He literally would stay up from early in the morning til 2 or 3 am if it meant getting more mixes done and getting the project he cares about out. He’s doesn’t waste time or people’s money. He’s a great businessman and a great person. He’s got a very natural, trained gift at mixing stuff. It was awesome to hear rough tracks get turned into J. R.’s polished tracks.
What’s your favorite song on the album and why?
That’s a tough one because I really love them all. One song I think has the broadest listening audience capability would probably be “Here to New York”. I really love that song. It captures more of the singer/songwriter side of things. It’s kind of another piece of the second hand dreaming theme, a song about when you’re pursuing those dreams you gotta expect to go places.
I live in the very Northwest part of the country, and it’s about going all the way from here to New York for me. It’s not easy. You really can’t afford to have a whole lot of possessions to do it, because God requires so much. It’s so little in the big spectrum, but it feels like a lot. You gotta be able to know that when things don’t go the way you think is the right way, God’s still 100% in control. You just gotta fold your hands and pray, “Lord, give me an attitude adjustment, ‘cause I somehow think I can do a better job at this than you can.” (Laughs.)
Anybody who’s living a life, a parent, a husband or wife, a hard worker at your job, someone who owns a house, whatever---it’s really easy to try and take control of things with our heads wrapped around it completely. In life it’s just not gonna happen that way. There will be times where we just gotta trust God. I’m such a hypocrite, because there are times when I sing that in the song, then I forget to trust God. But he always reminds me.
What was the funnest part of making this record?
The funnest part in a lot of things for me is looking back and remembering. The funnest part of the vacation is when you’re already back and looking at pictures and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, we did that, and it was so fun! That was such a good time!” You tell stories to people. That’s also the funnest part about making this record, reflecting back at all the cool things, the heart and effort. The friendships I made with Aaron and everyone involved are the best. I picture the compound late at night in Seattle in winter. There was snow and ice outside, and the whole town’s in a bustle outdoors, kind of shut down. I remember being there with great friends who loved this music and cared about it and cared about each other.
You’re in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
I’m probably ordering a Grande drip with no room for cream ‘cause I drink it black. Or a grande Americana, which is pretty much the same thing. It depends on whether I feel like really dark, rich coffee, or more of an espresso coffee. Very boring. Very Plain Jane. Just a cup o’ joe, ya know?
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I did learn how to tap dance in high school for a musical, and I know how to change the oil in your car. I worked in an auto shop for 4 years. Some people think all I do is play music.
Anything else to share with our readers?
I really appreciate your taking the time to read this. I hope that you check out the record. Come online. There are tons of resources to test out what you want to invest in musically. Come test drive Ruth and see if it’s got something for you.
Tracy Darlington is a freelance writer, and her work has appeared in Brio, Breakaway, YS, CCM Magazine, Insight, Susie Magazine, and other publications. She has interviewed countless Christian musicians including Rebecca St. James, Delirious, Newsboys, Leigh Nash, Barlowgirl, Krystal Meyers, Joy Williams, Pillar, Michelle Tumes, and many others. In her spare time she can be found riding horses or listening to music and sipping a Venti 3-shot sugar-free vanilla latte. Visit her online at her blog where she talks about Music, God, dogs and coffee. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.