April 13, 2024
Issue 18-7 February 15, 2024 – Blues Blast Magazine

Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

Energy, enthusiasm, and a can-do spirit all describe DieDra Hurdle-Ruff, aka “The Alabama Blues Queen.” In spite of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and its impact on live music, DieDra has spent the last several years staying engaged and creative as a musician, a performer, and even a screenwriter. In addition, she continues to give back to her community, both locally and in the state of Alabama.

DieDra has done all this while looking for new ways to make her star shine brighter. She understands that the life of a blues artist is full of ups and downs. So, while she works hard every day at her craft and her business, DieDra understands that patience is a virtue.

“I always tell myself that…I want to be happy (for others) and wait my turn. I feel like everyone has a season, so I wait my turn and keep on pushing until my turn comes.”

Pushing through those ups and downs has been key part of DieDra’s career, which started in 1998. While patience may be a virtue, DieDra’s energy and spirit won’t allow her to simply wait and wonder what could be. She intends to continue pushing in 2024 with a goal of expanding her followers by playing more festivals and special events.

“I just keep pushing until that person in charge, or a festival (promoter) accepts my EPK (Electronic Press Kit) and likes what they see.”

The title of DieDra’s first album, Overcoming Hurdles, summed up the early years of her career. Eventually released in 2007, the album had been delayed almost ten years due to scheduling conflicts. But DieDra’s debut album also brought her together with Keithen Ruff, who was assigned as her producer. Not only a producer, Ruff’s a songwriter and an accomplished guitarist. In 1995, Ruff began playing lead guitar for Bobby Rush and would tour with the blues legend for many years to come.

As DieDra tells the story, both she and Ruff commuted back and forth to the Bronx, New York, where their former record label was located. DieDra, who lived in Florida, at that time, would literally pass Ruff—who is from Alabama—in the airport and only occasionally talk with him on the phone about label business. That went on for three years until one day Ruff called DieDra and she immediately knew it was Keithen from his distinctive voice. DieDra says she’ll never forget that she and Keithen talked from “4:20 that afternoon ‘til ten o’clock that night.” Keithen told DieDra before he ended the call that she was “going to be his (wife).”

“Me? I don’t even know where Alabama is on the map.”

Shortly after that, they got married and DieDra moved to Pinson, Alabama, a small city of about 7,000, northeast of Birmingham. Pinson is Keithen Ruff’s hometown. DieDra signed on with Ruff Pro Records and the pair formed “DieDra and The Ruff Pro Band.” They’ll have been married 17 years in June.

The Ruffs are not only a married couple, but a creative team, as well. DieDra says she writes all her own songs, but that most times her lyrics come after Keithen has put together the music.

“Keith will come up with the music…and I’ll go back to the studio and listen to what he’s played, record it on my phone, and then…I’ll listen to (the music) until I hear…what the music is saying to me.”

imageReleased in 2020, DieDra’s last album, Alabama’s Blues Queen, highlights her vocal range, songwriting, and a soulful funky blues style that is all her own. Her latest single, “Good Ole Country Love,” features a tight arrangement and smooth sultry vocals. DieDra hopes the single will be the anchor for an upcoming album titled Blues on Ruff Road.

The Ruff’s creative talents also extend to the performance stage. DieDra says that she loves to interact with an audience, which she learned from Bobby Rush. She calls Rush her “Blues Daddy,” and that “he literally taught her everything about the blues life.” After they were married, Keithen insisted that DieDra go on the road with Rush and his band. “I watched Bobby and paid a lot of attention to him and how he got people involved.” She learned from Rush how to entertain as well as perform.

Early in 2024, DieDra, Keithen, and the band will brightly shine with a couple of key gigs. The first is a Saturday night—March 9th—at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. On Saturday, April 6th, DieDra and The Ruff Pro Band will take the stage at the Seawalk Pavilion in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for the Springing the Blues Festival, one of the oldest and largest outdoor festivals on the East Coast which attracts tens of thousands of fans..

That entertainment quality paid off for The Ruff Pro Band in 2014, when they were finalists at that year’s International Blues Challenge (IBC), held on historic Beale Street in Memphis. Their last IBC experience hadn’t gone as well as they’d hoped, so they approached 2014 as simply having a “good time” and to enjoy themselves in the moment. Both DieDra and Keithen were surprised when they made it to the IBC finals, held inside the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Memphis. (Mr. Sipp won that year under the Band Category.)

Although they didn’t win, DieDra and The Ruff Pro Band believed their style could translate into bigger and better opportunities to make that star shine brighter.

Sometimes that star shines in ways that one never dreams possible.

“Hip Swing’in Blues,” DieDra’s best known single, was an immediate success, garnering several song of the year nominations and, according to her bio sheet, moving up as high as number five on several blues charts. The success of “Hip Swing’in Blues” led to another phenomenon—a line dance that, at some point, went international with dancers swinging their hips all the way from Taiwan. Radio personality Tom Joyner featured DieDra’s hit song on one of his Fantastic Voyage cruises.

“Hip Swing’in Blues” also gave DieDra exposure to the “beach music” scene of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She remembered a phone call from a woman who asked if she was DieDra from “Hip Swing’in Blues.” The woman immediately started screaming, “It’s DieDra, it’s DieDra” to the folks in the background. She introduced herself as Judy Collins, owner of the Myrtle Beach record store Judy’s House of Oldies.

DieDra didn’t know at the time that Collins, who passed away in 2019, was a music producer, and an icon of the “shag dance” movement that made up the South Carolina beach music scene. She was unofficially known as the queen of beach music and a major presence in her community.

imageThe queen of beach music explained to the future Alabama Blues Queen that her hit single was rocketing up the beach music charts and that DieDra needed to send more CDs to Myrtle Beach.

DieDra’s star was shining in some unlikely places.

The backstory of how she became “The Alabama Blues Queen” also involved an unlikely setting. Scheduled to perform at a show in Arkansas, the promoter, Vernon Wells, called and told DieDra to check out the commercials he’d created online for the event. According to DieDra, the ads featured her as “The Alabama Blues Queen” and DieDra “freaked out,” as she put it. She called Wells back and told him that he couldn’t use “Blues Queen,” because, at that time, Denise LaSalle was the reigning Queen of Soul-Blues.

“You can’t call me that,” she told the promoter. “Denise LaSalle gonna beat me up.” Wells, however, stuck to his guns, telling DieDra that if she could prove that another Alabama-based blues artist was as busy and productive as DieDra, he’d take the title back.

“And I couldn’t, I really couldn’t,” she said. After hanging up from the call, DieDra told Keithen what had happened, and he told her she should feel honored. “That’s an honor that they want to call you (The Alabama Blues Queen),” he said.

While DieDra wasn’t sure what to make of her new moniker, a few years later at a gig in Pensacola, Florida, the Blues Society of Northwest Florida, the event’s organizers, asked how DieDra should be publicized. When she told them about what Vernon Wells, the Arkansas promoter, had called her, the Blues Society folks decided that they’d have a ceremony to officially recognize DieDra as “The Alabama Blues Queen.”

Once she was crowned in 2016, DieDra continued to use her new title, but she does so for promotional purposes by making herself and The Ruff Pro Band stand-out in the eyes of festival promoters.

“I’m not one of those people who likes titles,” she clarified. DieDra went on to say that she felt honored and humbled to have that type of distinction when so many important female blues artists have worn that crown. Denise LaSalle, Koko Taylor, and, more recently, Shemekia Copeland, have all been honored as “The Queen of the Blues.”

According to her bio sheet, DieDra has racked up other titles and support throughout her career. One blues group, the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation, based in Douglasville, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, nominated DieDra for their Song of the Year award and Female Artist of the Year (in 2009).

At the 23rd Annual Jus’ Blues Music Awards, DieDra was honored with the Millie Jackson “Classy and Sassy” Award for outstanding female artistry that keeps it real in blues and soul music. Held last August in Tunica, Mississippi, the four-day conference featured workshops, industry panels, performances, and networking opportunities. According to the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation’s press release, the 2023 conference honored several prominent members of the music industry including actor Morgan Freeman, Stax Records luminary William Bell, and Oona and Boo Mitchell of Royal Studios, recipients of the Willie Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award.

imageThe experience, DieDra said, was “so wonderful.” She went on to explain that when “you’re in the room, sharing the spotlight with them (other honorees), it makes all the difference in the world…and they are happy to see you. It’s a shared acceptance of another artist knowing who you are…and it’s pretty cool, you know.”

Growing up, DieDra says she was never far from the spotlight.

DieDra Tucker was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised by her maternal grandfather, Joseph Tucker, who was heavily involved in the music of their church. Her grandfather created a gospel singing group called The Tucker Family, featuring DieDra and her siblings. Tucker recognized the talent in his young granddaughter and “threw me out in the front” to sing lead.

“My grandfather taught me everything…how to write songs and how to play the piano.”

She reflected on her times with her grandfather and his significance in her life. “He was the only father I ever knew.”

In many ways, Joseph Tucker not only influenced DieDra’s musical journey but also that can-do spirit and the importance of giving back.

In June 2023, the Ruffs participated in the Folklife in the South conference held in Guntersville, Alabama, and sponsored by South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization. DieDra and Keithen were session leaders and performed an acoustic set for the Alabama Blues Artists Preserving the Tradition. According to DieDra, the conference and the experience were “awesome…we believe we already know the history of blues and folk music,” but they learned so much. She added, “we learn(ed) a lot about other artists…(the) history behind the music (of Alabama).” For DieDra, learning is not only important, but should be done every day. The conference showed the Ruffs the importance of “continuing our own personal education.”

Educating others and giving back to the local community have been key parts of DieDra’s involvement with her adopted hometown of Pinson. In 2022, she founded the Pinson Valley Arts Council, and she and Keithen have regularly led afterschool music programs in and around Pinson.

“Keithen and I believe in helping others,” DieDra said.

DieDra’s energy, enthusiasm, and love for her community came together in 2021, when she wrote and directed, Frienemy For Life, a movie about friendships and challenges, that was filmed entirely in Pinson. Many of the cast members were Pinson residents. The film premiered last September to great local reviews.

DieDra mentioned several times that she stays busy. “I do everything…I do it all,” she said, and then, she laughed. “But I love it, because I’m not stuck in one place.”

DieDra is certainly not stuck as she continues pushing forward, looking for new ways to brighten her star.

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