I didn’t intend to write this, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I like to think that in an alternative universe, Isaac and Charlie are working on a new album.
“Well, you can’t just pet my head and expect me to poop out jewels,” said Barney Carter, confusing and disgusting the patrons gathered at Stumpy’s Bar. But bass player Isaac “Pinky Man” Ray and guitarist Charlie “Bugaboo” Ramirez perked up, got out their instruments, and launched into a crazy improv number that turned into “Jewel Thief.” The song entered Billboard’s Blues Album chart in the summer of 1996 and climbed to number twenty.
“It was a trip when that song started doing well and getting picked up by radio stations, man,” Ray says. I’m sitting with him and his musical co-conspirator Ramirez after they tore up at stage at Asheville, North Carolina’s Bluesville Festival. “I mean, it wasn’t many stations, but I heard it a few times driving around in my truck. I was like ‘That’s far out.’ I never expected any of our music to reach the masses, let alone that song.”
By the summer of 1996, Ray and Ramirez had been playing for nearly thirty years in the Burnin’ Junk Blues Collective, a huge band with rotating members and only Isaac and Charlie as the only permanent fixtures. At one point, they even convinced Barney Carter to hit the road with them, despite the fact that he played nothing and couldn’t sing.
“Shit, Barney was crazy, that’s why we brought him on the road,” says Ramirez, fingering chords on his bright blue ’67 Telecaster and smiling. “We just wanted him there for the good times, you know? He always brought that with him. He jumped in on a few tracks of our Catfish in Heaven album, just making all kinds of hoots and hollers. We had him do one of his fucked-up spoken word things and we were going to have it as an intro, but decided against it.”
“Yeah, [producer Rick] Arnett was not down with that,” Ray picks up. “He didn’t even want him in the studio, period. Said he stank too much, which was true. Barney wasn’t too keen on baths and he slathered himself with that god-awful Patchouli oil.”
Of the inspiration for “Jewel Thief,” Ramirez says, “Barney was always spouting out shit that didn’t make any sense to anyone else but him. He was pretty fried all the time and drank this foul mushroom tea that sent him somewhere like the 5th dimension or whatever. I just kind of thought the idea of Barney pooping out jewels was funny, and so I came up with the riff real quick, and Isaac began cooking on the bass. We wrote the whole thing in, like, ten minutes.”
Ray laughs and takes a drag on his Marlboro Red. “It’s not like any of our songs are all that complicated or took all that long to write,” he adds. “The longest time we ever spent on songs was when we were making our last album, Shock Proof. Damn, the second track [“When the Cat Bites You, it’s Done Passed Time to Get a Dog] clocks in at eight minutes forty three seconds, but we wrote in under an hour and told the rest of the guys, ‘Do whatever you want to fill in.'”
As for their future, Ray and Ramirez are hopeful but also practical. “We had a modest hit in 1996, and now it’s 2016. I’ve got grand kids older than that song, and you know what? They don’t give a shit about it. They’d just like me to come around more often and take them fishing.”
Ray, who’s been married to his wife Bonnie since 1979 and has four children and seven grand children, feels similarly. “We’ll keep playing festivals like this from time to time,” he says, “but I like hanging out at home. Plus, carpal tunnel’s a bitch. We’re not the Stones, man. If we had that kind of money, maybe we could be. I don’t know.”
I ask about Barney Carter, the man who unwitting inspired a hit song, and both Ray and Ramirez chuckle. “I wish I knew where that bastard was,” Ray says. “I mean, he might be dead, or maybe he got clean and is living in a cabin or some shit. Sounds like something he might do.”
“Your job is to find him and report back to us,” Ramirez instructs me. “You got it? Using your reporting skills or whatever and find Barney Carter.”
“And if you do,” Ray says, “tell that old sonofabitch he needs to come up with another idea for a hit song.”