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Born under a bad sign

Grammy winner Jason Ricci cleans up his act

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Sometimes you read stories about people who had it all, lost everything and called it the best thing that ever happened to them. For blues singer and harmonica ace Jason Ricci, that's all true. Three years of bad luck and worse decisions pressed pause on a promising career, but ultimately allowed him to find the right level.

"All that unfortunate stuff really wasn't unfortunate at all," Ricci says, awaiting a plane to New Orleans, his once and future home. "It was a spiritual cleansing that needed to take place and, had I been handed the keys to the highway at that point in time, it would've been for all the wrong reasons."

The Grammy-winning bandleader toured his ass off for a decade, maintaining a grueling 300 nights a year touring regime. It came to a screeching halt in 2010.

He wound up burnt out and broken after losing his home in Nashville flooding. During this period he had a manic-depressive episode and ended up being hospitalized. He was sober for years, but fell off the wagon and ultimately wound up serving time in prison.

"Whoring myself to anybody who has $800 and a couple hotel rooms," he acknowledges, "has possibly trifled my career, and I should be more selective. It's better to wait, and then things like the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame come up."

The Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame "thing" was this year's induction ceremony, which will premiere this coming Saturday on HBO. There, Ricci joined guitarists Zac Brown and Tom Morello in covering "Born in Chicago," as part of the tribute to new inductee, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

"Without all that bad stuff, I would never have been able to get off that hamster wheel of touring," says Ricci. "If I had stayed sober and went to a psychiatrist and all of this stuff, I never would have the perspective I have now on life. I needed to get fucked up, throw it all away, lose it all in the flood, and go to a mental institution. I needed all that to happen."

A skilled and deeply instinctual player, the now-41-year-old Ricci rose quickly through the harp-playing ranks over the past 20 years, based on the raw emotionality and intensity of his playing. Raised on punk, he's brought a similarly earnest aggression to his blues forays. His proficiency on the instrument led to a 2014 Grammy Award for his contribution to Step Back, the final album by the late, lamented Johnny Winter.

Most recently, Ricci recorded an album with his new, New Orleans-based band, The Bad Kind. It's more song-oriented than previous efforts, with fewer extended jams. He's about to release an acoustic album with J.J. Appleton and Tim Lefebvre of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and also spends a lot of time these days giving harmonica lessons via Skype.

"In the end it was like, 'Man, I set my sights really low,'" he says. "What I wanted out of life was just glitz and glam. And I had all that I set out to get — I had this stuff — and I was miserable," he recalls. "More than anything, everything in my life has to be about putting other people first now, because I'm not happy when I'm not.

"Now my values are different," he adds. "It's not about Apollonian perfection anymore."

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