Taking the Only Road Home with Ronnie Penque
Ronnie Penque is not a cliché kind of guy, but it’s easy to apply a few well-worn phrases to his life so far.
For instance: one could say that Ronnie Penque was “born to be a musician” or that “music was in his blood” without digging too deep. His uncle Romeo Penque was a master of the woodwinds, sought out by folks such as Miles Davis, Nat Adderly, and Charles Mingus. At the same time, his dad Ron Sr. had a long career as a session bass player – and taught young Ronnie his way around the fat 4-string at the age of 12.
“Living his dream” is another one. Penque remembers, “I went to my first New Riders of the Purple Sage show when I was 14 or 15 years old. My guitar-playing buddy and I were watching them through binoculars – we went there to learn, man!” Since 2005, Penque’s been playing the bass and singing with the New Riders for real – no binoculars needed.
The popular “man of many hats” applies to Penque’s world these days. Along with the New Riders’ busy schedule, he’s managed to play some live shows and record an album with his own Ronnie Penque Band. Their newly-released Only Road Home combines well-crafted tunes with Dead-like vibes – an inescapable result of graduating from “the Grateful Dead College,” as Penque himself says.
Penque graciously made time in his schedule recently to talk with Jambands.com about the musical road he’s traveled and the making of his band’s new album. The clichés are about to end; as you’ll soon discover, Ronnie Penque is an original soul, for sure.
BR: Ronnie, we need to start somewhere, so how about we get the big one out of the way first?
RP: (laughs) Cool – go for it.
BR: Well, I’ve read your last name and written it many times, but … how do you pronounce it?
RP: Oh, man – (laughs) – that is a good question.
BR: Seeing as how it’s in the name of the band …
RP: Yeah, really; I should put something in the press releases. (laughs) Here’s the best way to think of it: you start with the word “pen” and then the second syllable is “kwee”. “Pen-kwee.” You can help me spread the word by putting this in the interview. (laughter)
BR: I had to be honest – I’ve never heard it said out loud.
RP: (laughs) No, that’s cool – I’m glad you brought it up. I actually thought you were going to ask about the nickname.
BR: I saw that in the liner notes: ‘Pinkley’?
RP: Yeah. At first, it wasn’t a good thing for me personally, but over time I’ve learned to accept it … (laughter)
BR: Yeah, I’d say you have, seeing’s how you put it on the album cover. (laughter)
RP: Well, here’s the deal: when I started with the New Riders, I was the baby. I was definitely the greenhorn. The guys wanted to make sure that any snot-nose I had in me was rubbed off clean, right? They were teaching me what needed to be taught and running me through the ropes.
So, the first couple of tours were kind of tough on me; after a while, I reached the point where I’d had enough of the ribbing and the teasing and the lessons and all the blah blah blah. I mean, they were having fun with it and we’re all really, really good friends – we’re like family, we’re one really tight band. But at that point in time, I’d had it with the ribbing.
I can’t remember where we were, but it’s like two in the morning and we’ve just gotten back to the hotel after a show. Cage and Nelson were riding in a rental car together and they pull into the parking lot just hysterical with laughter. Really – they’re pointing at this piece of paper they have and just crying they’re laughing so hard. And they’re trying to flag me down: “Ronnie! Come here! Come here!”
And me, I’m shoulders-down, moping over, figuring, “Here we go again.” So I get to their car and say, “Okay – what is it, gentlemen?” And they’re laughing so hard they can’t speak – they just point to the hotel rooming list that they’re holding.
There’s everybody’s name, okay? There’s Toast, the road manager … Buddy Cage … David Nelson … Johnny Markowski … Michael Falzarano … and then there’s “Ronnie Pinkley.” (laughter) P-I-N-K-L-E-Y. (laughter) The hotel had misspelled my name.
I was like, “Okay, yeah, whatever – good night.” And they’re going, “No, no – this is great. You are Pinkley! That’s your new nickname!” (laughter)
And I mean, who wants a nickname like “Pinkley”, right? If you’re going to have a nickname, you want it to be something like “Rock” or “Johnny Black” or whatever – who knows. Not “Pinkley.” But no – they wouldn’t let it go.
So this goes on for weeks and now everybody in the band and the crew is calling me that; everywhere I go, I’m “Pinkley” and I’m just not digging it.
And then one day David Nelson got serious. He grabs me in front of everybody and says, “Look: Ronnie. Pinkley. Listen to me.
“I was there the day Marmaduke got his name.” And he tells me the whole story about how John Dawson ended up being called Marmaduke. Nelson has a great, great memory and he tells such great stories. He was part of it and he remembers it all, man.
And then he says, “I was there the day Pig Pen got his name.” And Nelson tells the story about some girl calling Ron McKernan “Pig Pen” out of the blue. Nelson can tell you where they were standing, who was there – everything.
And he goes, “You’re Pinkley. That’s it. You’re Pinkley.” (laughter) How can you say no when a guy like that tells you what your name is going to be? He’s the Mt. Rushmore of nicknames, right? So that was the turning point; that’s when I decided to go with it. (laughter)
BR: Oh, man – great story. Before we dive into the new album, how about a little background on how the Ronnie Penque (laughter) Band came to be?
RP: I was the bassist in a Grateful Dead cover band called Ripple for 25 years – that was my main focus. After Ripple broke up in 2003, I wound up with Melvin Seals & JGB as lead singer and vocalist for three years.
At that point, I was starting to play a little with Stir Fried and hanging out a lot with my younger brother Chris who also lives here in Barnegat, NJ. He’d come over every night; we’d hang and break out the guitars – kind of like the Hot Tuna thing, you know? Jack and Jorma. We’d just play whatever was fun – just play, play, play. After a while, I said, “You know, we ought to book a gig around here, just for kicks and giggles.” We did; and that led to some more gigs around the local clubs. We called ourselves Neon Gods, after the Simon & Garfunkel song we used to cover … oh man, it’s right on the tip of my tongue … (sings) “And the neon gods they made …”
BR: “Sounds of Silence”?
RP: Right – you got it. We used to do the harmonies and the whole bit. Anyway, that went on for a while with just the two of us. It was fun, but it was hard to go as far as you wanted to go, you know? It was limited. That’s when we started thinking about adding another guitarist and a drummer.
I got introduced to Jeff and Katie Pearlman, a very talented husband and wife team – he plays keys, she’s a drummer, and they both sing – and we all began playing together. In the meantime, there were a bunch of guitarists that came and went through the revolving door until I met Andy Trister. The first time I played with Andy I said, “This is the guy.”
BR: What did it for you with Andy? How did you know he was the one?
RP: Just a great player who interpreted our music quite quickly and quite well. Plus, I loved his personality – just a really nice guy. Now the problem was, we had the makings of great band with no time to practice together.
RP: Well, in the meantime, all this other stuff was happening. When I was with Melvin and JGB, Johnny Markowski was the drummer. When I left, Johnny kind of followed me out the door. That was a low point for me, actually. I was like, “I’m going to sell my equipment; I’m all done with music …” That was going to be it.
That was when Chris and I started playing together, plus Johnny grabbed me and said, “Come on – I’m getting the band Stir Fried back together and I want you on bass.” So I ended up playing with them for awhile, along with Buddy Cage.
BR: You know, I don’t think I knew that you were with Stir Fried back then. Would that have been around the time of their Electrifried album?
RP: You know, I kind of fell between the cracks. I’m not on any of the records that are out there, although we worked on a studio album called Stretch that’s never been released.
BR: So that’s in the vault.
RP: Yeah it’s just one of those things – personnel changes and whatever. At the same time, there was the now-famous golf game with Cage and Markowski when they came up with the idea to get the New Riders back together. I guess at that point, I was a shoe-in on bass. (laughs) So all that was happening at the same time: just as the Neon Gods started to come together, the New Riders happened and I hit the ground running with them – and it’s been hot and heavy ever since.