A giving musician gets compassion in kind

Ralston Bowles '81


Spring 2010

“I was an English major at Calvin,” said Ralston Bowles ’81, “which prepared me for the proper use of a semi-colon.”

He cracks this joke with merely a slight smile, letting the nuances seep in. Just like his music. 
Grand Rapids singer/songwriter Bowles has colon cancer. He was diagnosed in late May and has been undergoing treatment since. And that’s just months after he was let go for budgetary reasons from his work as creative director at a local radio station.

Bowles not only entered the scary world of the cancer patient, but also the worrisome realm of the underinsured.

“Through all of this,” he said, “I’ve learned not to think of prayer as something you do to get stuff for yourself. Rather, prayer is a response as you begin to realize what you already have.”

What Bowles has is a legion of fans and friends. The musical community is a cohesive one. When a brother or sister is hurting, the wagons are circled. It didn’t take long for the word of Bowles’ illness to be known. Since last May, there have been three benefit concerts to help with medical expenses, the latest one in December in the Calvin College chapel, featuring folk icon Judy Collins.

Bowles—whose two recordings, Carwreck Conversations and Rally at the Texas Hotel, have both won him accolades in west Michigan for “Local Recording of the Year” and as one of five “Top Artists of the Decade” by community radio station WYCE—has been picked up as a nationally distributed artist by Wildflower Records, owned by Judy Collins.

On a blustery December night, when many community functions were closed due to the snow and wind, 500 people came out to hear Judy Collins, Bowles and other Wildflower Records musicians.

“Judy had a great time in Grand Rapids. She was touched by the compassion of the audience. She’d love to come back,” said Bowles.

Collins and Bowles met after Wildflower president Katherine DePaul heard Bowles at folk alliance concerts in Montreal and Memphis. Then, he met Judy a while later in New York. 

“To know Judy and to work with her has been a special experience,” he said.
What generates this kind of loyalty and support for a folk musician? It appears that the old adage of “give and you will receive” has been true in Bowles’ case. He has spent years encouraging and promoting the music of other folk musicians in west Michigan. 

“We kind of keep each other afloat,” said Bowles. “I try to be the one guy in the audience that is really listening and responding.”

Bowles actually does a lot more than that. It is common to see him walking among the listeners, holding up the CDs of the musician playing, encouraging the audience to purchase local music and support the artist on the stage.

“Ralston has not only encouraged me in my music career, but also in my personal life. He’s been a great friend to me. Some of the most important advances I’ve experienced, Ralston has either directly provided or been there to cheer me on,” said Karisa Wilson ’99, another Calvin grad, local musician and recipient of the “Local Recording of the Year” award.

As he continues with his draining treatments for cancer, Bowles keeps optimistic. He has a new recording in the works, on which many national folk artists have been eager to participate—Phil Keaggy, Colin Linden, Mickey Dolenz (yes, of The Monkees fame), Patricia Conroy and Al Perkins, to name a few. The disc is being recorded by Phil Madeira, who is in Emmylou Harris’ band. The new record should be out sometime this year.

“I appreciate my mortality,” said Bowles. “You live with the idea that your faith leads you to something better, a better place.”

As he sings in his song “Draper”: “Well if heaven is the reason and dying is the door/What keeps us all from leaving? What is all this drama for?”

Ralston’s music is available at ralstonbowles.com.