When Kokomo native David Ralston graduated from Indiana State University with a degree in recreation and sport management in 1992, it was the beginning of a voyage – personally and professionally — to Japan.
Ralston traveled to Okinawa, Japan, after graduation to meet the family of Kozue Mekaru (’91 CAS/ Econ), who would later become his wife.
“We met at Indiana State and married and 19 years later, here we are,” Ralston said. “She’s the top legal advisor for the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa and I’m a drug and alcohol counselor at Camp Foster with the Marine Corps.”
“Okinawa is a very cool place to live and raise a family,” he added. He and Kozue have two children, Nari, 19, and Sean, 16. “And working for the Marine Corps is very satisfying.”
Ralston also finds his second job rewarding. He often can be found playing blues and rock at clubs in Okinawa and recording under the tutelage of music industry icons.
Ralston’s work with the Marine Corps Community Services as the drug demand reduction coordinator focuses mainly in prevention – helping servicemen and women make better choices. But he also works with Marines who have drug or alcohol-related offenses.
“I enjoy helping people make better choices and for those who have stumbled build them back up. I appreciate the sacrifices they make and try to help as much as possible.”
Marines have unique challenges that others in their age groups do not. They have to perform duties most could not imagine – deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan numerous times, endless training and the service commitment, according to Ralston.
“They have so many stressors,” he said.
“What I see on a daily basis are 18-25 year-olds that have made bad choices under the influence of drugs and alcohol,” Ralston said. “But there’s a major difference – The same offenses that college kids get a slap on the hand for Marines go to jail for.”
Ralston, who earned a master’s degree from Michigan State in human ecology community services, said the stakes are also much higher for military men and women.
“One mistake can wreck your career. That’s a big burden.”
At first, Ralston kept his day job as a counselor and his night gig as a musician separate. But then he realized he could fuse both worlds together.
“People know me because of my music and they listen to me because they’ve connected with me while I was playing onstage. Now it’s one and the same.”
The fact that almost all of his friends are on active duty has helped him understand the men and women he’s called on to help.
“It’s eye-opening what they are dealing with,” he said. “You have to have a release. Maybe that’s where my music comes in.”
Since Ralston and his band play American music, military servicemen and women fill the audience on any given evening.
“It reminds them of home,” he said. “They enjoy getting away from work for awhile.”
Ralston, who played drums as a child, learned the guitar while at Indiana State.
“The drum set was too big and bulky and too loud for my room in Sandison,” he said. “I got a guitar my sophomore year and started messing around.”
But it wasn’t until he set roots in Japan that he seriously became involved in music. Lucky for him, American music is a strong influence in Okinawa – everything from reggae and blues to hard rock.
Ralston burst onto the music scene in September 1998 with his initial production, “Indiana Slim,” produced and recorded in Terre Haute by Dave Kyle, a studio and live touring veteran with credits ranging from Vince Gill, and Chet Atkins to Danny Gatton and many others.
It was after “Indiana Slim” that Ralston reached out to a music legend for guidance.
Ralston’s second and third albums, “Nail it Down” and “Blue Sky” were produced by rock music icon Delaney Bramlett, who produced such greats as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Duane Allman.
Ralston had sought Bramlett out, excited at the possibility of working with the man who had so heavily influenced the greatest rock guitarists of their generation.
“If I would’ve been a bit smarter at the time, it would’ve really freaked me out. Everyone was so intimidated by him because he was so hard on musicians. I’m not sure why he said yes to working with me. He said no to lot of others.”
Bramlett was in semi-retirement at the time, recording on his own but not producing for others.
A four-day recording session at Bramlett’s Southern California home produced “Nail it Down.”
“I did whatever he told me,” Ralston said. “I was a bit scared. But Delaney was like a father and walked me through each part. Delaney really taught me to play music. I’ll always be grateful to him.”
Bramlett did more than teach and produce. According to Ralston, he instilled in him confidence and gave him instant credibility – two necessities in the music world.
“I’m sad Delaney’s gone. I wish he could listen to what I’m playing now. I think he’d be happy with it.”
Ralston recorded his fifth CD, “I’ve Been Waiting,” with blues legend Duke Robillard.
Like Bramlett, Robillard believed in Ralston and even let him use his band for the recording.
“They’re simply the best there is,” Ralston said.
Not bad for an Indiana kid who fell into music.
“I didn’t know I could sing until 1998,” Ralston said. “A year later, I’m in with Delaney Bramlett making records.”
His music is a mix of blues and rock but he’s also included other influences, including Okinawa music.
“I began getting involved with traditional Okinawa music when I was recording “Blue Sky.”
On that CD, Ralston crossed cultures to include traditional taiko drums and sanshins – three-stringed banjos. The end result is what Ralston calls “Okinawa Blues.” He continued to utilize island music and Japanese pop on his followup CD, “The Lucidity of Sanity.”
“Including Japanese instruments grabs attention, especially when we return to the States,” Ralston said. “But they aren’t used on every song.”
Ralston’s bandmates are all Japanese. Joining him onstage is Takumi Sakumoto on bass; Hiroki Namekawa on drums and Hiromi Shigeta on the sanshin.
Crossing cultures hasn’t been easy.
“Luckily, most everyone speaks English,” Ralston said. “No one speaks perfect English and my Japanese is horrendous.”
But when the music begins, it becomes their communication.
“Once we start playing, it doesn’t matter. We can figure it out by sound,” Ralston said. “I’ve played with guys from Korea who don’t speak any English at all and it doesn’t matter. It’s pretty cool. Music is an international language.”
He’s also had to work against the Japanese tendency to avoid the spotlight.
“I don’t want to be out front and center all the time. It’s hard for my band members to step into the spotlight. I push them out there,” he said. “They are very good and they have a lot of pride in what they do. One band member is a 20-year-old college kid – he’s an awesome bass player.”
With a musical bibliography that spans seven CD’s and a loyal following of both U.S. servicemen and locals, Ralston takes pride in his music.
“I can remember recording each song on every album,” he said. “I have favorites on each album. But I’m really happy with my latest work – ‘A Woman that Loves Me.’”
He’s glad he didn’t listen to people early in his career who tried to steer him away from music.
“Don’t listen to folks who tell you that you can’t do that,” he said. “A lot of people quit because of that. Use the negativity as motivation.”
He’s come a long way from that single guitar he had at Indiana State.
“I have around 30 guitars now – Fender , Gibson, Paul Reed Smith,” Ralston said. “My favorites are a 1968 Fender Telecaster and a 1932 National Steel guitar. “
While he plays on a regular basis in Japan, Ralston and his band travel back to the States for the occasional gig. Ralston has performed at Terre Haute’s Blues at the Crossroads Festival and at bars in the Indianapolis area.
“We’re coming back the end of June to play three concerts in Carmel, Kokomo and Indianapolis,” he said, adding he’d like to come back and play to audiences in Terre Haute.
Paula Meyer, ’91, is an ISU media relations coordinator.