After wildfires devastated the island of Maui in 2023, Ron Artis II had an intriguing idea. The singer-guitarist, who grew up in the island’s North Shore community of Haleiwa, wanted to bring a little joy to families who had lost their belongings, so he called some friends and came up with a plan to donate a bunch of musical instruments. In December, he returned to Maui and witnessed those efforts — more than 200 guitars and ukuleles in total — along with the ongoing disaster recovery, in person.
“The community approach of Hawaii is so in focus right now,” Artis says over a bowl of granola at an East Nashville coffee shop. “Everyone’s just banding together. When we were giving the instruments, we knew kids would be really affected by the gesture, because music’s so central in Hawaii. But you’d [also] see these parents come up, like, ‘I didn’t think I was going to be able to give my kids a Christmas.’”
That positive, generous spirit is a big part of what makes Artis tick. Now residing in the Nashville area with his wife and children, Artis’s recorded output comes packed with resonant messages of kindness, love, and peace, weaving together elements of funk-rock, electric blues, R&B, and contemplative folk. It’s a mixture that has made him a popular addition to summer festival lineups in recent years and an occasional tourmate of G. Love and Jack Johnson.
A focal point of Artis’s performances and recording is his singular guitar work — it’s properly fiery when he cuts loose with a blistering solo, but also idiosyncratic in the ways he chops up rhythms with his strumming hand. He picked up the technique from his late father, a multi-instrumentalist who had played with R&B artists like Rose Royce and Shalamar. “He taught himself guitar and he would strum with a really loose right hand,” Artis says. “I’d be listening to James Brown or the Ohio Players and I’m trying to play what I’m hearing but I’m trying to use my dad’s technique to do it. I’m not able to hit single notes so let me tighten it up — ‘Let me do it this way. Let me do it that way.’ By the time I sat down with another rhythm guitarist, he was like, ‘Dude what are you doing?’”
Artis’s sixth and most recent album is 2021’s Purpose, but in 2023, he put out a pair of singles that hint at what’s coming next. “Numb” is a funky acoustic tune — his unorthodox strumming hand features heavily — that pleads for someone to find self-assurance, while “Revival” fuses live-wire gospel energy with a shuffling, New Orleans-style rhythm. This contrast of fully acoustic story songs and revved-up rock and alternative sounds is a major part of what he’s been working on lately, with plans for more to come in 2024. “It’s like two simultaneous albums happening right now,” he says.
Religious themes stemming from Artis’s faith also regularly pop up in his work, but he likes to point out that Christianity’s basic lessons often transcend belief systems.
“The core of what it’s supposed to stand for is loving your neighbor, looking for love in everyone,” he says. “With [“Revival”], it was interesting writing something like that coming out of the pandemic. You’ve got to revive that thing inside of you that wants to be like, ‘Oh man, I’m here! Let’s shine, get up, be happy, get excited about life.’”
It might sound a little corny, but Artis is being completely sincere in his enthusiasm for living. He isn’t naïve about the ills of the world or the negativity lurking on social media, but he’d prefer his actions and output just be positive in hopes of effecting some incremental, yet meaningful change.
“It’s easy to feel completely helpless and worthless as far as finding a solution right now,” he says. “But maybe the solution is all of us just walking in the direction of love and somehow collectively making a big shift. I can take two steps. He’s taking four. She’s taking one. It magnifies and multiples.”