Mason Ruffner takes his songwriting seriously, which made a decade of dues paying in New Orleans bars just that much harder. "I'd be wailing away, playing my own songs," he says, "and someone would yell, 'Hey, play some more of that George Thorogood!' It'd just totally deflate me."

With perseverance came reflation. Over the years Ruffner's fan club has grown to include Robbie Robertson, Boz Scaggs, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, all of whom caught the blues-rocker's club act. In 1984 Ruffner received the blessing of the almighty—or, more precisely, Bruce Springsteen—when Springsteen came to listen and stayed to help pack Ruffner's equipment. "He was one of the coolest guys I've ever met," says Ruffner, 34. "He was real inquisitive. He's kind of a street guy himself. He asked me a lot of questions about my music, what I was doing. I was asking questions too. Like, 'What's it like to be rich and famous?' "

With a little more luck, Ruffner, who grew up in Smithville, Texas and has played the same Stratocaster for 19 years, may learn firsthand. His new LP, Gypsy Blood, is already a hit with critics: the New York Times found echoes of Bob Dylan in his voice and Jimi Hendrix in his guitar, and another zealous reviewer labeled Courage, a track on the LP, "one of the best instrumental anyone's recorded in years."

Ruffner says he's ready for success if it comes—"I think I can handle it," he jokes—but he's too cautious, and modest, to start writing checks prematurely. "I'm a long way from being an original artist yet," he says. "I still work on my music kind of as a craft." Indeed. When he realized years ago that he didn't yet "have the chops" to be a good lyricist, he began spending his days at the local library. One result is that Ruffner is probably the only rock 'n' roller from Smithville to openly proclaim his love for French symbolist poetry. "I'd probably trade in my guitar," he says "if I could write like Rimbaud."