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The tag of cult performer can stick to a singer like a scarlet letter.

Blindly loyal fans keep these iconoclastic acts alive and follow their every move. Somehow, though, the masses, like the top of the record charts, remain out of reach.

Singers and songwriters such as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Billy Bragg, Alex Chilton and Freedy Johnston create stirring albums, earn critical praise, but never quite bridge the gap into the mainstream.

Which brings us to Ron Hawkins.

In Buffalo, Hawkins is revered by a cadre of true believers.

They cherish the memory of Lowest of the Low, a Toronto alternative band fronted by Hawkins that hit the local club scene during the Canadian invasion of the early '90s. That invasion was spurred on by Toronto radio station CFNY-FM 102.1, which beams loud and clear into Buffalo.

In 1991, the Low released what is regarded as one of the classic alternative albums of that era, "Shakespeare . . . My Butt."

"It's the best selling album ever for our store," said Marty Boratin of New World Record. "We still sell hundreds of copies."

Hawkins, with his cool demeanor, witty lyrics and creative energy, became a kind of cross-border icon. "He took a bar band and elevated it to a special level," Boratin said.

Hawkins and the Low held their own on the local scene with such Canadian bands as the Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip and Sloan.

Those acts moved on to bigger and better record deals and fame in the States. Lowest of the Low wasn't as lucky.

The band broke up a few years ago and Hawkins resurfaced with a new group, Rusty Nails. He also makes solo appearances, and will play an acoustic performance at 9 p.m. Saturday in the Tralf, 622 Main St. Opening is another eclectic Toronto singer, Hawksley Workman.

Instead of his band, Hawkins will be joined by Lawrence Nichols of Rusty Nails on harmonica and vocals, along with two other musicians on violin and cello.

It's more evidence of how Hawkins remains irreverent, moody and determined to adhere to his unpredictable musical standards. He plays everything from alternative rock to new jack swing to ballads and folk tunes.

Labels just don't fit Ron Hawkins.

"I'm still trying to find my niche," Hawkins said this week in a telephone interview. "I have a small, hardcore audience that appreciates my music. I think that's cool. That's the way I feel about certain artists I really like, like Tom Waits."

One reason Hawkins enjoys his current stature is that he won't compromise his music to sell CDs or sign a record deal.

"I want to do music on my own terms," he said.

It has always been that way for Hawkins. He started out busking -- singing songs for money -- on the streets of Toronto with his hat in his hand. The musical version of the school of hard knocks was an ideal training ground for Hawkins.

"It was great, what I would call a cool experience," Hawkins said. "I'd be out eight hours a day and make about 85 bucks. I tried to stay where it was safe; I never got mugged or anything."

Out on the streets Hawkins learned to handle himself in just about any situation.

"You really learn how to read people fast," he said. "You learn how to handle a crowd. If you can do it there, it's a lot easier in a club."

Regardless of the setting, it's the music and lyrics that makes Hawkins special.

"He's one of (Canada's) most respected if unfortunately underexposed songsmiths," critic Ben Rayner wrote of Hawkins in the Toronto Star. "Hawkins has found an inventive showcase for his whip-smart lyrics in the occasionally swinging, often rollicking fusion sound of the five-piece band Rusty Nails."

Local promoter Vincent Lesh is a huge fan of Hawkins. "The common threads that run through all of his work are the stories his songs tell. Ron is very special, listening to his music is like reading F. Scott Fitzgerald; he makes you feel what it means to be alive."

Writing is the essence of Hawkins' work.

"I consider myself a songwriter first," he said, adding that he can't quite explain his ongoing popularity in Buffalo.

"Maybe it's a socio-political thing; it's kind of an industrial, blue-collar city and I feel comfortable there. My experience with Buffalo is that as close as it is to the Canadian border, it's still exotic.

"America is often portrayed as a more aggressive society and Canada is supposed to be more laid back. I find that's true but there's something different about Buffalo."

Since Hawkins and Rusty Nails play some big band tunes, there's a tendency to label them a swing band. Not so, says Hawkins.

"People are always trying to give you a label or style, but we want to be as diverse as possible," he said. "We get called swing, but my music has been influenced by artists like Elvis Costello or Joe Jackson more than any swing band."

Another burden for Hawkins can be the nostalgic yearning for Lowest of the Low. Some fans would turn his concerts into an oldies show for the music of his old band.

"People will call out for Low tunes," Hawkins said. "I'm proud of the stuff I did with the Low, and I will play some older songs. The only time it really becomes a burden is when people can't see past the past."

The curse of the Low hangs over Hawkins.

"I like what he does now, but I don't think it stands up to Lowest of the Low," New World's Boratin said. "They broke up way too early; I think they would have been so much bigger if they stayed together."

That kind of wistful speculation is the stuff of cult legends.
Pop notes
The Boss and his band have announced a new tour, with 28 dates in 24 cities, starting next month. Buffalo is not on the list but local fans might be able to get their SPRINGSTEEN fix in Toronto, where he'll play May 3. Tickets go on sale Feb 12. Also coming to the Toronto Air Canada Arena: CHER, Feb. 17; CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG, March 30, and MARIAH CAREY, April 7. The number for Ticketmaster in Toronto is 416-872-5000.

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