Jimmy Ryan
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Jimmy Ryan


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The best kept secret in music


"A Man and a Mandolin"

Jimmy Ryan:
A man and a mandolin

by Neal Weiss

Jimmy Ryan is one of those names woven into the fabric of Americana music. He?s not atop the marquee, mind you, a la Lucinda Williams or Buddy Miller, but his contributions are considerable. He?s perhaps best-known as one of the principals in alt-country precursors the Blood Oranges, but his cheat sheet also includes the more bluegrass-based Beacon Hill Billies, the rural-rocking Wooden Leg, and in recent years, an extended stint with Boston folkie Catie Curtis. Ryan may well be residing in your record collection in less obvious places, too ? his oft-unconventional mandolin playing has colored songs by such varied artists as Morphine, Warren Zevon, Dumptruck, Boiled In Lead, Gerald Collier and Mary Gauthier.

That accounts for much of Ryan?s last thirteen years. But the record store bins had never included a slot for an album under Jimmy Ryan?s own name, until now. Finally, the 46-year-old Bostonian (a self-described ?old fart?) can lay claim to ?solo artist? status with the arrival of his self-released Lost Diamond Angel.

But why now? The desire finally to make a name for himself, perhaps? The result of some mid-life, mortality-induced reflection, maybe? No sir. More like, there was nothing else to do, and a friend gave him a kick in the ass.

?Billy Conway made me do this solo record, he said I had to,? Ryan says, on the phone from his Boston home, referring to the former Morphine drummer and fellow Curtis support player. ?We were in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on the Catie Curtis tour looking for something to eat, and he goes, ?Jimmy, man, you?ve got to make a record. You?ve got all these dumbass songs, you might as well record them.??

Not quite the stuff of legend, eh? But that seems to be Ryan?s M.O. ? take it slow, don?t sweat it. His immediate response to Conway: ?Oh Bill, what do you want to make me do that for??

?I really had no interest,? he says. ?I thought, ?There?s enough shit out there. Everybody and their brother?s making a record now.?? Besides, he adds, ?I felt like I did enough anyway.?

Still, the window of opportunity was there. Curtis chose 2002 as a time to go the solo route for a while, thus leaving Ryan and Conway with two months of blank calendar pages and the beckoning Hi N Dri Studio, late Morphine frontman Mark Sandman?s loft space in Cambridge. So Ryan gave in. ?I can?t help writing songs because I love to do it, I?ve been doing it since I was a kid. It?s like part of my daily process,? he says. ?You end up writing all these songs, you?ve got to do something with ?em.?

What transpired, and what is documented on Lost Diamond Angel, is what Ryan now considers a high-water mark in his career. With Conway serving as producer (Trina Shoemaker arrived later to mix) and Curtis, Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley and others joining in, Ryan dug in at Hi N Dri, carving out songs and spending ample time exploring the sonic potential for his chosen instrument. ?I learned a lot about the shit that I could do with a mandolin, like the five-string electric, using slides, delays and beat-up crusty old amps, and just experimenting with sounds,? he says. ?It was kind of guitaronic, but that was kind of fun.?

Mandolins of seven different varieties are credited to Ryan: mandolin, mandocello, octave mandolin, eight-string electric mandolin, five-string electric mandolin, five-string electric slide mandolin, and, in one case, a ?five-string nasty-ass mandolin.? They jangle and are plaintive, they fuzz, they are atmospheric and dissonant, and yes, one is, in fact, ?nasty-ass.?

It?s the continuation of a Ryan?s chronic attempts to stretch the boundaries of his bluegrass foundation, which began in his earliest days in the upstate New York town of Binghamton. Sure, he got hip to Bill Monroe, but his ear for the mandolin had already been informed by Ry Cooder?s ragged solo on the Rolling Stones? version of the blues dirge ?Love In Vain?. It sent Ryan down a path on which his playing was inspired not only by Saint Bill but by a far-ranging, often-obscure list of artists, including Tiny Moore of Bob Wills? Texas Playboys, 1950s Brazilian choro artist Jacob Do Bandolim, and generations-spanning Egyptian oud player Hamza el Din.

So much for the traditional. It also explains why Ryan has always been at odds with the bluegrass community, which he considers extremely rigid in its definition of the form, not to mention ?frighteningly Christian.?

?What?s the point of just rehashing what?s been done over and over?? Ryan says. ?That?s what my bone to pick with bluegrass is now. When I got into it, maybe it was a ?70s thing and everybody was stoned or something, but I thought it was all about keeping the traditions moving, making it a living tradition, not like, ?This is the song like Bill did it so we have to do it that way.? Bill already did it. Why the fuck do you need to do it all? Make up your own song.?

There?s another side to Ryan?s resistance from the bluegrass norms: He likes to rock. ?Learning how to get a mandolin loud was fun,? he explains. ?I had so many old amps and mandolins in the ?70s that I thought sounded like shit, and now if I had them?I didn?t understand that when an amp?s breaking up perfectly, when an amp sounds like it?s about to explode, that?s a good thing.?

Still, it?s not as if Lost Diamond Angel is some sort of mandolin pyrotechnics display akin to the guitar heroics of a Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen. Various mando shades, like the stoned, Grateful Dead-like solo in ?Hardtime?, the stratospheric slide work on the album-opening ?Lost And Found?, and the alarm-clock-like rattle that serves as the lead in ?Perfect Angel?, are sonic delights. Often, though, parts played beyond the way God or Monroe intended come off simply sounding like electric guitars.

Ultimately, what makes Lost Diamond Angel a standout effort is the songs. Ryan knows how to craft.

Consider Ryan?s solo debut a coalescence of his past artistic reaches. Much recalls the husky country-rock of the Blood Oranges (save the indelible tones of that band?s co-vocalist Cheri Knight), while others are framed by bluegrass and acoustic country.

A third shade, though, demonstrates Ryan?s perhaps lesser-known appreciation for Morphine and its moody, sax-hued rock. That the album includes the work of two-thirds of that coveted, defunct group makes it inevitable ? Ryan favorably calls the combination of saxophone and mandolin ?whack? ? but there?s more to it than that. The memory of the aforementioned Mark Sandman, Ryan?s longtime friend and the Morphine mastermind who died of a heart attack at age 46 in 1999, hangs heavy.

The pair met when the Blood Oranges toured with Sandman?s Morphine precursor, Treat Her Right. Ryan then played on Morphine?s 1993 album Cure For Pain. They also teamed up in the mid-?90s as the Pale Brothers ? ?crazy, murky, weird, mambos, sambas, Brazilian kinda stuff,? Ryan says, which the duo performed around Boston and captured on tape, but never released. (Ryan is now considering releasing this material.)

And when Ryan finally stepped up to make his first solo album, it was literally on Sandman?s turf ? at times with a mandocello in his grasp that Sandman once bestowed on him ?after a royalty check or something,? Ryan recalls. ?I had to feature it prominently.?

Sandman was often on Ryan?s mind during the making of Lost Diamond Angel. ?I mean, we were in his house, for chrissakes,? he says. ?I could have shut my eyes and I could have been working with Mark.?

Every swath of sax that pads several of the songs instantly conjures Sandman?s smoky, lowdown musical genius. And while one song in particular addresses the loss (?Blossom?, which also references the shooting death of another friend), you feel it elsewhere, and often ? even on ?John Brown?, a mournful tune ostensibly about the pre-Civil War anti-slavery militant. When Ryan sings, ?There?s a pain that?s in my chest, that?s a pain just like all the rest, it?s a kind of pain that you can?t let go, it?s a kind of thing that we all must know,? you can?t help but feel that it?s hitting him closer to home.

This spring, Ryan has plans to turn his attention to the Blood Oranges. He?ll join Knight and guitarist Mark Spencer at Spencer?s Brooklyn home to record new songs for what would be the group?s first album since 1994?s The Crying Tree.

Once again, Ryan attributes the impetus for the reunion to little more than free time. ?Luckily Catie laid me off and I have nothing to do in April,? he says. ?And Cheri?s making time from her yoga studies, and Mark?s not on tour with Jay [Farrar] or anybody.?

Meanwhile, he?s taking that same casual attitude to pushing Lost Diamond Angel. He currently lacks a real record label or distribution deal ?- details that hardly phase him. ?I am so not a businessman,? he says. Though he hasn?t played solo very frequently, he?ll take whatever comes his way, such as a recent tour across Canada by train with Fred Eaglesmith.

Wherever the gig, expect Ryan to wander into his artistic margins. He recalls a rare solo appearance on a bill with the post-Sandman collective Orchestra Morphine. ?I opened up for [them] with the mandocello, ?cause that thing sounds huge going through a big-ass rock P.A.,? he says. ?It?s fucking awesome, man. When the subwoofers kick in?whoa! I?m not kidding.?
- No Depression May/June 2003

"Lost Diamond Angel"

A founding member of The Blood Oranges and Beacon Hillbillies, Ryan has been a long-standing element of the roots-rock scene. Having also made mandolin contributions on recordings by the likes of Dumptruck, Buttercup, Cheri Knight, Mary Gauthier, Catie Curtis, Warren Zevon and even Morphine, it?s high time he released a solo disc. Lost Diamond Angel combines Ryan?s accumulative styles into one experience. Running the gamut through folk, down from the mountain grass, roots-rock, hootenanny and Southern-rock, he proves he can apply his mandolin abilities to a variety of styles with ease - even psyche, as he exhibits on album closer "Boneheaded". "Diamonds" sounds vaguely like The Band and "I Am Lost" much like Morphine, which stands to reason, since Morphine?s Billy Conway plays drums throughout most of this dynamic record. (Ambitious Recordings No. 13)

- Miles Of Music

"Lost Diamond Angel"

Lost Diamond Angel 4 stars
Ex-Blood Oranges stalwart and first-call Boston-area session mandolinist, Jimmy Ryan steps into the spotlight with this penetrating solo outing. Backed by an all-star band, he gracefully weaves alt-country, bluegrass, blues, Appalachian folk and rock into a memorable album. With musicians such as Billy Conway, Duke Levine and Catie Curtis aboard, it's no surprise that "Lost Diamond Angel" is brilliantly played. But the real star is Ryan, whose deliberate, no-flash mandolin playing, vulnerable, world-weary singing and haunting songs - imagine Blood Oranges' alt-country overlaid with Morphine's noir - define a first-class piece of work. Boston Herald

- Boston Herald

"Alt-country Pioneer"

Years before anyone had invented the label "alt-country," the Blood Oranges helped pioneer the sound with Ryan as lead singer and songwriter - Miles of Music

"Puts the Man in Mandolin"

LOST DIAMOND ANGEL (Ambitious) • Jimmy Ryan

Loving this record took about five minutes. And it got better after that. Just about everything cool about American music shows up.

This is one mandolin disc that frickin rocks. It's a groove album by a mandolin virtuoso, let me clear that up. Cat definitely puts the man in mandolin. Famous for his work in The Blood Oranges (his publishing company is called sanguine citrus), he's also released three CDs with the Beacon Hill Billies and one with Wooden Leg, and has appeared on many records of other artists. On his overdue debut Lost Diamond Angel Jimmy plays all manner of mandolins and mandocello, slide mando, 5 string nasty ass, the works. He also tracks Baritone guitar, harmonica, and piano.

Ryan's originally from Binghamton, NY, but has long been a fixture of the Boston scene. Although far from a stranger to it, he's no mere grasser, admittedly tied closer to the playing of Ry Cooder or oud master Hamza el Din than he is toward pointless emulations of the grassmasters. And his core membership in the gloriously eclectic Hi-n-Dry Studios crowd of Billy Conway and Co. (see more about them in our interview with Kris Delmhorst) assured that this would be a great record, that's what they do up there. His main recording companions here include producer Billy Conway on drums, Andrew Mazzone on bass, Duke Levine on guitars, and Catie Curtis and Christian McNeill both sing some great backing vocals. But Ryan's songs really clinched the deal, those and his macho plaintive, unpretentious vocal style.

A friend and I were talking last night about the joyful experience of running into someone whom you recognized as one of your people. Lost Diamond Angel reminds me that such a thing is possible even without meeting somebody face to face. Don't be surprised if the CD has a similar effect on you, because it is generous and inclusive--it's subtly open handed, a very listenable and likeable record, two things that I think are much more rare than they sound.

I really enjoyed seeing Jimmy perform at the Station Inn during the last Americana Convention here in Nashville, but even that great show didn't prepare me for how much I was gonna like this record. We'd call him an essential Americana artist, and we think you should buy this record, which you can do right here. • FG

- Puremusic.com

"Stones-y Romp - Dangerous and Dirty"

Lost Diamond Angel serves as a great title for the first solo album from sometime Blood Oranges member Jimmy Ryan: There are angelic vocal harmonies (many of them courtesy of Catie Curtis), gemlike compositions (take your pick), plus there's a kind of reclaiming of musics sometimes lost in the eyes of the wider publics — bluegrass, Appalachian music, and raw, attitudinal rock. Throughout, Ryan delves straight for the raw essence of each song, finding the core emotion, then exposes it to listeners with depth and sincerity.
     One example is the eerie Appalachian-ish album-opener, "I Am Lost," where drummer/producer Billy Conway (of the tragically defunct Morphine) strikes a basic primal beat over which Ryan adds slide mandolin lines that make you almost taste the dirt and grit of that region with each passing second. Above that there's the vocal of harmonies of Curtis and Ryan which recall the best of the all-too-few collaborations between Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons with a twist of Lucinda Williams at her toughest.
     Elsewhere, Ryan, badboy guitarist Duke Levine and Conway band together for a boozy, Stones-y romp, "Perfect Angel," which is made even more dangerous and dirty by the appearance of saxophonist Dana Colley (also a Morphine alum) who proves here, as he does on the ballad "Diamonds" and the noirish "Blossom" that he knows exactly where to place each note, something Ryan certainly knows how to do and something he will do (we have to hope) for some time to come. - F5 Alt Music zine

"Lost Diamond Angel"

Jimmy Ryan’s first solo album comes almost two decades into a career that’s included stints fronting alterna-country forerunners the Blood Oranges and studio work with Morphine, Warren Zevon, and dozens of others. He’s proved to be a first-rate mandolin sideman, but Lost Diamond Angel confirms that he’s more than capable of handling the frontman role. Backed by an ace line-up that includes Billy Conway, Dana Colley, Catie Curtis, and Duke Levine, Ryan mixes and matches Morphine-style low rock, trad bluegrass numbers, and hook-filled roots rock; it’s all distinguished by his virtuoso mandolin playing, which is always front and center. The nimble bluegrass on "Face Up" and "Drunker’s Lament #7 or 8" should please traditionalists. But the overdriven sounds on "I’ve Got a Feeling" are more reminiscent of Crazy Horse than Ralph Stanley, and the bridge of "Hardtime" is filled with inventive wah-wah pedal heroics. The interplay between Ryan’s mandocello and Colley’s saxophones conjures a gospel feel on the blues tune "Diamonds," one more example of Ryan’s ability to encompass a broad range of styles without ever sounding studied or pedestrian. - Providence Phoenix

"Mandolin master Ryan, Blood Oranges reunit"

" ... you're gentle, not loud, sweet-sounding--like a mandolin."
Tony Soprano, from
HBO's The Sopranos

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.--America's favorite TV mobster was attempting to seduce his therapist when he likened her to that ancient stringed instrument. If Dr. Melfi was hip enough to be a fan of Jimmy Ryan or his band The Blood Oranges, she would know that her libidinous patient knows little of the power and versatility of the mandolin.

Back in the late '80s, bassist Cheri Knight, guitarist Mark Spencer and mandolin whiz Jimmy Ryan formed The Blood Oranges in Boston and made a couple of critically acclaimed records which skillfully blended rock and bluegrass with some folk-like songwriting smarts. Alas, these pioneers of the No Depression/Roots music movement disbanded in 1995, victims of unfortunate timing--their unique sound got lost in the haze of the grunge explosion brought on by Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The Blood Oranges were a bit of an anomaly, with Ryan's self-described "nasty-ass" mandolin up front.

Ryan went on to play on a number of projects, contributing to records by Morphine, Dumptruck, Warren Zevon and Mary Gauthier, most recently touring in Catie Curtis' band, while Knight made two strong solo albums and Spencer toured with the likes of Freedy Johnston and Jay Farrar.

Then Ryan, who counts Bob Marley, Joe Strummer, Bill Monroe, and Vermont's Jim McGinnis as inspirations, did something he hadn't done since he began playing music three decades ago--he made a solo album, Lost Diamond Angel.

I asked Ryan via e-mail what took him so long. "I simply had no desire to make a solo record. Billy Conway (Morphine's drummer) talked me into it. I always have songs I'm writing, and making a record is what you do with your pile of songs."

Although Lost Diamond Angel sports Ryan's name on the cover, it is far from a one-man show. The native of upstate New York brought along some of the region's finest roots musicians. "It was a blast recording with all my Boston buddies," Ryan said, "people I've been playing with for the last 10 years in different groups. Billy Conway produced the record, which means he told me when something was finished or not. Or suggested which mandolin to try next."

I never knew how many different types of mandolins there were until I read in the CD's liner notes a list of the seven types Ryan utilized. "At the turn of the last century, Mandolin Orchestras were all the rage," explained Ryan. "Seriously. They had mandobasses, mandocellos, mandolas and mandolins. Sometimes the orchestras would have 50 people in them banging away at the light classics. So, in a way it's an extension of that but with the addition of the 20th century's musical noise. Plus it's always good to show folks that other instruments 'rock.'"

Lost Diamond Angel is very much a rock record, eclectic and tough, with a vibe much like that of the Blood Oranges, who will be reuniting next Thursday in Bellows Falls as part of the "New Faces Night" opener of the 4th Annual Roots on the River/Fred Eaglesmith Weekend.

But for longtime music fans in Southern Vermont, Ryan is anything but a new face.

"I used to have a ball in Brattleboro when I was playing in a bluegrass band out of Burlington called Pine Island," said Ryan. "We used to play the Mole's Eye and the old Chelsea House Coffeehouse. We made a live record there once. Also I remember Marlboro College gigs that were always fun. Ah, the '70s..."

The long years of hard work have begun to finally pay off for Ryan, who is featured in the latest No Depression magazine. And a new Blood Oranges album is in the works.

Added Ryan, "I'm most proud that I figured out how to make a living playing mandolin. Oddly enough, that's all I ever wanted to do."

Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at madeloni@aol.com. - Brattleboro Reformer


Blood Oranges
1990 Corn River (East Side Digital)
1992 Lone Green Valley (ESD)
1994 Crying Tree (ESD)

Beacon Hillbillies
1992 Duffield Station (ESD)
1993 More Songs of Love and Murder (ESD)
1996 Better Place (ESD)

Wooden Leg
1996 Wooden Leg (ESD)

Jimmy Ryan
2002 Lost Diamond Angel (Hi-N-Dry)

2005 Gospel Shirt (Hi-N-Dry)


Feeling a bit camera shy


Jimmy released Gospel Shirt (Hi-N-Dry) this year - an EP packed with hillbilly honky-tonk with the usual suspects on hand: Duke Levine (Peter Wolf), Billy Beard (Patty Griffin, Ragman Son Revue), Andrew Mazzone (Twinemen), Kevin Barry (Lori McKenna), Grayson Capps and Christian McNeil (Hybrasil). Billy Conway (Morphine, Twinemen) and Tom Dube (Richard Thompson) have been at the helm recording and engineering; Grammy Award winning producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow) produced and mixed it up.

Born in New York, Jimmy Ryan was first introduced to traditional American music as a child through the state university, where a local country and bluegrass organization sponsored shows highlighting the nation's musical roots. Jimmy soon took interest in the mandolin. Spending his formative years attending bluegrass festivals, he began honing his own skills as a performer by playing with fiddlers and pickers of all ages and musical backgrounds.

After playing bass in the punk band Decentz, and mandolin in the Vermont bluegrass band Pine Island in the early 80's, Jimmy Ryan formed and fronted alt-country pioneers The Blood Oranges in the late 80’s. Ryan's twangy vocals and diverse musical background stood as the dominant elements of their punk-bluegrass sound. This was surely the start of a movement deemed ‘alt-country’, but was soon stomped out by the grunge-music trend, only to re-emerge circa the demise of the Blood Oranges.

After touring worldwide and releasing three records on East Side Digital, the Blood Oranges disbanded in 1994. Towards the end of the Blood Oranges reign, Jimmy formed and fronted the Beacon Hillbillies with noted mandolin master John McGann, mixing jazz and bluegrass and releasing three records.

After the Beacon Hillbillies projects were completed, Jimmy collaborated with former Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer to create Wooden Leg and release one self-titled album in 1996.

During and after his days fronting The Blood Oranges, Jimmy collaborated with a host of musicians, one of the most notable being his work with former Morphine and Treat Her Right frontman, the late Mark Sandman. Together they played the Boston scene as Treat Her Orange, a partnership that would later blossom into the Pale Brothers (and yield the track "In Spite of Me" on Morphine’s Cure for Pain). Both Treat Her Orange and The Pale Brothers were two talent-laden and interesting side projects that featured live performances but hailed no official albums.

Sandman later reappeared on the Jimmy Ryan/Mark Spencer collaboration Wooden Leg, who toured as an opening act for Morphine.

Jimmy Ryan has toured worldwide and extensively. His innovative mandolin playing has been featured on albums by Morphine, Warren Zevon, Catie Curtis, Dumptruck, Brooks Williams, Gerald Collier, Jake Brennan and many more.

His solo debut, Lost Diamond Angel, is where all the pieces fall into place. Enlisting a superior cast of bandmates including the well-established country guitarist, Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, Carol Noonan), Billy Conway and Dana Colley (Morphine), Andrew Mazzone (Kim Richey) and Catie Curtis, Jimmy let his influences and experiences orchestrate 13 songs of startling depth and originality. He plays acoustic mandolin, 6 and 8-string electric mandolin and some mandocello on this stellar solo debut. The disc was recorded at Sandman’s Hi-N-Dry music collaborative by Billy Conway and mixed by Grammy Award Winning producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow).

There is rumor that Jimmy has been back at Hi-N-Dry with the usual suspects recording a follow up EP to Lost Diamond Angel. No release date is set, but Trina Shoemaker made the trek up from New Orleans to participate in Jimmy’s latest project and some notable talent has been seen entering the studio over the past few weeks. On the touring front, Jimmy can be found playing with Jake Brennan and The Confidence Men, Hayseed, John McGann, Gordon Stone, Amelia White, Catie Curtis and his old bluegrass band Pine Island throughout New England. He also plays with his own band under the moniker Jimmy Ryan and The Lads where Jimmy’s accomplished songwriting and mando playing take the spotlight as they so deserve. His touring band includes Duke Levine on guitars, Billy Beard on percussion, Andrew Mazzone on bass and on occasion, Kevin Barry on lap steel and guitars and Christian McNeil on acoustic guitar and backup vocals.