Jimmy Ryan
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Jimmy Ryan

Hyannis, Massachusetts, United States | SELF

Hyannis, Massachusetts, United States | SELF
Band Americana Bluegrass

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


When Corn River, the debut album by the Blood Oranges, was released in 1990, folks were a bit surprised by the Boston address of this band whose sound was spearheaded by a cranked-up mandolin and featured elements of country and bluegrass music. A Northeastern city and bluegrass? It just didn’t fit, kind of like finding out that Lou Reed was born in Campbellsville, Kentucky, or that Bruce Springsteen grew up in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina.

“I didn’t think it was really a big deal,” says Jimmy Ryan, the mandolinist in question, via a bad phone connection from Boulder, Colorado, where he’s on tour as an accompanist with singer/songwriter Catie Curtis. “It was the only kind of music I’d ever played.” About what you’d expect for a guy with a mother from West Virginia, a father from Ireland, and a steady diet of Bill Monroe records fed to him by Ma when he was growing up in Upstate New York.

When he got his first mandolin at age 16, it was all over but the picking. First entering the New England music scene as a member of a Vermont-based folk/bluegrass band called Pine Island, Ryan migrated to Boston in the early ’80s. By 1986, he was ready to introduce the East Coast to power bluegrass courtesy of the Blood Oranges. And he hasn’t stopped since.

Ryan is apparently morally against the concept of free time, despite his constant references to himself as “the world’s laziest man.” In addition to his role in the Blood Oranges — who may be on permanent hiatus (more on that later) — he’s also a member of the all-acoustic Beacon Hillbillies and the traditional Irish music band Sunday’s Well, not to mention half of the Pale Brothers, a countryish busman’s holiday combo with Morphine’s Mark Sandman.

On his latest project, Wooden Leg, Ryan continues his work with Blood Oranges mate Mark Spencer, a busy man and in-demand guitarist and engineer in his own right (Liquor Giants, Freedy Johnston, Lisa Loeb). “It’s kind of one-stop shopping, working with Mark,” Ryan offers. “He’ll produce your album, design the cover, and play a little guitar.” While recording the self-titled album (released in March on East Side Digital) at Spencer’s recording studio in Brooklyn, New York, the pair engaged in some rather interesting inspirational activities. “We’d go to the Mercury Lounge after getting some Indian takeout food,” Ryan relates. “We’d also pick up some Indian music cassettes, then sit there drinking single-malt scotches and blast Indian tapes at four in the morning when no one else was in the bar.”

This is not to say that Wooden Leg sounds like the soundtrack to a Satyajit Ray film. After the leadoff cut — let’s call it transculturalgrass — things settle into a Blood Oranges-esque mood, with hints of Celtic music and British folk-rock, and plenty of help from bassist Scott Yoder (of Kevin Salem’s band) and drummer Keith Levreault. According to Ryan, the biggest difference between Wooden Leg and Blood Oranges is that it’s strictly acoustic mandolin with the former, whereas he played electric mandolin three-quarters of the time with the Oranges.

To get a handle on Wooden Leg, go no further than the instrumental break in the middle of “Sweet Lies”, one of three songs co-written by Ryan’s wife, Donna Sartanowicz. (“She likes Mission of Burma, but she writes great bluegrass songs. I’m not sure how that works,” marvels Ryan.) Spencer lets loose with a guitar-hero-worthy solo, and Ryan counters with some snazzy fingerwork of his own, the perfect blend of tongue-in-cheek rock flash and acoustic picking.

Other highlights include Ryan’s favorite, an emotional song about his mother’s failing health called “To the Bone”, and “Tuesday’s Paper”, the catchiest tune about double homicide I’ve heard in a while (and one that Ryan wrote almost 20 years ago). The spooky “Out of My Yard” features phoned-in vocals from his Pale Brothers buddy Sandman that were captured using a process requiring a special microphone, two answering machines, some computer discs, and presumably the blessings of both Rykodisc and Ma Bell.

Of course, Ryan isn’t content to have just one record circulating. A third album from the Beacon Hillbillies, an acoustic trio Ryan formed with guitarist and longtime friend John McGann, is due out this summer. The Hillbillies, also on ESD, play original bluegrass music, and it’s a side project with a special place in this Stanley Brothers/Bill Monroe disciple’s heart. “It’s great; we just get together and make an album in six days,” he says. The title of their last album, More Songs of Love and Murder, about says it all: There ain’t a lot of bluegrass songs about buildings and food, partner.

Ryan will remain on the road with Curtis through August, backing her with some effects-heavy work on one of his beloved, custom-made five-string mandolins (a la Tiny Moore of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Ryan points out), with time out for an occasional Wooden Leg gig.

And if you’re ever in the Boston area and want to - Rick Cornell/No Depression


"It’s hard to make a mandolin rock. Well, it’s hard for most players to make a mandolin rock. Local, left-hand picker Jimmy Ryan has no trouble blitzing through bluegrass or giving his tiny instrument a punk rock feel. ... 'Readville,' the latest from the local mandolin master, is a hootin’, hollerin’ romp." - Jed Gottlieb/The Boston Herald


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 - Neal Weiss/No Depression


I need to preface this review by saying, it’s probably not fair I review this record. I already have a pre-existing adoration for Jimmy Ryan’s work and quite honestly, him as a person. A completely unassuming guy, with an incredible talent and way of awing a room of pretty much any size. You simply cannot deny that Jimmy is a true mandolin maestro, a master of his art and a gift to our fair city’s music community…that being said, this is a new record, it was sent to my attention by his PR folks, I haven’t heard it before and I am going in head first.The new 8 track release from Boston’s master of the mando, Jimmy Ryan, is entitled ‘Readville’ (I am guessing it has a link to the town on the commuter rail line). There is an effortless, mild grit and break to Jimmy’s voice that is undoubtedly sincere and occasionally vulnerable (especially exhibited on the song “Every Word”). A breath of fresh air amongst some of the "all too put on" crooners that the genre often unearths. Ryan has a way of pulling the vocal melody into his mandolin lines and embellishing the heck out of it. Something that makes you go “hey that’s familiar…holy crap, did you just hear what he played?!” But Jimmy isn’t a vain player, you can tell he really is playing because it’s what he loves and was born to do. Plus he shares that spot light with some really talented other folks as well…
Track 2 (“Peace Down in my Soul”) is an “organized chaos, drunken sing along caught on tape” type of a track. A ‘friends sitting around a table, trading songs and shots” type of song where everyone catches on and sings on the chorus. The next track, “All the Hearts” demonstrates the softer side of the songwriter, telling the story of a woman who loses her sister and best friend…a little bit of sadness and heartache goes a long way here. Track 6, titled “Just Like You” brings us back to the drunken, pumped up ramble of a man who loves his whiskey almost as much as he loves his lady…all eight tracks are fantastic and present a wide range of what this band is capable of.
I love this record because I feel like I am down in the basement at the Lizard Lounge or hanging at Toad, watching a bunch of friends making music together. It’s a well produced and great sounding album, but it still manages to harness the feeling that these guys know each other and play together all the time over a few pints…and love every minute of it. Jimmy and co. (Dave Westner – drums, guitars, keys, percussion; Ed Riemer – bass, harmony vocals) have constructed an excellent collection of 8 studio tracks with the feel and vigor of a live performance. The potential for audience participation, the unyielding desire to clap and stomp your feet that the band instills into the listener, and the energy that is presented throughout the course of the record is uncanny. Mr. Ryan really boasts no comparison for me. This is something that as a part of this town’s music scene you simply know and love. Something that is remarkably familiar, but you are incapable of merely putting a finger on. This project is a definite winner in my book.
- Red Line Roots


Jimmy Ryan & Mark Spencer accompanied Laura Cantrell for an opening set at The Gramercy Theatre in NYC then Jimmy joined Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin headlining the night Grand Ole Opry style... The New York Times reported: "Laura Cantrell, who was born in Nashville but has long lived in New York City, opened the concert. With a serene, piping voice reminiscent of Emmylou Harris's, Ms. Cantrell moves between thoughtful alt-country Americana and old-time country. She had a string band -- including a left-handed mandolinist, Jimmy Ryan, who so impressed Mr. Louvin that he was invited to sit in."
- New York Times


The Boston mandolin master returns with another romp through bluegrass, rock and honky-tonk. Kicking off with the droll “My Last Whiskey Song,” a twangy duet with Sarah Borges, the former Blood Oranges frontman manages to find the light in even such dark songs as the Freddie Hart/Harlan Howard downer “It Takes One to Know One” and New Order’s “Love Vigilantes.” The pulse of those covers and the eight originals is Ryan’s redefining approach to his instrument. Download: “Get Out of My Yard.”
- Boston Herald


Discography

Solo recordings:
Lost Diamond Angel (2002, self-released)
Gospel Shirt (2005, Ruido Grande/Hi-N-Dry)
Fun With Music (2007, Ruido Grande)
Mandolin (2009, Ruido Grande)
Readville (2013, Ruido Grande)

Band projects:
With Blood Oranges:
Corn River (1990, East Side Digital)
Lone Green Valley (1992, East Side Digital)
Crying Tree (1994, East Side Digital)

With Beacon Hill Billies:
Duffield Station (1992, East Side Digital)
More Songs of Love and Murder (1993, East Side Digital)
Better Place ESD (1996, East Side Digital)

With Wooden Leg:
Wooden Leg (1996, East Side Digital)

Additonal Mandolin Credits:
1993 Morphine, Cure For Pain (Ryko)
1995 Boiled In Lead, Songs From The Gypsy (Omnium)
1997 Catie Curtis, Catie Curtis (Ryko)
1998 Buttercup, Buttercup (Spirit Of Orr)
1998 Dumptruck, Terminal (Devil In The Woods)
1998 Gerald Collier, Gerald Collier (WEA, Warner Bros.)
1999 Catie Curtis, Crash Course In Roses (Ryko)
1999 Brooks Williams, Hundred Year Show (Signature)
2000 Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya’ (Artemis)
2000 Catie Curtis, My Shirt Looks Good On You (Ryko) (songwriter as well)
2002 The Slaughter Rule soundtrack, March 2002 With The Blood Oranges and Jay Farrar
2003 Maybe Baby, What Matters (Hi-N-Dry)
2004 Jake Brennan, Love and Bombs (YepRoc)
2004 William Ackerman (Windham Hill)
2004 Caged Heat, Caged Heat (Hi-N-Dry)
2004 Country Doctors, More Venom, Less Self Pity (Valient Recordings)
2005 Sarah Borges, Silver City (Blue Corn Music)
2005 Christian McNeill, Inside The Whale (Hi-N-Dry) (vocals too)
2005 Judd Fuller, Grocery Store Roses (self)
2006 Hayseed
2006-2010 Various Projects
2010 Laura Cantrell Trains & Boats & Planes.(Diesel Only)
2011 Girls,Guns,& Glory ,Sweet Nothings
2011 Le Mistral,Le Mistral (Ruido Grande')
2012 Soda Frog (self)
2012 Alley Stoetzel (Lunar Notes Music)

Photos

Bio

For those who like their pigeonholes neat and tidy, Jimmy Ryan is an unsettling proposition. He plays mandolin with the old-timey pluck of a bluegrass breakdown, but he also plays it with the ferocity of a rock guitarist. What else would you expect of a left-handed rebel who began his career by playing both in a bluegrass combo (Pine Island) and a punk band (Decentz)?
That melding of styles made Ryan a pioneer of the so-called alt-country scene in the late 80s when he founded and fronted the bluegrass-tinged rock band The Blood Oranges. The same eclectic approach makes him one of the most dynamic singer-songwriters on todays rich Boston Americana scene.
His divergent, redefining styles are reflected in his latest record, Readville, the fifth solo recording of his 30-plus-year career. From the chiming rock of What If I Fall, to the hillbilly-soul ballad Every Word, Ryans unique sound and style resonates throughout.
Named after the suburban Boston neighborhood that the upstate New York native now makes his home, an area once called Low Plains, Readville has a spartan feel befitting the industrial history of its namesake. Featuring just three musicians, and recorded in the home studio of one of the players, Readville also marks the fiddling debut of Ryan.
It is remarkable that Ryan could even find the time to craft the eight new originals, let alone tackle a new instrument, given that he still tours the world, fronts his own bands and is in high demand as a player locally. If theres a big roots music gig in the Boston area, chances are Ryan will be onboard.
The mando master is currently leading the Jimmy Ryan Combo, a four-piece band, and also fronts a popular side project, Jimmy Ryan and Hayride, with legendary guitarist Duke Levine, veteran roots music drummer Billy Beard and recently deceased bass virtuoso Andrew Mazzone, to whom Readville is dedicated.