A Little Brent Ryan Musical History
Posted on August 15, 2019 in country music, history, music, Music Business, Musical Inspiration, Opinions, Stories Behind Songs
Let’s have a little fun. I really don’t know if have a “sound”. In the musician world we talk about finding “your sound”, some elusive part of your soul that has to be opened up through a variety of spiritual musical experiences and suddenly you’ve found your place among the spinning planets in perfect harmony with all of creation. Is there a Brent Ryan Sound? I don’t know…you tell me.
What I can do is tell you my own musical journey. Some of it is pretty embarrassing so I do so at the risk of considerable judgment. But perhaps it might serve to explain the way that my songs turn out in their final product. So…ready, set, go.
I’m going to do this chronologically.
As a child I was subject to the music of my parents. I was a homebody growing up, and spent a lot of time with my family. I wasn’t exposed to much beyond my parent’s radio dials and their limited collection of cassettes and vinyl records. Some of it I liked and some I was not such a fan of. For example, my dad listened to progressive fusion jazz a little bit. I thought that I hated jazz because I couldn’t stand the stuff, but later in life I found out that a lot of jazz was fantastic. I just didn’t like his jazz! But nonetheless my childhood musical experiences were somewhat soft and lame. We listened to a lot of soft rock/pop. I remember sitting on the living room floor jamming out to Michael Bolton. My older brother provided some hope for my future because he listened to some of the more 80’s rock and roll stuff. I remember him keeping me up late one night going through his tape collection while he played for me the likes of Night Ranger, Ratt, and Foreigner. He also gave me a 45 of Cindi Lauper’s “Time after Time”, but I didn’t own a record player so he promptly took it back. I’ve never seen it since.
When I hit sixth grade I was allowed to get somewhat cooler. Back then kids loved to own boom boxes, portable cassette players that you could walk around and carry with you. I got one of these for Christmas. Immediately after Christmas my Mom took me to Wal Mart and allowed me a budget to purchase three new cassette tapes to begin my collection. I bought an album by Bruce Hornsby & the Range, the record that had the popular song “The Way It Is”, and then two albums from the 80’s pop/rock band Starship, formerly Jefferson Starship, formerly Jefferson Airplane. The two Starship albums featured 80’s great “Nothings Gonna Stop Us Now” and the great pop anthem that we all love to hate, “We Built This City”. Those were my first albums that I owned.
When I hit freshman year of high school things began to turn around, at least on the coolness level. My protected little soft rock bubble got burst, and friends started showing me music that was listened to when your parents weren’t around. Good friends of mine began exposing me to the hair-band scene, bands such as Poison, Guns’n’Roses, and Motley Crue were huge. I became a big fan of Motley Crue. I remember buying their cassette, “Decade of Decadence” and it was the first album I ever owned that had an explicit warning label on it. I felt like such a bad boy. I dabbled in some of the heavier progressive sounds also. I liked Queensryche. I became a huge fan of the band King’s X, and continue to be a fan of that great rock band to this day.
Up to this point I hated country music.
So a big change happened in my sophomore year of high school. I found religion. I became as big of a church-going bible-banger as a kid could be. Everything about my life changed, including my music. I wanted to stay in cool music, but I wanted it to be “godly”. So I entered a phase of listening to Christian rock and metal. I replaced the 90’s hair-bands with Christian rock bands that you’ve probably never heard of, Holy Soldier, Petra, Whitecross, White Heart, there were a lot of whites in the names of Christian bands. I never got into Stryper, not sure why. Around this time my best friend Byron, who was on a similar spiritual trajectory, began to search out Christian metal bands, and by metal I mean stuff that was a little scary, but it was scary in the name of Jesus. We set out to find the heaviest Christian music that was being made. It started with trash metal bands like Deliverance, Believer, and Vengeance Rising, Tourniquet, and then evolved into death metal bands like Living Sacrifice and Mortification. These were all Christian bands roaring and growling about the gospels. I loved it. I wore black t-shirts that were gruesome but had a cross on them so Jesus would like them. I grew something of a mullet. I went to live music shows at dark dingy bars and jumped into the mosh pits. It was fantastic. This was the most profound musical change in my life, other than one other.
Close to my senior year of high school I became friends with a fella named Jeff. Jeff listened to some country music. He and my other friend Byron, we all sort of teamed up and became interested in getting out to the local dancehalls to find girls to dance with. I bought boots, wrangler jeans, a felt cowboy hat that almost fit, and began listening to country music. I still listened to the metal also, but just like Chris LeDoux said, “even cowboys like just a little bit of rock and roll.” George Strait was an immediate favorite. But when it came down to it, I really loved the music of Alan Jackson. I loved his sound, his southern look, and admired his songwriting ability. While I listened and enjoyed some of Garth Brook’s music, I spent a lot of time making fun of his persona. I thought he had his lips permanently kissing the ass of society. My friends and I went to the annual George Strait festival at the Alamodome in San Antonio every year and heard many fantastic artists perform. By the time I was at college, I was one of the only boot wearing country music boys in my entire university. But I was dedicated. Country music was my newfound love. It was late in life, but I embraced it like meeting the girl that you were always meant to meet. I also began playing guitar around this time.
Sitting in my dorm halls in college, we would waste countless hours with guitars in our hands jamming and showing off new songs we had learned. I was still the country guy on campus. But another student began showing up who played a lot of the same stuff that I played. The difference was he was a lot more Texan than me. He was playing country music, but it was country that was more about the songwriting, it had a folky edge to it, and it was Texas. Steve Earle, Jerry Jeff Walker, and then there was the great Robert Earl Keen. When I heard Robert Earl Keen’s songs for the first time I was blown away by a type of songwriting and country sound that I never knew existed. It was kinda country, kinds folk, kinda Mexico, kinda Texas. I loved it. If finding country music was like meeting the girl of my dreams, finding Robert Earl Keen was like getting married to that girl and promising to never leave her for the rest of my life.
Beyond college I continued to live in the Christian rock world quite a bit. I was involved in a big Christian music festival in Kentucky called Ichthus for several years. I played drums in a couple of small-time Christian rock bands. I continued to find bands that I still love today, like Switchfoot, Mute Math, and Needtobreathe. But I’ve always had my other foot deep in country music. Although for a time when I lived outside of Texas I lost sight of good country music. I didn’t have access to the regional music scene, and I was limited to the Nashville stuff, and I became very discouraged very quickly. At first it was just a few songs that sounded too sexy to be country. I would well up with anger when I heard them. Then those songs became the norm, and it was all like that. So I stopped listening entirely. There were a few bright spots in the scene. Zach Brown was one of them. I still love Zach Brown stuff.
After getting married, and spending a quick two years in Colorado, I moved back to Texas and threw myself into the current of the Texas regional country music scene again. I discovered the music I had been missing all those years gone, and immediately my speakers were filled with the tunes of Reckless Kelly, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, and Turnpike Troubadours. I felt such extreme gratitude that good songwriting still existed in country music.
Since then my tastes have continued to evolve. As you know, if you read my writings much, I feel some sadness that the Texas country scene has developed a big sound, a way of all sounding the same, a system of discovery and discardment that resembles a small version of the big music market. But the good news is, for the most part, I like that sound. But I still hope that Texas keeps its ear towards good songwriting, and genuine roots music that is willing to take risks regardless of what is selling in the big markets.
There it is, a little musical journey through Brent Ryan’s life. The first half of my musical life is a little embarrassing, it was pretty lame. But I think even that phase of my life gave me an ear towards catchy poppy choruses. To this day, I love folky songs from folks like Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen, but I try to blend my own folky sound with a level of sing-ability. My favorite songs are those that tell a good story but also stick in your head. I strive for that in my own songwriting.
Thanks for following along. Feel free to make fun.