Brent Ryan

Will You Ever Hear a Brent Ryan “Protest Song”?

Posted on September 13, 2019 in americana, country music, history, music, Music Business, Musical Events, Musical Inspiration, Opinions, Stories Behind Songs

I have been reading through the Summer issue of the beautifully printed and highly-acclaimed music journal, No Depression.  No Depression features fantastic writers reviewing wonderful musical subject matter.  The summer print issue features folk music, specifically the tradition of folk music in the American labor movement and the role of the “protest song”.

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 14: Folksinger Pete Seeger serenades the faithful gathered at the foot of capitol hill in Washington, DC on November 14, 1969. (Photo by Stephen Northup/The Washington Post)

I’ll tell you as a disclaimer right now that I vowed to myself that in my musical career I would never get political.  My reasoning is twofold. One, I don’t ever want to isolate a valuable part of my fan-base. Secondly, I never want to boost my own ego to think that I know more about right and wrong simply because I’m a musician with a microphone. To me that seems manipulative in the same way that cult leaders are manipulative.  Being given a stage is a dangerous responsibility, and I try to protect myself from letting it get to my head.  Why is my political perspective any better than anybody else’s? Let me assure you right now that it is not. Don’t ever let me fool you into thinking otherwise.

Now that the disclaimer is made, back to the commentary on protest songs.  I respect most things that are traditional. Thus, I respect the American historical role of the protest song in influencing our culture. Music is a voice, and some of its power is that it gives people a voice when they don’t feel they have one. That is a magical role for music. I have been very emotionally moved by music that often expressed what I could not quite identify within myself, and felt grateful for the musical diagnosis.

But I’m not really a protest song guy. And I doubt you will ever hear a protest song from me.

Of course, I’m going to tell you why.

In my personal life I have made a lot of bad decisions, mostly in my younger years, but also as a mature and seasoned adult.  A lot of my struggles in my personal life were magnified because I lived in a place of emotional resentment and anger, even bearing the load of a heavy victim mentality. Are you familiar with the term? Essentially, I carried the proud badge of a person who had been wronged by the world, and that sense of victimization allowed me to make injurious decisions on other people because, well damn, my anger was damn-well justified if you knew what I’d been through. That passion that I carried in those days certainly would have been good fertile ground for some heavy-handed songs.  Sadly, we will never know because I didn’t write songs in that season of my life.

In this current season of life I have chosen to leave that victim mentality behind me.  It hasn’t done me any favors, and if you ask the people who really know me, it certainly didn’t help any of them. I feel a lighter load on myself when I work to reach a different emotion than victimization, and that emotion is gratitude. So you know I’m not trying to sound saintly here, I want to assure you that this takes intentional effort on my part, like going to the gym every day to stay in shape. It is not my natural MO.  But the benefits of doing the internal work are worth it to me. On a daily basis I try to look at the things that I have rather than woe the things I don’t have.  I try to look at my own causes for the trouble in my life, rather than focus on the wrong done to me by others that I cannot control.  I find peace in this, and I get defensive when someone tries to lure me back into the trap of complaint and victimization.

As a songwriter, I do feel that this work is evident in my music. Songs such as “Free”, “Gus McCrae”, and “All Together” reveal my heartfelt desire to approach life in this way.  It’s not that there aren’t factors in the world worthy of protest. I just don’t find any peace within myself by engaging with it.  I’m the kind of guy that, if nuclear holocaust were launched all around me, I hope I would find a way to be thankful for what I’d been given unto my dying breath.  To me that’s the closest thing to spiritual immortality that we can reach as human beings, and I envy the peace that I see in people who accept suffering rather than torture themselves further with complaint.

Yes, we live in a crazy world right now. When have we not? Even in times when American society was more united and content, it was that way by being in denial of its glaring defects.  I will never fix the world’s problems. And even if I could, I’m quite convinced I would simply identify new fancied problems to get worked up about as soon as they were solved.  That doesn’t sound happy to me, and I believe that happiness is a choice that we can strive toward, no matter our circumstances.

So, don’t go looking for any Brent Ryan political statements anytime soon. And I doubt you will hear any protest songs from me in upcoming albums. But then again, the beauty of being a songwriter is that I can explore the entire universe of experiences. So who knows. Maybe the next song will lyrically adorn the signs of the next picket line. Anything could happen.