Meet Ryan Spearman, Green-Strumming in St. Louis with Folk and Blues
When I first heard Norman Blake, about thirty or so years ago, I was blown away by the notion that there was actually a picker who could hit the hot licks, but chose, rather, to explore the sounds from another day combined with the sounds floating around in his head. I admired Norman Blake for making that choice, or taking that stand. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in all types of roots music, acoustic mostly, North American, mostly. Today’s world is crammed full of songwriters, singer/songwriters and musicians. I hear a lot of music that is starting to sound the same, as if all the notes on the spectrum have been arranged and recorded and that maybe we are approaching the doomsday of music…the day in which there are no more original tunes. Then, along comes a fresh songwriter, a real gem that stands out, or a musician who chooses to differ from the norm, or one whom the Muse has smiled upon to paddle out of the mainstream. This young man from St. Louis is all of that. Ryan Spearman has chosen to make his living writing, performing, reviving and preserving music out of the mainstream. Let me introduce you to Ryan Spearman, and his last two recordings, “Get Along Home” and “Pain and Time”.
Ryan Spearman reminds me of Norman Blake in that he is musically proficient and capable but has chosen a direction based on passion rather than impression. In his own words, “My main goal these days as far as my craft goes is to grow. I’m no longer worried about locking myself in the woodshed for hours of practice so I can impress some concert goer with my skills. I’m thinking a lot more these days about the songs I write, how they fit into the never-ending stream of musical traditional…and how I can do something new with all of this dusty music that’s rattling around in my head.” Ryan Spearman is a songwriter, musician, philosopher and teacher. He has performed all over the United States as well as Europe, cutting his teeth with the old time string band, High On The Hog. Spearman is an instructor at The Folk School of St. Louis where–for the last four years– he has taught classes covering several traditional musical subjects including, clawhammer banjo, old time & bluegrass fiddle, guitar, jug band, improvisation, music theory, & old time ensemble performance. Ryan has also conducted numerous educational workshops across the United States including a recent 3-part presentation on “Traditional Songs and Fiddle Tunes of Missouri and the Midwest”. The presentation was commissioned by theMissouri Artisans Alliance and co-conducted with banjoist and midwest fiddle tune historian, Sean Barth. Ryan is a proud recipient of the “2012 Earth Dance Farms Mission Award” for his work exploring the connections between sustainability and music. He has recently worked with The Muddy Waters Theater Company as a consultant in musical direction on their production of Eugene O’ Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” in which he provided live musical performance and played a small role as a townperson/musician. He also scored, arranged, & performed the music for Muddy Water’s subsequent production of O’ Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.
Not long ago, Spearman finished recording St. Louis, Missouri’s first local, sustainable CD project. The CD is called Get Along Home and was sponsored in part by The Green Strum Project. Ryan is the co-founder The Green Strum Project, www.greenstrum.org, encouraging connections between sustainability and the arts in St. Louis. The idea for the album was conceived during a recent European concert tour and features instruments made from found and recycled items in the St. Louis, Missouri metro area. The album was written, engineered, mixed, mastered, and designed in St. Louis, with the tracks penned by Ryan except for two which were a collaboration by Ryan and Kelly Wells. The idea was to make a recording with significantly low environmental impact and, as a result, help to raise awareness of easily adoptable sustainable practices for artists and the importance of local economy. Only instruments made by local luthiers or instruments built from recycled, found and repurposed items were used on this recording. The songs range in style from acoustic blues to swing to contemporary ending up with a rousing “make St. Louie green” song. There’s even a nod to three time Golden Glove Award winner, Willie McGee, retired outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.
From Get Along Home
Lately Ryan Spearman has been keeping musical company with some mighty high profile musical folks like Betse Ellis, formerly of the Wilders, and Pokey LaFarge as well as Geoffry Seitz, to name a few. He also performs with his wife/soul partner, Kelly Wells who is also the Folk School’s director.
Ryan grew up in St. Peters, MO…about 30 miles west of St. Louis…situated fairly equidistantly from the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. As a child, he was buddies with the next door neighbor boy whose father played a whole heap of different instruments and styles. He played banjo in a bluegrass band which intrigued Ryan. He would tune in weekly to Gene Robert’s bluegrass show on 89.1, Lindenwood University, every week. That was the seed, but Ryan didn’t really listen to any roots music intentionally until he was in his teens and had been attempting-unsuccessfully-to shred on the electric guitar for a few years. Eventually, he started to be more and more enamored with acoustic sounds and when he discovered that his favorite artists (The Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan) were drawing a huge amount of their repertoire from traditional folk he had to investigate further. Ryan drew from an endless supply of amazingly raw and moving music…Carter family, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Memphis Jug Band, Merle Haggard, the Mississippi Sheiks, Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson, “…I could go on and on and on.” he says. Ryan felt excited and liberated to hear this music that was all about emotion and presentation, not about virtuosity and commercialism. He decided that he wanted to make music …folk music in particular…which is now his main function in life. He jumped in head first and never looked back until recently. Ryan’s dad had built a banjo from a kit when he was still in his single digits. The banjo went into the closet. After he’d played the acoustic guitar for a couple of years, “I hit up my dad for the banjo…he let me dig it out of the closet and put it to use. It was my sole banjo until just a few years ago I got me a fancy custom-made one.”
From Pain and Time
Ryan is not formally trained. He played the trumpet and then the baritone in 6th-8th grade so he can read music on a basic level. He started out with a monthly subscription to Guitar Magazine. “I would do my best to learn parts of the songs in each edition, but they were crazy technically difficult most of the time and I didn’t understand a thing about the theory behind any of it. Ryan is laid back and easy going, soft spoken and thoughtful. His newest recording, “Pain and Time”, is a selection of tracks taken from four “living room” sessions during the winter of 2012. All of the selections were recorded live with no click tracks, overdubs and very little editing. Ryan calls it a “minimalist” recording. Having heard Ryan perform in concert and in intimate jams, I’d say each track on “Pain and Time” honestly reflects the Ryan you’d hear in an intimate jam. Ryan’s music is pure American Roots music. He begins “Pain and Time” with a solo country blues tune he wrote called “No Name Blues”, solo country blues, acoustic on banjo. Banjo? Yep and it fits the genre perfectly under Ryan’s masterful touch. From there, each track is a surprise with guest appearances by Pokey LaFarge playing mandolin, guitar and adding some vocals. Ryan keeps you guessing on this one, easily segueing from blues to old time to originals and back, just playing his heart. Ryan will be the first to tell you about writing songs and preserving traditional songs as part of the “folk process”. He is completely un-pretentious with his approach to recording. “Pain and Time” represents where recording these days is now. While people still scrape and scratch to come up with the cash to buy studio time, engineers, consultants, mastering companies, Ryan Spearman has proven that a simple set-up, a good ear and a few friends can make a recording as good and ear friendly as any studio. When you listen to a Ryan Spearman recording, you’ll hear the same feel that you’ll experience when you see Ryan perform. A little lower budget maybe, but still not free. Donations, pre-orders, purchases, all help to get the music out.
I personally believe, that with Ryan Spearman, if he was one of those who did not have the vision to recognize the importance of keeping this music alive, and writing in this tradition, he would just do it for the love of it. Ryan Spearman makes his living with his music, and it’s really good music. Ryan does volunteer spots for the local station in St. Louis, 88.1 KHDX…interviewing local artists and then mixing together snippets of their responses with his own narration and a bunch of their music. Ryan and Kelly are also starting a new podcast called “Folk Music Today” featuring working folk artists of the day through interviews and musical spins.
Artists can send submissions to:
Folk Music Today
3912 Humphrey St.
St. Louis, MO 63116
You can see Ryan and Kelly Spearman at a number of live performances including this year’s John Hartford Memorial Festival, held May 30-June 1, at Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Park, Bean Blossom Indiana. For complete info see www.ryanspearman.net, www.folkschoolstl.org, and www.johnhartfordmemfest.com.