Don’t spend your time goin’ down the tracks lookin’ back
You’ll live your life out of whack
It’s just a fact Jack
It’s just a simple fact.
“Runaway Train of Thought,” Ryan Balthrop
You know how it is when you hear a great song … it just gets stuck in your head… I have one that’s been stuck for a few weeks. Ironically, it’s called “Runaway Train of Thought,” and it’s the first track on Ryan Balthrop’s sophomore CD Leap of Faith. What? You’ve never heard of Ryan Balthrop? Shame. I hadn’t either before a year ago… shame on me, since he frequently plays a stone’s throw from my house! Ryan Balthrop is one of the many talented musicians hailing from the Gulf Coast, and his songwriting reflects the homespun southern roots of the Georgia native who has called Alabama home for most of his life. But Balthrop, who plays guitar, banjo and ukulele, incorporates a variety of styles, including blues, rock, folk and even island music from the three years he lived and played in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
And his influences are just as diverse: Johnny Cash, Paul Simon, Phish, The Band, and Peter Tosh. In both Leap of Faith and his debut CD, Ryan Balthrop, he has brought together this variety of styles in a way that, while it shouldn’t make sense, somehow does.
On Leap of Faith, that first song, “Runaway Train of Thought,” is reggae/pop, the second track, “Roll Roll Roll” continues with some of those elements, but adds in blues and gospel as well, but the third, and title, track, “Leap of Faith,” is a folky bluegrass; a song Ryan wrote after seeing John Prine. Balthrop told me in an interview prior to the CD release party on September 11 that he left a John Prine show thinking, “I’m gonna write a song with John Prine, and he won’t even know it.” You can hear the Prine influence — in “Leap of Faith.” But Balthrop’s lyrical storytelling and ability to turn a phrase, especially as he delivers deeper messages, are all his own.
“The Other Side” could just as easily be a Prine influence lyrically and melodically, yet they are laid over an old school reggae beat as Ryan’s soulful vocals help to achieve what he wanted from the song, “a song about listening to what the other person says in an argument, but also listening to the other side — cosmically.”
In fact, it’s hard to really say he sounds like anyone… He might have a Prine sound in one song, but then there’s “Stuck in the Mud,” one of my favorites, that is blues/funk and inspired by Dr. John and George Porter, Jr., both acts he has opened for here on the Gulf. But Balthrop doesn’t sound like them either… and just when you think you might have him pinned down stylistically, he pulls out the uke he’s only been playing since December of last year, and you want to say, “hey, he kinda sounds like Jack Johnson”… kinda.
So what makes it all work? And it does all work… this is a CD where every song is good… one you want to listen to over and over again… Well, as he said, “It’s all me.” I have to agree. His seriousness about his music and talent as a songwriter, and his good-natured personality and positive messages come through in every song, even those that treat the harshest of emotions of heartbreak and loss.
But the CD has an unexpected cohesiveness for two other reasons. One is because he blends styles within songs. Though one may be more bluesy, another more reggae, you never feel as if there has been a total genre change, creating a smooth progression from one to the next when it does change. The other reason is because the tracks of the CD take you on a ride lyrically and spiritually. Balthrop joked with me that, “Every song leads you to another song,” but it’s true.
You pass through the island countryside, through a small southern town, and then on into the bayou, and finally back to Mobile and Dog River, but you are always on the same train. “Runaway Train,” he explained, “sets the theme of the whole album… remembering your past but not dwelling in it so much that you lose sight of where you need to be going.” And so you get on the train, and you “’Roll Roll Roll’ until you call it home.”
The songs are reflective yet prospective, personal yet universal, serious yet humorous… “She’s like a Mongolian buffet, hot and sweet and all you can eat…” Personally, for Balthrop, they are “about getting out of a long relationship (7 years), and remaining friends with that person,” and at the same time “about finding your way home after years of searching.” And the search ends, for now, with the song “Shit or Get Off the Pot,” a song emblematically about his grandparent’s 50-year marriage and what the singer has learned from their story, “when you lose your love/ you gotta live with what you got/ I guess it’s time to shit or get off the pot”.
By the final track, a folk country ballad “Gonna Quit You,” you feel as if you have arrived at your destination, and done exactly that, learned from looking back, arriving at a place of acceptance, so that you can begin to move forward again: “You are the sweetest thing I never had/ I won’t forget you/ I gotta quit you/ I’m gonna quit you.” For Balthrop, this destination means coming full circle, home, both literally and figuratively.
Balthrop classifies himself as a singer-songwriter, not aspiring to fame and fortune, but rather to write songs that have staying power because they move people. His greatest wish is to share his music and to be remembered for his songwriting: “I would like to be known as a songwriter, a really good songwriter” writing for himself and for others. But the creative process is just as important to Balthrop as the final product. Writing and recording the songs is a cathartic experience for him and you can hear that in the depth of emotion and expressiveness of his musical performances and lyricism capturing life’s ironies, especially in ballads like “Silence is Golden” and “Gonna Quit You, ”and the blues tune “Nature of the Beast” in which his slightly raspy vocals start out sultry and then push through full force, seeming to come from his toes, as he sings “it’s the nature of the beast,/ gotta let it run free/ the beast done got the best of a better man than you and me.”
For Balthrop, much of the creative process occurs in the studio, and as personal as the songs are to him, he says they are also collaborative effort. He gives a lot of credit his producer, Mike Manning of Meka Studios in Mobile, Al. (www.mekastudios.com) as well as the musicians that play with him. In fact that something I noticed when I first started going to his live shows … Balthrop has a knack for finding not only talented musicians but also those that complement him.
While there are a few musicians he plays with frequently (Winter Baynes, drums, Owen Finley, bass, and Brett LaGrave, guitar), I have never seen the exact same lineup twice. Ryan surrounds himself with some remarkable local and regional talents like keyboardist Chris Spies, pedal-steel player Dave Easley, and slide guitarist/songwriter Lee Yankie, whose own CD has just been released, all of whom play on Leap of Faith (Check out that “Stuck in the Mud” that features solos from Spies and Yankie). And of course there is Balthrop’s family. His mother, sister, and brother, also musicians themselves, all sing on the CD. Playing with different musicians, Balthrop says, “keeps it fresh.”
As one person said on the CD release party event’s Facebook page, Ryan has an “army of musicians” both on the CD and that played at the release party. And what a great party. They shook The Shed BBQ and Blues Joint which was standing room only. The first set, broadcast on local radio station 92.1 WZEW, showcased songs from the CD to an enthusiastic audience. It was simply relaxed and fun as people listened intently. There were certainly a lot of Ryan’s friends and family there, but Ryan has a way of making everyone feel like family. As Manning said to me, “he’s all heart,” and that comes through both in the passion with which he performs as well as in the obvious respect between Ryan and the other musicians.
During the set break, people flocked to congratulate Ryan and lined up to purchase the CD and other merchandise. I even saw a couple of people donning the tees right away. (By the way, where is mine?) The crowd especially reacted to the song, “The Reason I Love Singing the Blues,” my personal favorite, which Balthrop began writing at the beginning of the summer but finished after he had been robbed, the thieves getting most of his instruments: “Well I got home one Monday afternoon/ just to find out I’d been broken into/ I got home too late/or the thieves left too soon/they took all my babies out of my music room. “ But in true Balthrop spirit, he ends his story on a positive note, “It’s just alright/ it’s just material things/ let’s go down the road/ get me some chicken wings/maybe a cold beer, a glass of wine/I still got my good friends and I can still have a good time/ he’ll get his and I’ll get mine…” To me this, along with “Leap of Faith,” is some of Balthrop’s writing at its finest, as he draws on real life experiences, simply seeming to be telling a story, but with a deeper meaning.
The second set at the Shed though was when the real party began. Ryan called up musicians that were there as guests; some from bands he had been in before going solo.
Playing songs from both his CDs and jamming some covers (including a smoking “St. John’s Revelations” from his first CD, a kick ass “I Know You Rider,” and a tribute to Balthrop’s mentor, the incomparable Hank Becker, Balthrop and his musical army had the crowd on their feet dancing from the front of the stage to the outdoor bar. Balthrop, as both band leader and solo artist is a performer not to be missed. And neither is his new Leap of Faith. It is earthy, rocking, grooving and soulful, as well as inspirational and spiritual.
Dates to see Ryan are listed on his web page www.ryanbalthrop.com . Samples from both of Balthrop’s CDs can also be found here and on Jango and Reverbnation at http://www.reverbnation.com/ryanbalthrop, where you can hear “Stuck in the Mud” and other tunes in their entirety. Leap of Faith can be purchased as a CD through Balthrop’s site or downloaded through iTunes.