The Ongoing Story of JIMMY RYAN:
Killing is a Mortal Sin, but God Damn that Mandolin…
by Kier Byrnes
Jimmy Ryan is one of my all time favorite musicians. I was introduced to his mandolin stylings back in college when I was listening to an old Morphine album that he sat in on. I was immediately hooked. It’s a few years later, but Jimmy is still kicking ass like no other. If you’ve never seen or heard Jimmy play with his band, Hayride, I strongly advise that you put this magazine down immediately and go see them. The sheer instrumental talent in that band is staggering. Remember that sense of awe that you got when you were a kid in a toy store? Every time I see them play I get that same feeling. And well, if you aren’t the kind of person that admires complete instrument virtuosity and mandolin acrobatics, well, no worries. Mr. Ryan, also has a hell of a voice and a penchant for writing some damn fine songs. Anyway you look at it, Jimmy is the man.
Noise: Mr. Ryan, how are you doing today?
Jimmy: Damn fine!
Noise: I’m having a beer. What is your drink of choice?
Jimmy: Depends on the time of day. French Roast in the am, Barry’s tea in the afternoon. Jameson’s Irish whiskey in the pm, and always drink lots of water throughout the day!
Noise: Good call. Got to stay hydrated. When did you start playing the mandolin and how did you choose that particular instrument?
Jimmy: In high school we all jammed on guitars we’d grab out of the pile of instruments. No one ever grabbed the mandolin. I’m always attracted to the underdog so I thought I’d take it up. Also, I’ve often wondered about the “rebellion” that is rock ’n’ roll when all the bands have had the same instrumentation for the last 50 years.
Noise: How the hell did you get so good?
Jimmy: It’s all I’ve ever done. Considering that, I should be a lot better.
Noise: Where are some of your favorite places to play locally?
Jimmy: I don’t have any super favorites but there are a bunch of really good places. I like Atwood’s; they treat you very well. Also there is the Lizard and Toad. Plough & Stars has gotten a lot better. I like T.T.’s too. They only let me play there about once a year but I like that place. I like places with professional sound—anywhere I don’t have to bring a lot of stuff.
Noise: So let’s be honest, you really got into mandolin because it was the easiest instrument to lug to the gig, wasn’t it?
Jimmy: Ha, yeah. No but my dad was psyched. Before mandolin, I got my start playing bass and had this huge bass rig.
Noise: You were born in Birmingham, New York. How does a hillbilly rock ’n’ roller like you end up in Boston rather than Nashville or Austin?
Jimmy: I guess I’m not that smart. I have hung out a fair amount in both places and have a lot of friends in each. I’m from the Northeast. I married a Medford girl. I enjoy all the overeducated people around here. I mostly play around here and in New York these days. Plus we got the ocean and the mountains and complete sentences.
Noise: What made you choose to play the “A” style mandolin, which has the basic teardrop shape as opposed to the flashier “F” style mandolin?
Jimmy: Dude, I’m a lefty. You don’t find left-handed “F” models in your local music shop. An “A” style is easy to make lefty. It’s a right-handed world.
Noise: Who are some of your favorite mandolin players?
Jimmy: Bill Monroe. Jesse McReynolds, U. Srinivas, and lots of others. That Chris what’s-his-name (Thile …Ed.) is good too. Locally, John McGann, Howie Tarnower, Matt Glover are incredible.
Noise: My first introduction to you was on “In Spite of Me” off Morphine’s Cure for Pain album. How did you meet Mark Sandman and what was it like working with him?
Jimmy: Mark was in “Treat Her Right” when I met him. We’d get together and jam a lot. There were a bunch of musicians coming and going and he recorded everything. We didn’t discuss the songs. He just start and we’d jump in. Most of the time you’d forget all about the song until he’d play you the finished mixed version. That was the case with “In Spite Of Me.” We always had a good time. Very chill and musical.
Noise: Your old band, the Blood Oranges, is often credited in the same movement along with Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets for starting the alt-country movement. How did the Blood Oranges form and what were they all about?
Jimmy: I started that band with drummer Ron Ward (singer in SpeedBall Baby and Size Queen). We were in competing new wave/ska bands in Vermont and ran into each other at one of Boston’s long gone punk rock joints and decided to start a band that mixes the rocking with the picking and the lonesome.
Noise: What was the inspiration/catalyst for re-releasing the Blood Oranges Corn River album?
Jimmy: I guess Hi-N-Dry thought it would be cool to put it out now that a genre exists for it, alt-country/americana. When it first came out it was just weird and I’m very proud of that.
Noise: You have gotten to share a stage with tons of amazing performers. You’ve also worked in the recording studio with some amazing folks like Warren Zevon, Boiled in Lead, and Catie Curtis. What were some of your highlights?
Jimmy: Recording with Laura Cantrell a couple years ago at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio where the Beatles had their radio show. Recording with the Beacon Hillbilles on some Japanese pop dude’s record at Onkyo Haus Studios in Tokyo. Recording for three days in Nashville with Steve Earle on Cheri Knight’s record was a trip. Recording up at Hi-N-Dry was always a pleasure. I miss that place already. I recently played on the Rex Complex’s recording of the Stanley Brother’s “Stone Walls and Steel Bars.” Fucking intense.
Noise: What have been some of your most memorable shows?
Jimmy: I got to open for Bill Monroe a few times when I was a lad and living in Vermont. My old Vermont band, the Decentz, played some shows with the Ramones and English Beat. Blood Oranges used to play at CBGB a lot. Always a toxic blast. We did some shows with the Oak Ridge Boys a few times. Wooden Leg got to play on most of a Morphine tour. That was quite fun! Playing in Europe with Catie Curtis and Laura Cantrell is fantastic. My band Hayride is something I wish I could do more often. Duke, Beardo, and Mazzone are ninjas!
Noise: You’ve been around the scene long enough to pick up a few things—any advice for musicians starting out in this business?
Jimmy: You’ve got to play for the love of it. The business stuff will follow.
Noise: You can rock out harder than just about anybody I know on the mandolin, yet you are deeply rooted in the folk scene, which at least seems a lot quieter and tame on the surface. How did that happen?
Jimmy: I’ve always enjoyed putting the mandolin in different musical contexts, hence the rocking. Mandolin is traditionally a folk instrument so it’s only natural there.
Noise: Rumor has it that you also teach mandolin classes. What makes someone become a good musician, what makes someone become a good mandolin player?
Jimmy: Well my stock answer is “quit school, quit your job, smoke pot and play all day long, then play a gig at night. Barring that approach, buy a mandolin and get in touch with me. I’ll have you playing “Wild Thing” like there is no tomorrow within an hour.
Noise: I know mandolin is your primary instrument, but you can rock on a ton of different instruments. In addition to being one of the best session guys around, you play mandocello in a band called Little Guitar with Sean Staples, another great mandolinist. What’s that like?
Jimmy: That is a ball. I play the mandocello, kind of like the bass in that band. Sean and I try to write a new song for every gig. We are going to play Atwood’s every Wednesday. That’ll be cool.
Noise: Who are some of your favorite people to check in the Boston music scene?
Jimmy: I mostly just hangout in Cambridge/Somerville for my musical needs. Tim Gearan, Dennis Brennen, Miss Sarah Borges, Seamonsters, Christian McNeill, Rex Complex, Klezwoodz, Duke Levine, Lyle Brewer. I’m just a name-dropper at this point.
Noise: You aren’t just a great player but a great songwriter as well. Does it bother you or honor you when someone covers/butchers one of your songs?
Jimmy: I’m always glad to have my songs rendered by others. It’s very kind.
Noise: Good ’cause I’m going to butcher “Face Up” on our next album. Man, I love that song of yours. Where do you see the future of music headed? Are you worried? Are you optimistic?
Jimmy: Music will always take care of itself. We don’t matter all that much. We juggle it for a while and then pass it on.
Noise: That’s a cool way to look at it. How long do you think you’ll keep on juggling music? What’s in the future for Jimmy Ryan?
Jimmy: I think I’ll keep on doing it until I’m dead. Ha! I don’t know how to do anything else! Ha! In the mean time, I hope to record a new album with Laura Cantrell this summer. Co-writing songs with folks has been fun lately… and you can always find me at Atwood’s.