What I’m Reading: Singer-Songwriter Matthew Ryan

– Photo via matthewryanonline.com/photos

It’s probably not fair that Harlan Howard’s name gets mentioned most often now in reference to his famous observation that a great country song is just three chords and the truth, but I’ve always taken what he was saying with the same tone the great sportswriter Red Smith had in mind when he said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.” I’ve also always felt that Howard’s general idea extends far beyond just country songs, and that there’s a slick, formulaic cynicism listeners – the kind Moreland or Howard play(ed) to – know when they hear it.

It’s a short trip from underestimating how much effort goes into doing a thing well to simply devaluing that same thing. So it’s not surprising, years on from Howard’s pithy summation, to get a John Moreland, singing that “I heard truth is what songs are for/Nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.” Fortunately that doesn’t stop Moreland or many others who write songs from giving a damn about them.

You’ll find Matthew Ryan high on that list of writers and performers who give a damn about songs, and who approach writing them with real concern for both sound and sense.

Reviews of his early albums (May Day and East Autumn Grin in particular) made Springsteen comparisons. Tom Waits’s name cropped up at some point as well, if I remember right, but he never got stuck in, “Steve Forbert is the next Bob Dylan territory.” He stayed restless; wrote a song about Lucinda Williams and recorded another with her; named another one after a Wilfred Owen poem; brought in electronic elements as needed and played pure rock when that felt right; tinkered with song structure; and generally carved out a space of his own among the crowded singer-songwriter field.

The “business” side of the music business has never been kind to artists, perhaps especially the ones of Ryan’s stripe, who don’t put themselves through the mad contortions of chasing trends. In 2014, Mischa Pearlman’s interview with Ryan for Consequences of Sound was called, “Matthew Ryan and Seventeen Years of Kicking on the Door.” In that interview, he talks about a time when he had the urge to pack it in, to step away from making music. The door may never give way, but if you want to bet he’ll stop kicking, I’d be happy to take that wager, and your money.

The rasp in his voice is still there on Hustle Up Starlings. The introspective quality is, too, but there’s a generous helping of defiance as well, the kind that runs through his previous album, Boxers, and which, in truth, it turns out I’d missed at times, and which he hadn’t added as large a dose of since May Day, to my ears.

MR album cover

– Photo via https://matthewryan.bandcamp.com/album/hustle-up-starlings

And so, there are fewer laments and more declarations,  maybe, at the risk of oversimplifying (and the added risk of detecting something tonally that he never intended). This year marks twenty years since May Day, ten since Matthew Ryan vs. The Silver State, but here Ryan is, in full stride, with a new album as vital as anything his younger self cooked up.

As a writer, Ryan mentions Raymond Carver’s poems, and they’re a perfect touchstone, but it’s easy to see him as a kindred spirit of B.H. Fairchild, too, witting or unwitting on Ryan’s part, and others, Robert Olmstead or Jim Harrison maybe. Hints of the late, great, criminally neglected Thomas Williams, maybe, who so loved the people and ways, the joys and hardships of of New Hampshire. Ditto John Casey (Spartina and Compass Rose), and Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief. Maybe a dash of Richard Ford.  He’s an American songwriter, resilient and largehearted, and even though he carries around such a large target, somehow he keeps going, keeps searching. As to what he’s reading and why, I’ll let him tell you more:

1) What are you reading? 

I have a collection of Raymond Carver poems called All of Us on the desk next to the pencils and clean sheets of paper on the desk in my writing room. It’s always there or within reach. Brian Eno has an amazing collection of flash cards called Oblique Strategies, it’s intended as a tool while recording music (or any creative effort I would imagine) to help undo a block or dead end. Both Carver and Eno have a knack for cutting to the chase. There’s a kind of lightning in the fact regardless of desire. 

2) Why are you reading it? 

Carver’s poems hit me like others might receive a psalm. They always center and calm me. They feel like the world that I feel and observe. I’m so grateful he picked up a pen or typewriter… However he did it, I’m grateful. Always.

Sometimes if the trail goes cold or I’m feeling stuck in my own efforts, I’ll open the book and read the first verse that catches my eye. Other times I just want to read something beautiful. It’s never really to borrow influence for what I’m working on, but a clarification of ethos. Poetry is interesting to me, it depends on the music of the reader’s own mind and experience. There’s a real intimacy there. I think we need more space in our minds. I love that about Raymond Carver, he offers a space that allows us to really feel our humanity. All of it. 

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