Matthew Ryan plans first Galveston performance
Few people are more in tune with the road than a working musician.
Over two decades, Matthew Ryan’s story-first, raspy rock songs have landed him on tour with The Gaslight Anthem, Badly Drawn Boy and Kasey Chambers. And he’s played South by Southwest in Austin. But when Ryan crosses the Galveston Causeway this October, it will be for the first time.
“I’ve never been to Galveston,” he said. “But, I love the experience of going places I’ve never been. It amazes me how it can connect you to a sense of our collective story.”
Ryan will perform at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 at St. Joseph’s Church, 2202 Ave. K, in Galveston, as part of a concert series organized by the Galveston Historical Foundation.
Even people who have never been to Galveston know it, sometimes by hurricanes or scandal.
But Ryan thinks of preservation when he thinks of the island.
“In this country, a lot of our past is getting built over,” he said. “It’s my understanding that Galveston has retained a lot of its history, so I’m excited to see that.”
For a guy who’s earned the praise of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, he’s easygoing and normal, someone who might be in your book club. Ryan was studying to be a school teacher at the University of Delaware before an ache to make music sent him trekking down a different path.
“Maybe it’s from growing up outside of Philly, and ‘Rocky’ being so much a part of my childhood, but I love the underdog story,” he said.
Hearing stories about his early life, it becomes clear that Ryan himself was an underdog.
“I grew up in a really rough area — next to a refinery and a river with bridges and decay,” he said. “The plants were closing, the projects flourished in the wrong ways. Even so, I learned so much from Chester and I would never devalue it.”
Ryan’s style has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, who deftly spins the blue collar experience into hit records. But it wasn’t The Boss who first showed him the creative potential that can come from a working-class upbringing.
It was The Blue Nile, a 1980s band that sounds like a cross between Frank Sinatra and Roxy Music, Ryan said.
“They were describing in Scotland the very same things that were going on right in front of me,” he said. “And, they put an elegance into the working-class experience. When I put the cassette in, I’ll never forget the revelation: We are not caricatures. We have depth and romance and hope. And, yes, we have despair, but that doesn’t have to be the only story we tell with a guitar.”
When he was a teenager, Ryan’s family left Chester, Penn., for the stable and calm of Newark, Del.
“A lot of what was in Chester was so combative and dark and atrophying and 45 minutes down the road, it was a whole different world,” Ryan said. “All of a sudden, I was thrust into a John Hughes movie. There was a college nearby and there was more music and, honestly, for the first time there were girls. There were very cute girls.”
Still, Ryan saw music like some kids in Texas see football — as a way out.
“Early on, I was running for my life,” he said. “I didn’t want to work in the factory like my stepfather and I didn’t have the patience for school.”
The choice to abandon his teaching degree paid off when, after moving to Nashville in 1993, Ryan met Teresa Ensenat, who helped launch Guns N’ Roses while at Geffen Records.
“Even in the early ‘90s, there were a ton of diverse bands and musicians in Nashville,” he said. “I started to play some clubs and a lot of people were coming out. It was an exciting time.”
Ensenat, who had since moved on to A&M Records, signed the young songwriter in 1996. He released two albums: “May Day” and “East Autumn Grin.”
Under the spotlight, Ryan was still an underdog and viscerally connected to his art. When pressure came from the label to write songs that weren’t right, he refused.
“I never quite made that mistake, but there were moments where I could have,” Ryan said. “On my second album, they wanted a song that sounded like Shawn Mullins. That wasn’t me at all.”
Since parting ways with A&M in 2000, Ryan has followed his gut, making only music that calls to be made.
“My only job is to write and record the very best songs that I can, to let the work be the engine,” he said.
After almost 20 years in Nashville, Ryan boxed up his belongings and moved just outside Pittsburgh to be near his family.
“As is true of anything you love, you go through periods of despair,” he said. “I felt embattled leaving Nashville, but that slowly fell away. I’ve realized if you are in tune with yourself, you can live anywhere.”
To record “Boxers,” his most recent album, Ryan headed north for Woodstock, N.Y. He spent long hours in the studio at Applehead Recording & Production, collaborating with producer Kevin Salem; The Gaslight Anthem guitarist Brian Fallon; drummer Joe Magistro, who played with Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes; and bassist Brian Bequette.
No matter where the road takes him, Ryan is sure of at least one thing: Art isn’t bound by geography.
“Whether you’re reading Faulkner or Wallace Stevens or Raymond Carver, or you’re listening to Lyle Lovett, there is a connection between all great pieces of work,” he said. “We move through conflict and the job is to come out whole.”
Visit galvestonhistory.org for more information or to buy tickets for Ryan’s Galveston performance.