By Chris Mosser
Funny how life is: At the point you feel the lowest — like life has smacked you down and is now pouring warm beer on your leg — sometimes it turns out that you actually may be on the edge of greatness. “Everything happens for a reason” may be the tiredest of all the hallowed entries in the Tired Cliche Hall of Fame, but it is indeed intriguing how setbacks frequently give way to opportunity.
I talked to Ryan Beaver on the phone from Nashville, and immediately the theme of our conversation turned to the idea of finding strength via adversity. The Emory, Texas-born singer-songwriter made his debut with 2008’s Under the Neons, which stands as an example of Beaver’s early knack for simple beauty in songcraft and storytelling. Three years later, he released the slightly edgier and darker Constant, showcasing a more aggressive style that, perhaps in retrospect, seems to reflect a growing sense of frustration. Both albums fared fairly well regionally (with the single “Hate” off Constant peaking at No. 2 on the Texas Music Chart), leading to a steadily growing Texas fanbase and co-writes on records by fellow rising Lone Stars Kyle Park and Rob Baird. But the real breakout success that Beaver’s talent and competence warranted just wasn’t forthcoming, so three years ago he did as many in that situation do: he headed for Nashville to concentrate more on making headway in the songwriting industry there. After that, at least from our perspective here in Texas, Ryan Beaver just plain, well, disappeared.
Until now. Beaver’s third album, RX, which ends that silence when it drops on Friday May 6, shows he’s spent his time away honing that art of darkness to a razor-sharp edge — quite literally with the lead single “Dark,” a powerful and gutsy return ultimatum, and in songs like “If I Had A Horse,” a gorgeous piano-based outlaw lament that pines for dangerous glory days gone by. “I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder to do something better than I have,” he says, “to better myself and say, ‘I can do this, I’m tellin’ y’all.’” Having fought long and hard for the prize and now armed with a stellar new collection of songs of remarkable intensity and beauty, Beaver’s back.
I guess it would have been about three years ago, from the Austin perspective, that Ryan Beaver dropped off the radar.
Yeah. I moved to Nashville on June 3, 2013. I had made up my mind to move here in February.
What initially sparked that move?
No ill will towards the music fans at all, but just … looking around and not seeing the kind of talent that I wanted to see, and that I’d come to expect. I didn’t see people pushing the envelope as much; it seemed to be about cashing in. Which, everyone’s gotta pay their bills but, you know, it’s finding that balance. As Jack Ingram has said, it’s about finding the balance between art and business — and, what you’re okay with doing. And it’s not like I found anything all that different in Tennessee, because it’s very much the same way — but I found a very different sort of thing happening here, too.
Let’s back up just a bit. Tell me about the nature of the barriers you experienced here in Texas.
Well, there actually weren’t really any barriers, which is what was awesome about Texas. You could make a record and book a show and go out and play it without really being on the radio. But I think when you look up at the guys on the posters on the wall, you have an attitude about these people: how they worked, how they pushed the envelope, how they tried to out-do each other in a competitive spirit, and write great songs — [those guys] were really doing something different that was done in a really skillful way, which is what I always wanted to do. And I feel like there were a handful of people doing that, but I just didn’t see a movement. A lot of people talk about Austin in the early ’90s and late ’80s — I think there was more of a movement happening then. My time there was amazing and I wouldn’t change it for anything. But as far as musicians pushing each other to push the country genre — there wasn’t much going on in terms of innovation.
I can agree with the idea that Texas music has become a pretty well-defined product, that one can conceivably succeed within by conforming to the model. But you know, you could translate that to hip-hop or “bro country,” too. It’s one thing to have what could be called a marketplace norm, but at the local level there really needs to be some more change.
Right. There are some guys doing that, and I think there’s more of that happening in Texas now that when I was there last. But at the time … maybe it’s just my perspective on it, but it felt as though I was spinning my wheels.
You were trying to do something different, but didn’t feel like there was a place for that here?
Maybe it was more trying to do what I wanted to do in my head, and do it well, and then find an audience that would appreciate it. I owe everything to everyone who continues to listen to my music — those early adopters, most of whom are in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico. And playing the Southwest is … it still feels like home, and that’s fun. But I never set out to make music strictly for a region, as much as I am in love with Texas and the music that comes from there. You know, you have to fly if you’re a bird, and I wanted to see how far I could push myself.
And what did you find in Nashville?
What I found was the exact same thing that I disliked in Austin! It was immediately the feeling that the grass is not necessarily greener. But what I also found was an abundance of singers, players, songwriters, and creatives in all facets of art who were running together and supporting each other, but also pushed each other, and inspired each other. There’s not a night of the week that I can’t go to different clubs or venues and hear different stuff, from blues to folk to country to rock, and be inspired. It was more of, like I said, the feeling of a movement happening, and that was huge for me — it made me want to get up in the morning and work harder, spend more time with the pen and the instrument. Another part of my move here was that I picked up a staff writing job, like a 9 to 5 for a musician, where you show up, and you write songs. And when I’m asked what that was like, I say well, I wrote some of the best songs I’ve ever written in my life, and also some of the worst. And I think that’s inevitable — but I did write 360 songs over four years’ time.
Do those songs now belong to the outfit that you were working for, or are they yours?
It’s kind of a co-venture thing. The songs that I put out myself are mine, but if I write a song on a Monday, and they’re able to take it to Blake Shelton and he decides to record it, they own a publishing share. But as a writer, that song’s still mine. So, you know, with that comes its ups and downs, but at least you’re not digging ditches.
You’re doing your craft for pay.
Yeah. Some days you can’t see it, but you’re still crafting, learning the art. You’re dissecting songs in a way you never did, from hooks to structure to melodies. And I’ve learned more about songwriting in the last four years than I would have in any other situation. And you start going back to all the old songs you love, and you play along with them again … you know, you write that many songs and nine or 10 of ’em are gonna be all right. So, that’s how this new project came about — songs I’d written that I truly love, and feel like I can stand by ’em, and put my name on ’em and be proud of it. The record’s called RX, and some folks have started to call it “Prescription.” It’s named after a song that I feel embodies the record. I’ve told people it was so much fun and so therapeutic to make this record, to work on these songs with people I truly love to be around and be inspired by — it was honestly doing something for me internally. Getting excited about doing this again, it was like medicine, like the perfect prescription. So, my thought process is, hopefully these songs do the same thing for the listener. That they can take something away from it that helps them, or that they can relate to, something that hits the heart, where it’s more than just something they hear — they can feel it.
As good as the move has been for you in terms of developing your songwriting, what impact has it had on your performing career? Has your life in Nashville allowed you to play out as much as you used to?
I don’t play as many shows as I have in the past, but I’m actually playing and singing more than I ever did. I’m really looking forward to going out and playing — it’s been a minute since I played some of my favorite places. It’s going to be interesting to see who wants to come out and hear some of the old stuff along with the new stuff. And just to see what that’s gonna be like. Not everything’s changed. I’m still playing with a couple of Austin guys in my band (Clint Simmons and Keenan LeVick), and these are guys who’ve been playing with me since like 2007. And I’ve got a couple of guys here in Nashville playing as well. One thing about doing this that I’ve really enjoyed is the people you meet along the way. That’s the bonus that you don’t really think about before you jump into music: People in all facets and jobs in the music industry, you meet these people and become friends, and see everybody go through changes and play in different bands, and then you know, you come back together and get to play again. It’s a great feeling. To get to play with people after so many years is a treat.
So all in all, it sounds like the gamble to try out a new town has worked out real well for you.
Yeah. It’s basically allowed me to continue to be a full-time musician, and to try and work at my craft and learn. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, is get better at this thing and be able to pay my bills, and hopefully along the way write something that’s really good. But that’s up to the people; you don’t really get to guess that. You know, it has been too long since I put out some music — and I think another project will come along a lot quicker. We’ll see what happens with this one.