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Jimmy Ryan: A man and a mandolin

Jimmy Ryan is one of those names woven into the fabric of Americana music. He's not atop the marquee, mind you, a la Lucinda Williams or Buddy Miller, but his contributions are considerable. He's perhaps best-known as one of the principals in alt-country precursors the Blood Oranges, but his cheat sheet also includes the more bluegrass-based Beacon Hill Billies, the rural-rocking Wooden Leg, and in recent years, an extended stint with Boston folkie Catie Curtis. Ryan may well be residing in your record collection in less obvious places, too -- his oft-unconventional mandolin playing has colored songs by such varied artists as Morphine, Warren Zevon, Dumptruck, Boiled In Lead, Gerald Collier and Mary Gauthier.

That accounts for much of Ryan's last thirteen years. But the record store bins had never included a slot for an album under Jimmy Ryan's own name, until now. Finally, the 46-year-old Bostonian (a self-described "old fart") can lay claim to "solo artist" status with the arrival of his self-released Lost Diamond Angel.

But why now? The desire finally to make a name for himself, perhaps? The result of some mid-life, mortality-induced reflection, maybe? No sir. More like, there was nothing else to do, and a friend gave him a kick in the ass.

"Billy Conway made me do this solo record, he said I had to," Ryan says, on the phone from his Boston home, referring to the former Morphine drummer and fellow Curtis support player. "We were in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on the Catie Curtis tour looking for something to eat, and he goes, 'Jimmy, man, you've got to make a record. You've got all these dumbass songs, you might as well record them.'"

Not quite the stuff of legend, eh? But that seems to be Ryan's M.O. -- take it slow, don't sweat it. His immediate response to Conway: "Oh Bill, what do you want to make me do that for?"

"I really had no interest," he says. "I thought, 'There's enough shit out there. Everybody and their brother's making a record now.'" Besides, he adds, "I felt like I did enough anyway."

Still, the window of opportunity was there. Curtis chose 2002 as a time to go the solo route for a while, thus leaving Ryan and Conway with two months of blank calendar pages and the beckoning Hi N Dri Studio, late Morphine frontman Mark Sandman's loft space in Cambridge. So Ryan gave in. "I can't help writing songs because I love to do it, I've been doing it since I was a kid. It's like part of my daily process," he says. "You end up writing all these songs, you've got to do something with 'em."

What transpired, and what is documented on Lost Diamond Angel, is what Ryan now considers a high-water mark in his career. With Conway serving as producer (Trina Shoemaker arrived later to mix) and Curtis, Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley and others joining in, Ryan dug in at Hi N Dri, carving out songs and spending ample time exploring the sonic potential for his chosen instrument. "I learned a lot about the shit that I could do with a mandolin, like the five-string electric, using slides, delays and beat-up crusty old amps, and just experimenting with sounds," he says. "It was kind of guitaronic, but that was kind of fun."

Mandolins of seven different varieties are credited to Ryan: mandolin, mandocello, octave mandolin, eight-string electric mandolin, five-string electric mandolin, five-string electric slide mandolin, and, in one case, a "five-string nasty-ass mandolin." They jangle and are plaintive, they fuzz, they are atmospheric and dissonant, and yes, one is, in fact, "nasty-ass."

It's the continuation of a Ryan's chronic attempts to stretch the boundaries of his bluegrass foundation, which began in his earliest days in the upstate New York town of Binghamton. Sure, he got hip to Bill Monroe, but his ear for the mandolin had already been informed by Ry Cooder's ragged solo on the Rolling Stones' version of the blues dirge "Love In Vain". It sent Ryan down a path on which his playing was inspired not only by Saint Bill but by a far-ranging, often-obscure list of artists, including Tiny Moore of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, 1950s Brazilian choro artist Jacob Do Bandolim, and generations-spanning Egyptian oud player Hamza el Din.

So much for the traditional. It also explains why Ryan has always been at odds with the bluegrass community, which he considers extremely rigid in its definition of the form, not to mention "frighteningly Christian."

"What's the point of just rehashing what's been done over and over?" Ryan says. "That's what my bone to pick with bluegrass is now. When I got into it, maybe it was a '70s thing and everybody was stoned or something, but I thought it was all about keeping the traditions moving, making it a living tradition, not like, 'This is the song like Bill did it so we have to do it that way.' Bill already did it. Why the fuck do you need to do it all? Make up your own song."

There's another side to Ryan's resistance from the bluegrass norms: He likes to rock. "Learning how to get a mandolin loud was fun," he explains. "I had so many old amps and mandolins in the '70s that I thought sounded like shit, and now if I had them...I didn't understand that when an amp's breaking up perfectly, when an amp sounds like it's about to explode, that's a good thing."

Still, it's not as if Lost Diamond Angel is some sort of mandolin pyrotechnics display akin to the guitar heroics of a Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen. Various mando shades, like the stoned, Grateful Dead-like solo in "Hardtime", the stratospheric slide work on the album-opening "Lost And Found", and the alarm-clock-like rattle that serves as the lead in "Perfect Angel", are sonic delights. Often, though, parts played beyond the way God or Monroe intended come off simply sounding like electric guitars.

Ultimately, what makes Lost Diamond Angel a standout effort is the songs. Ryan knows how to craft.

Consider Ryan's solo debut a coalescence of his past artistic reaches. Much recalls the husky country-rock of the Blood Oranges (save the indelible tones of that band's co-vocalist Cheri Knight), while others are framed by bluegrass and acoustic country. He says that perhaps Lost Diamond Angel shows him in his truest light. "I'd like to think so. I mean, it sounds like the Oranges a lot, and with good reason. I can't help it, that's what comes out. That's my own personal noise."

A third shade, though, demonstrates Ryan's perhaps lesser-known appreciation for Morphine and its moody, sax-hued rock. That the album includes the work of two-thirds of that coveted, defunct group makes it inevitable -- Ryan favorably calls the combination of saxophone and mandolin "whack" -- but there's more to it than that. The memory of the aforementioned Mark Sandman, Ryan's longtime friend and the Morphine mastermind who died of a heart attack at age 46 in 1999, hangs heavy.

The pair met when the Blood Oranges toured with Sandman's Morphine precursor, Treat Her Right. Ryan then played on Morphine's 1993 album Cure For Pain. They also teamed up in the mid-'90s as the Pale Brothers -- "crazy, murky, weird, mambos, sambas, Brazilian kinda stuff," Ryan says, which the duo performed around Boston and captured on tape, but never released. (Ryan is now considering releasing this material.)

And when Ryan finally stepped up to make his first solo album, it was literally on Sandman's turf -- at times with a mandocello in his grasp that Sandman once bestowed on him "after a royalty check or something," Ryan recalls. "I had to feature it prominently."

Sandman was often on Ryan's mind during the making of Lost Diamond Angel. "I mean, we were in his house, for chrissakes," he says. "I could have shut my eyes and I could have been working with Mark."

Ryan says it was like "visiting" his old friend, and perhaps Sandman was thinking the same thing. "Sometimes it gets that really cold feeling, you know? There was one day when I was doing some overdubs with my buddy Jason [Raboin] engineering. We'd left the piano lid up, keys exposed, and when we were leaving we noticed the lid was down. It's like, 'Fuck, did you put that down?' 'No, did you put that down?' No. Let's get out of here!'"

Every swath of sax that pads several of the songs instantly conjures Sandman's smoky, lowdown musical genius. And while one song in particular addresses the loss ("Blossom", which also references the shooting death of another friend), you feel it elsewhere, and often -- even on "John Brown", a mournful tune ostensibly about the pre-Civil War anti-slavery militant. When Ryan sings, "There's a pain that's in my chest, that's a pain just like all the rest, it's a kind of pain that you can't let go, it's a kind of thing that we all must know," you can't help but feel that it's hitting him closer to home.

This spring, Ryan has plans to turn his attention to the Blood Oranges. He'll join Knight and guitarist Mark Spencer at Spencer's Brooklyn home to record new songs for what would be the group's first album since 1994's The Crying Tree.

Once again, Ryan attributes the impetus for the reunion to little more than free time. "Luckily Catie laid me off and I have nothing to do in April," he says. "And Cheri's making time from her yoga studies, and Mark's not on tour with Jay [Farrar] or anybody."

Plans beyond that for a completed Blood Oranges album are nothing but vague. "We're not really worried about that stuff. It's like, 'Oh fuck it. We can do whatever we want.' If somebody wants to do something [with it], great. We'd like to license stuff, maybe we can put out some of our old stuff too, reissue it. But we'll see what happens."

Meanwhile, he's taking that same casual attitude to pushing Lost Diamond Angel. He currently lacks a real record label or distribution deal --- details that hardly phase him. "I am so not a businessman," he says. Though he hasn't played solo very frequently, he'll take whatever comes his way, such as a recent tour across Canada by train with Fred Eaglesmith.

Wherever the gig, expect Ryan to wander into his artistic margins. He recalls a rare solo appearance on a bill with the post-Sandman collective Orchestra Morphine. "I opened up for [them] with the mandocello, 'cause that thing sounds huge going through a big-ass rock P.A.," he says. "It's fucking awesome, man. When the subwoofers kick in...whoa! I'm not kidding."