Country music is chock-full of great drinking songs, but Fort Worth singer-songwriter Mike Ryan, 28, may have recorded the classic ode to toking up on his smart, addictive new album, Bad Reputation. “Red Eye Flight” is an irreverent ode to the joys of forgoing the local bar in favor of stretching out on the couch, rolling a fatty, and hitting the skies without benefit of an airline ticket: “When I’m feeling this kind of low / I can throw some vinyl on the stereo / Roll up my worries and watch ’em all go up in smoke.”
Ryan, a San Antonio native who moved to North Texas several years ago to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of North Texas, isn’t interested in becoming a spokesman for cannabis legalization. But he said there was never any question that “Red Eye Flight,” just one of a batch of tunes he co-wrote in Nashville with Brent Anderson and Chris Dubois, would make it onto the album.
“That song was gonna make the final cut come hell or high water,” Ryan said with a laugh. “We couldn’t wait to put it out there. It’s an easygoing song that I would want to listen to if I was going to light up … as long as I wasn’t driving around or doing anything important, of course. We wanted to talk about [smoking weed] without coming out and saying what it was. The song is sort of an innuendo machine.”
Bad Reputation, Ryan’s slick but musically vibrant follow-up to his 2012 debut, Night Comes Falling, is replete with sing-along-to-the-radio tunes full of clever puns and little psychological twists, the kind of songwriting that distinguished Nashville’s golden era in the 1960s and ’70s. Though he sings with a plaintive, boyish twang about slow dancing, breaking up, driving a pickup truck, and getting drunk over lost loves, Ryan doesn’t consider himself a pure country or Texas Music artist. Bad Reputation features lots of big, spiky electric guitars, and although Ryan grew up listening to ’90s country superstars like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, he also loved Elton John’s classic rock ballads and Stevie Wonder’s pop-soul masterpieces.
At this early stage, Ryan’s career is straddling the two worlds of big-business Nashville and the more rebellious Red Dirt/Texas genre: He signed a contract with Sea Gayle Music, one of Music City’s top independent song publishers, and he travels to Nashville once a month for songwriting sessions. But the album’s gritty storytelling, ubiquitous grungy guitars, and generally smart-ass attitude suggest he’s not quite ready to fall into the corporate commercial trap of Big Country.
“I’m not really into the whole ‘bro country/party all the time’ kind of music that you hear a lot on the radio,” he said. “I respect anyone for making the kind of music they want to make, but I like to tell stories. Maybe not about super-deep subject matter, but I like to try and move people emotionally with music. And I like to include as much rock and soul and blues in the sound as I can.”
Tracks from Night Comes Falling got a lot of airplay on stations specializing in Texas Music and Red Dirt across the Southwest, prompting him to go from playing acoustic solo shows at Fort Worth clubs to performing somewhere between 150 and 200 full-band shows per year in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, and Missouri. Though his success is still mostly regional, it’s been a hectic ride for a musician who admits that he dislikes staying away from home for too long. And he hates promoting his own music in interviews with journalists and radio station DJs. (“Hey, look at how cool I am!” is how he sheepishly describes talking about his work.) But he’s reached a level of success that has allowed him to pay a promotions company to do a lot of the showboating for him.
For the record, though, he’s grateful as hell to be making a comfortable living as a full-time musician and, in fact, hopes eventually to reach a national audience with his wry, heartfelt tuneage. He just doesn’t want to flare up and burn out too quickly as a performer.
“I’d love to win a Grammy or five,” he said with a laugh. “I’d love to play Madison Square Garden or Red Rocks Amphitheatre [in Colorado], but I’m more interested in steady growth than anything. I might never be another Garth Brooks or George Strait, but if I can keep making music that I’m proud of, I’ll be happy.”
8pm Thu w/Callahan Divide at Capital Bar, 3017 Morton St, FW. Free. 817-820-0049.