As crowds milled about the Muny grounds on LouFest's sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks back, Ryan Koenig was in a familiar spot: onstage, crumpled cowboy hat on his head and raggedy bandana around his neck, offering harmony vocals and musical accompaniment for Jack Grelle's set of rag-tag honky-tonk tunes.
It's a stance that music fans all over the globe have come to recognize, albeit in a slightly different context. Koenig has been Pokey LaFarge's right-hand man for nearly a decade, comprising the original South City Three (along with Adam Hoskins and Joey Glynn) and standing pat as the band has grown in size and sound.
But that Sunday afternoon show was just a momentary diversion amid a characteristically busy week for Koenig; he premiered his new record, Two Different Worlds, with a patio set at the Whiskey Ring on Friday night, and immediately after LouFest he bee-lined to take part in the festival's bastard offspring, PuFest, as a member of the queer-country outfit Lavender Country. The next night he takes a breather and cracks a can of Stag at the Tick Tock Tavern to talk about his new record, not long before he performs a solo acoustic set at the Tower Grove East bar. He'll do a gig at Foam and a set with the long-running trio Rum Drum Ramblers at Joe's Café later in the same week.
So St. Louis music fans have had the chance to see Koenig's development and varied styles for some time. But with the early-October release of his solo debut, the singer and multi-instrumentalist has gathered the many strands of his musical identity — and many local musicians — to create a spirited and varied record that fluidly captures country, rock and Mexican folk music into a cohesive whole.
Opening track "Miss Edie" starts the record with a jolt as Koenig and his band channel some of the south-of-the-border garage rock typified by the Sir Douglas Quintet, with a wheezy combo organ leading the charge. Koenig calls his deep-dive into Doug Sahm's catalogue "one of those discoveries where it all makes sense now," and he gets more explicit in his use of Mexican song forms later in the disc. The bilingual "Podemos Si Te Quieres" tips a cap to Marty Robbins with accordion and a note-perfect guitar solo filling in the blanks.
"I've always been writing with the idea of an electric band in mind, and I didn't really have that band until recently," Koenig says. He notes LaFarge's drummer Matt Meyer and Grelle's steel player Tom Heath as some of the missing pieces that helped flesh out his idealized sound, but he also cherry-picked players from around town (many affiliated with his label, Big Muddy Records) to prop up these songs. A coterie of local guitarists — including John Horton of the Bottle Rockets and Koenig's longtime Rum Drum Ramblers bandmate Mat Wilson — each contributed to two songs, giving a distinct imprint on each track.
"Ben [Majchrzak, recording engineer] said, 'You picked the best guitar player for every song. Their creativity makes each song what it is, and I can sing every one of their solos — which means it's good,'" says Koenig.
At the Tick Tock, the crowds have already gathered more than an hour before Koenig's set is scheduled to start — there's even some competitive table-jockeying happening near the makeshift stage. But even for a relatively low-impact gig like this, Koenig refuses to stay in one lane — he's carried two armloads of instruments to the venue, and he intends to use all of them.
"I'm gonna try a lot of stuff," he says. "Lots of times with just solo stuff, it's acoustic-guitar strummy, tear-in-the-beer type stuff, and there's gonna be a lot of that, but I also brought my resonator to do some finger-picking. I may try a fiddle and singing number too — gonna underline 'try.'"
The move from sideman to frontman isn't entirely a new role for Koenig. A few years back, he and his wife Kellie Everett released an LP as the Southwest Watson Sweethearts, and he has performed intermittently as Lonesome Cowboy Ryan and his Dried-Up Teardrops. So while being front and center isn't a new sensation, it does carry more weight than being a cog in a much bigger machine.
"It keeps the nerves in check, that's for sure," Koenig says of his tenure with LaFarge's band. "You can play to, god, probably 10,000 people — at that point who's counting? I can't even see the end of this crowd.
"But at the same time, the shows I play with him when there are that many people, I'll go and play some barroom with Jack or Kellie or myself and there are ten people there," he continues. "You have to be able to work both — and both are humbling. 'Why is it me playing for 10,000 people? This is incredible.' But you're still gonna play for ten people sometimes."