It's an irony of the genre that the titans of Americana, for all their blue-collar bona fides, have seldom worked for a union wage. Bruce Springsteen has joked that his recently launched run on Broadway is his first true work-a-day job, and Jay Farrar's bandmates in Uncle Tupelo used to razz him for singing about the plight of coal miners while working at his mother's used bookstore.
So there's a little poetic justice that the charged, twangy alt-country on Andrew Ryan & the Travelers' debut LP bears the traces of rust stains and callused hands. For many years Ryan spent a good part of the year away from his young family and his south St. Louis home to work construction jobs at power plants and refineries.
"I was staying in Wisconsin, working twenty yards from Lake Michigan; I was there for eleven months," Ryan recalls. The spartan living conditions were less than ideal, but they prompted Ryan to write a number of songs between shifts. "I was staying up in the attic and I wrote the second half of the album up there. All I had was an air mattress, a folding chair and a turned-over laundry basket. And maybe some empty wine bottles," he says with a laugh.
One song from that period, "Lake Effect," is illustrative of Ryan's technique on Across Currents. An easy acoustic guitar strum gives way to an overdriven lead guitar line and soaring fiddle, while an unobtrusive piano picks out a counterpoint in the corner. As the song begins to churn, Ryan sings of dislocation and displacement, the brutal weather standing in for the pain of being far away from home.
"I have a seven-year-old daughter," he says, recalling the long months away from home. "She was one, then the next thing you know she's walking, then she's lost a tooth."
Ryan has been spending more time at home of late, and his relatively new band occupies a fair bit of his time. While the album is credited to Ryan and the Travelers, there wasn't much of a set band for the recording, though the Travelers now play around town as a quartet. Marie Marotti, who plays guitar in the band, sings harmony throughout much of the album, and Patrick McCann plays bass on a few tracks. But the bulk of the recording was done by Ryan himself — a fitting task given that he studied audio engineering in school and even interned with Steve Albini at his famed Electrical Audio in Chicago ("He was a really nice guy, actually," Ryan says of the famously opinionated engineer). In a sense, taking on the recording of Across Currents was a culmination of his work behind the board, behind the drum kit and his more recent role behind a microphone.
"I got to the point where I could get out from behind the glass and give it a shot," Ryan, who was primarily a drummer in local bands like Oh! Caledonia, says. His move to frontman was a tougher transition, however.
"It was kind of weird — at first I was petrified to do an open mic; it's totally different than sitting behind a drum set," he says. "I did two open mics and then it was like a light switch — I got more comfortable doing it."
On the album, Ryan sings with conviction and embodies the stories and emotions contained in these tracks, but you'll never confuse him for a technically adroit singer. His breathy delivery on a tune like "Disingenuous," sweetened by Marotti's harmonies and rangy lead lines, rarely gets above a whisper but sells a kind of knock-around persona that Ryan's narrators slip easily into.
There's a bit more heart and soul on "Out of My Head," which comes late on the album. Ryan wrote the song after the death of his friend Cory Goodman who, along with another friend, was shot and killed in the Grove last year. Ryan says it was pure happenstance that he wasn't out that night with his drinking buddy, and there's a touch of survivor's guilt and palpable loss in his performance.
Across Currents was released on CD and on streaming platforms earlier this year, and a vinyl edition recently came back from the pressing plant as well. While it's a costly endeavor for a young band to take, Ryan figured that since he recorded and produced the album himself at his home studio, it was worth the money — even if he did have to sell his drum kit to help fund the pressing.
Chalk it up to another piece of poetic justice; Ryan says that unburdening his kit was a kind of "goodbye farewell to the drums" as he steps into his new role as a frontman.
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