The Chat Room: Ryan McMahon
Ryan McMahon likes to tell people he’s a late bloomer. But when looking at the body of work the 43-year-old from Ladysmith, British Columbia has amassed since 2006, he certainly has made up for lost time. With six releases under his own name, and one with his side project Lion Bear Fox, Ryan has established himself as one of western Canada’s most prolific singer/songwriters, leading to multiple Vancouver Island Music Awards and supporting slots for Burton Cummings, Mother Mother, Lee Harvey Osmond and others.
The latest addition to Ryan’s catalogue will be Live Now, officially out Nov. 10 via his own Elbowroom Recordings label, and his first album since 2019’s In Line For A Smile. It’s a collection he has been eager to share since the pandemic forced him to pause all musical activity. That work resumed in early 2022 with the recording of the song “One More Fire,” arranged through the help of Juno-nominated country artist Aaron Pritchett, a longtime supporter of Ryan’s who connected him with his son Jordan and partner Danielle Marie, a successful Vancouver-based production team.
With its uplifting, pop-friendly construction still grounded in banjos and mandolins, “One More Fire” set a high bar. Nevertheless, it kicked open Ryan’s creative floodgates, resulting a batch of songs he describes as containing more hope and optimism than any of his previous material. A second single in the summer of 2023, “Lost & Found,” took things in slower direction, but powered by Scotty Smith’s shimmering pedal steel, it became the perfect soundtrack for gazing at the stars and taking stock of your life. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel inspired when hearing Ryan sing, “I know I gotta get out of my own way, and maybe I’m learning how / There’s time to make a change for better, I think I’m ready now.”
That may be the overriding message at the core of Live Now, as Ryan personally sees the album as the first he’s done that fully captures what he set out to achieve. It’s also contained within Ryan’s latest single, “Sometimes Life’s Amazing,” an honest reflection of the impact music has made in Ryan’s life, and the impact he hopes his music can have on listeners. Roots Music Canada is proud to debut the video for “Sometimes Life’s Amazing” below. For more information, go to ryanmcmahon.com or his Bandcamp page.
Was there something specific that inspired you to write “Sometimes Life’s Amazing?”
I think I’m getting to an age where some of life’s adversities are actually starting to make me laugh. The turn of phrase in the chorus came to me some time ago, and I’d been meaning to build a song around it. When I finished it, it came out sounding like a Black Crowes/Sheepdogs-y major key jam. I love playing it; it’s one of the more lighthearted songs in my set, and it exists to kind of remind myself and the listener that no matter what awaits us around life’s corners, a lot of us have similar journeys that are equal parts pleasure and pain — if we’re lucky.
What do you feel your producers Jordan Pritchett and Danielle Marie brought out in your music?
They’re just a great team. They’re a couple, so it’s interesting watching them hunker behind the board and whisper in each others’ ears while it’s all going down. They’re both younger than me, something I more than welcomed for this record. I wanted energy and enthusiasm and hope to be woven throughout the album, and I think they helped provide that. They pushed me into unfamiliar territory, but I was also able to forge my own path and fight for things that I wanted as well. It was a truly collaborative experience.
The album overall exudes positivity and hope. Do you believe that going through the Covid years changed your attitude in general?
I don’t think Covid alone has brought me here, but having all that forced time off to recalibrate certainly had an effect on me for sure. I don’t take any gig for granted anymore, and I’m quicker to recognize joyful moments as they happen. I’ve struggled through some mental health stuff over the years, but I do feel I’ve come out the other side just in time for my second act, which most people will probably see as my first!
You’ve been playing shows with Burton Cummings this summer. How has that experience been?
The Burton tour was unforgettable — for a lot of reasons. I’d done a couple of one-offs opening for Burton and his crew a few years back, but when I was invited to do the entire Western Canadian leg, I really dug in. On a personal level, it was great to be in large spaces like the Enmax in Lethbridge and the Royal in Victoria, which was where I saw my first show — BB King. That all was incredibly gratifying to me. But on a professional level, watching the guys go out there every night and give their all, then come backstage afterwards laughing and carrying on and making me feel like a true cog in the wheel, that was a sight to behold. I hope when I’m in my sixties and seventies that I’m still lucky enough to be doing this job, and having that much fun all the while. I didn’t want that run to end.
What are some of your plans leading up to, and following, the release of Live Now?
To be honest, I feel like a lot of the heavy lifting is done for a little bit. Singles are rolling out, and I’m really focused on recharging my batteries and spending time close to home right now. I’m paddle boarding, hiking and trying to keep my life balanced. As a result, I’m finding I’m writing new songs again.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Joshua Ray Walker / What Is It Even? (Soundly Music)
When Joshua Ray Walker burst onto the country scene in 2019, it seemed a further defining moment of acceptance for an artist whose image was the complete antithesis of what the Nashville establishment demands. With an oversized personality and visual flair to match his large frame, the Dallas native’s voice and natural storytelling ability ultimately triumphed in the face of America’s increasing viciousness toward anything out of the ordinary, making this new collection of covers by female artists sound almost like a victory lap. Opening with a vintage soul arrangement of Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You,” Walker’s primary goal is just to have fun with some of his favourite songs. While this leads to some choices that lean toward the strange, specifically his interpretation of the Cranberries’ “Linger,” on which he manages to outdo Dolores O’Riordan’s Irish brogue with his Texas twang, most often Walker elicits smiles with renditions of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and especially a roadhouse-ready version of Cher’s “Believe.” Walker also unintentionally pays tribute to Sinead O’Connor with his “Nothing Compares 2 U,” yet in doing so stakes his own formidable claim to the song. What Is It Even? is a suitable title for this collection on a certain level, but the general answer is that it’s helping Walker become the crossover star that Nashville needs at this moment.
Vince Gill & Paul Franklin / Sweet Memories: The Music Of Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys (MCA Nashville)
When I had the chance to ask Vince Gill how he felt being regarded as one of Nashville’s greatest living guitarists, his answer was, “Man, when you’re in Nashville, your cab driver is the best guitar player you’ve ever heard.” That type of modesty has served Gill well throughout his long and illustrious career that currently finds him in a full-time touring role with the Eagles. But Gill’s long-running partnership with pedal steel master Paul Franklin always seems to bring out the best in him whenever they are able to collaborate, and this new tribute to Ray Price is no different. Price’s run of hits throughout the 1950s and ‘60s starting with “Crazy Arms” is always worthy of celebration, but on Sweet Memories, Gill and Franklin largely avoid the obvious in favour of some deep-cut ballads like “I’d Fight The World,” and a glorious update of “Weary Blues From Waitin’” (written by Hank Williams). As expected, the overall performances are flawless, but the appeal of Sweet Memories rests upon the intimacy Gill and Franklin created in the studio, something not possible half a century ago. If you’re a fan of anyone involved in this record—or pure country music in general—Sweet Memories is a must-listen.
Playing For The Man At The Door: Field Recordings From The Collection Of Mack McCormick 1958-1971 (Smithsonian Folkways)
Although he’s not as celebrated as John and Alan Lomax, Robert “Mack” McCormick’s work in documenting early blues—specifically his essential research into the life of Robert Johnson—contributed just as much to the evolution of American music. Now McCormick, who died in 2015 at the age of 85, appears to be getting his due as the Smithsonian Institute has taken control of his archives, with plans to share them in various forms. On the heels of his long anticipated Johnson biography’s publication this Spring comes Playing For The Man At The Door, a three-disc, 66-track collection of field recordings made during an interesting period when traditional blues was being transformed by young, white rock and rollers. A few of the artists McCormick captured, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb already had popular reputations, but the majority were unknown and remained that way. It naturally makes from some fascinating listening—and a need for more in-depth analysis than I can provide here—but rest assured that any country blues fan will be astounded by the sheer amount of previously unknown artists contained on this stellar package.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Buddy & Julie Miller / “Don’t Make Her Cry” (New West Records)