It’s been a long time coming, but one of the Mobile area’s most active entertainers, Ryan Balthrop, has finally released his first solo album.
And a funny thing happened along the way: A guy generally known for good-time party entertainment dug in to reveal surprising depth, crafting a suite of material that touches repeatedly, and always upliftingly, on themes of maturity and mortality.
Balthrop officially takes the wraps off the self-titled project on July 12, with a CD release show at The Shed in Mobile. It’s part of WZEW-FM 92.1’s Second Tuesday concert series, meaning that the first hour of the show, starting at 7 p.m., will be broadcast live.
The sense that he’s on to something new starts with the opening track, “Love is a Car.” The title leads one to expect the familiar blues-rock trope of twisting automotive terms into double entendres, a la Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” or Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot.”
But it turns out to be something completely different: It’s about the way that relationships, like cars, break down and you’ve got to man up and invest in them if you want them to take you further. “This old car keeps breaking down/ fix her back up and she gets us around,” he sings.
Balthrop describes the music as “neo-folk and blues with an island flavor.” Blues dominates on the first track, but the island flavor comes on strong as the album unfolds; the arrangements are eclectic — “I’ve got everything from pedal steel to steel drums” Balthrop says — but it always sounds like the product of one man’s taste.
Fittingly for a solo debut, the album draws from many phases of Balthrop’s career. Some songs date back to a stint from 1999 to 2002 when he lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Others first saw light of day when performed by Loose Cannons, a long-running Gulf Coast duo act with Keith Williams Jr. The remainder are new.
Among the new ones: “Way Down Low,” Balthrop’s favorite track, an amiable country-folk ramble about the therapeutic effects of letting yourself hit bottom and rebound.
“Sometimes it’s easier to get back up if you do hit bottom,” Balthrop says. The bridge:
There is only one yesterday
there is only one tomorrow
it’s best to take it day by day
when you’re sifting through your sorrow
sometimes it takes a dirty floor
to help you find that open door
our fragile minds cannot endure
when our hearts are so impure
are you tired of being so unsure?
go find what you’re looking for
That’s followed by “Body Gon’ Give Up On Me,” which argues for remembering that life is limited, but enjoying it while it lasts. Again the music is sprightly, mixing energetic slide guitar over bluesy underpinnings with hints of ska. It’s an original, but the message is so universal, and so cleanly stated, that sounds like a standard. The same goes for other tracks, including “Live by the Water,” which could easily be passed off as a reggae classic.
Physical copies of “Ryan Balthrop” can be ordered through www.ryanbalthrop.com. The songs should be available through most major online services.
Other upcoming shows: Joe Cain Café at the Battle House Hotel, 7:30 p.m. July 7, solo; Happy Harbor in Orange Beach, 6 p.m. July 8, duo; the Keg in Orange Beach, 11 p.m. July 8 and 9, with the Bowling Buddies; Tacky Jack’s on the Causeway, 7 p.m. July 17, solo; Flora-Bama Lounge & Package, 10 p.m. July 29-30 with the Bowling Buddies.
Balthrop is also scheduled to appear as a studio guest on Catt Sirten’s Radio Avalon program on Tuesday, July 26, on WZEW. Balthrop’s segment of the program will start at 10 p.m.
Country music tinged with beach themes and island flavors has become a popular genre in recent years, but Balthrop comes by it honestly. For the record, he likes Bob Marley’s earlier dancehall work, but he really favors Peter Tosh. He was on the trail well before island escapism became a thriving Nashville subgenre.
“I moved down there, I’m touring around, then Kenny Chesney comes out of nowhere,” Balthrop grouses good-naturedly.
His first stint living in the islands ended in self-imposed exile after an arrest for public nudity; but he’s continued to perform in the islands and to book shows there through his Soon Come! Entertainment agency. And in December he’ll be on the roster for the Rock Legends cruise from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas.
One of his meditations on mortality deserves special notice: In June 2008, Balthrop was among many friends shocked by the unexpected death of area keyboardist Bo Roberts. Upon hearing the news, he went to his backyard hammock, where he was surrounded by fireflies.
“They all seemed to be going up,” he said. And in no time, the verses for “Rest Your Eyes” came to him. He performed the song at Roberts’ funeral. A year later, he came up with the bridge that completes the version heard on the new album:
… We cannot live in fantasy
Fantasies they are but dreams we can never reach
Until we are face to face
With our time of peace
In our hour of grace
When we are released …
Balthrop concedes that such tenderness might come as a surprise to even his fans. But such moods haven’t always fit in with his role as an entertainer.
“There are some songs that just weren’t meant to be played in bars,” he says. “People are out drinking and having a good time, they don’t want to hear that message.”
The album came together over the course of a year or so at Mike Manning’s MEKA Studios, near Bellingrath Gardens. Balthrop speaks highly of Manning’s work, and says the studio is an “undiscovered opportunity” for area artists.
The cast involved a who’s who of Gulf Coast players: Among others, Balthrop said he used three different drummers, three bassists and at least six guitarists. Many will take part in the Tuesday show at The Shed.
“I’m honored to have all these people put their time and talents on it,” he says.
He hopes the songs catch some ears, and get him some exposure in the industry.
He hopes it entertains, of course, but he also hopes people pick up on his conviction that some day, we’ll all move on. He doesn’t necessarily know where that is, but he believes it’ll be a better place.
“It’s about the fact that no matter what happens … one day we’ll be at rest,” he says. “Which is a beautiful thing.”
In the meantime, you just try to learn the best that life has to teach.
“That’s my main theme,” he says. “I’m just waiting to grow up.”
Article can be found at: http://mobile.al.com/advbirm/db_/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=ZcmiAaw5&full=true#display