Opportunity came knocking
Janet Ryan unleashes her big, powerful vocals on ‘Mama Soul’
The thought of hooking up with a record label wasn’t even in the back of Janet Ryan’s mind. Sure, she had been working as a soul and blues singer and songwriter since immersing herself in the Chicago blues scene as a teenager. But at the age of 57, the Conway resident had long ago given up on the business aspect of music, preferring to make music for the sheer joy of it.
Then, when she least expected it, opportunity came knocking on her door in the form of an offer to record for Texas-based record label CSP Records. And on Tuesday, April 16, Ryan released her new album “Mama Soul,” her first album for a label and her first release since 2005. The disc features 13 scorching tracks of blues, roadhouse rock and R&B with Ryan’s big, powerful voice in the forefront. “Mama Soul” is available at Target and Best Buy stores, on iTunes, at Ryan’s shows and on her website: www.janetryan.com.
Ryan will celebrate the release of this disc with a full band show at Theodore’s Blues, Booze & BBQ, at 102 Worthington St. in Springfield tonight at 8 p.m. She will be joined by a horn section and her longtime backing group, The Straight Up Band, which features Ray Chaput on guitar, Joe Elliot on Hammond B3, Dennis LeBeau on bass and Billy Klock on drums. There is no cover charge for this show. Ryan will also appear with her trio at The Loft at the Clarion, 1 Atwood St. in Northampton on Friday, May 3, at 7 p.m. and will perform solo at Luthier’s Co-Op, 102 Cottage St, in Easthampton on Thursday, May 9, at 8:30 p.m.
Nobody is more surprised by the release of “Mama Soul” than Ryan herself. The offer to record for CSP arrived at a time when her musical life had shifted away from writing and performing and toward teaching. Since the early 2000s, Ryan has taught music in various schools, currently teaching chorus at Deerfield and Conway elementary schools in addition to offering private lessons. She finds teaching rewarding and enjoyable, but it has limited the time she has to devote to her own music.
“It’s a wild story how this happened,” said Ryan over coffee in a local diner. “I had this musical relationship with Roger Salloom and they were making a documentary about him and recorded me doing my song ‘Tired of Talking’ and it stayed in the movie and was one of the few non-Roger songs in that movie.”
It turns out this documentary, “So Glad I Made It, the Saga of Roger Salloom, America’s Best Unknown Songwriter,” aired on television in the Dallas area and Ryan’s fiery vocals instantly caught the attention of Connie and Jimmie Rogers, the owners of CSP Records.
It seems the Rogers had spent years looking for just the right female vocalist to record some old songs they had, songs that originally had been recorded by a male vocalist. As soon as they heard Ryan sing, the search was over.
“They said they had been looking for a singer for 19 years and they finally found me,” said Ryan with a touch of disbelief in her voice.
They sent the tracks off to Ryan, but she discovered that lyrically they weren’t right for her.
“I looked over the songs and they were totally written from a guy’s point of view. They were just stuff I wouldn’t sing,” Ryan recalled. “For me, it’s about telling a story. So I tweaked them a bit and there was this one song, the ballad called ‘This Heart of Mine,’ I rewrote entirely.”
It is refreshing to hear a disc of love-gone-wrong songs written from the female perspective.
“I always thought I’d be there for him, but he just couldn’t see past all my lies,” Ryan sings with a voice full of passion and pain as a woman owes up to her role in causing her man to walk out the door on “This Heart of Mine. She tells the story of the guy at the end of the bar between the empty seats on “Mr. Misery” and asks herself, “I don’t know why I wasted my time” on “What Was I Thinking?” a song about a wised-up woman with a no-good man.
Once the songs were ready to go, CSP flew Ryan to Texas to record them, backed by members of the former Dallas-based band Crosscut. The Rogers were so impressed by her performance that they decided this project was going to be a Janet Ryan record. To flesh out the recording, Ryan gathered up some of her old songs, like “Take Your Shoes Off,” and flew her band to Texas to record them.
The resulting album is a nice mix of old and new material alongside a cover of the old Sippie Wallace blues number “Women Be Wise.” Ryan’s big belting voice is a force of nature, one that will move listeners to dance, cry, or sing along. Ryan draws influences from a number of singers, from Janis Joplin to Etta James, as she lends her powerhouse of a voice to roadhouse rockers like “He Burned That Bridge” with its great boogie-woogie piano, and the sassy, gritty blues of “Mr. Misery.” The backing musicians sizzle; the blaring horns and wailing guitar solos throughout the disc push this music right through the roof. Mama Soul, indeed!
“I think this is going to be a record that people are going to like,” Ryan said. “I think some people are even going to love it. It’s a well-done record and I’m happy with it.”
Ryan has been around the music business long enough to be very realistic about her expectations for this project. She stressed her main goal is to get out there and play more.
Anyone who has seen Ryan and the Straight Up Band knows that she is a dynamic live performer. She and the band have shared the stage with the likes of James Cotton, Johnny Winter, and Dickey Betts, but she has never gone out on an extended tour herself. Now, with her three children grown and this new album to promote, Ryan said the time feels right.
“I have never done it and I feel like I missed that experience,” said Ryan about the prospect of hitting the road. “I’m not ready to leave teaching, but I would enjoy going out for a couple of weeks at a time. I wouldn’t say no to anything — I’m open to whatever is going to happen.”
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org