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Rockin’ the blues

Teacher by day, singer by night, Janet Ryan does what she loves

  • Local blues diva Janet Ryan.

    Local blues diva Janet Ryan.

  • Local blues diva Janet Ryan.

Teaching students across western Massachusetts, rehearsing twice a week and performing three times a month throughout New England leaves little personal time for Janet Ryan. But music is what she loves.

“I wake up every morning. I put two feet on the ground. I get up and I go forward,” Ryan said.

The soulful blues voice of the Conway resident will reverberate throughout Beacon Field and mix with the sweet scent of smoking barbecue on Saturday, Oct. 12, as part of the third annual Riverside Blues and BBQ Festival. Ryan, who is on the festival’s billing for the first time, will perform from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

When Ryan isn’t singing with her seven-piece blues band Straight Up!, she works to inspire young children musically by teaching preschool to sixth grade at the Deerfield and Conway elementary schools.

“I love teaching,” Ryan said. “It is getting to the point where I get more joy out of hearing the sound of children singing beautifully than I do my own voice. You reach a point where you feel there is more to this than just doing music for a bunch of people.”

In addition, Ryan has taught privately for 22 years. She has 10 to 12 students she assists with piano and voice lessons.

“The direction I ended up going is wanting to share (music) and be there when other people started blossoming and discovering music is something they wanted to do,” she said.

Music began to take route in Ryan’s life at a young age. The Fairfield County, Conn., native learned to play the piano at 5 and started singing in church choirs. At 16, Ryan performed as a backup singer with jazz great Duke Ellington.

While studying theater at Northwestern University in Chicago, Ryan began singing in bands. “When I got out of school, I realized I wasn’t crazy about acting but I really wanted to sing,” Ryan said.

In Chicago, where she lived for 12 years, Ryan developed a taste for blues while she frequenting juke joints and blues clubs. Ryan performed for weddings while doing a variety of jobs, such as working in the restaurant business, retail and insurance.

Ryan eventually moved to Conway in 1988, where she’d spent summers growing up. Ryan has roots in Conway. Her family, the Barkers, settled in the town during the 1800s.

e_SDLqI’ve always dreamed of moving up here and building a house,” Ryan said. “I’m the eighth generation to live on the land.”

After several stints working for various jobs, Ryan landed a position with the Community Music School in Springfield, where she taught music for 11 years.

That job started her teaching career. Ryan went on to teach students at Eaglebrook School in Deerfield and Springfield Public School District before moving onto teaching at Deerfield and Conway elementary schools.

In August 2012, Ryan got her biggest break. The owners of CSP Records watched a documentary that included Ryan’s singing. Impressed, the record company brought her to Texas and the Audio Dallas Recording Studio to record “Mama Soul.”

“Janet Ryan is ‘Mama Soul’ and that ain’t no lie. Ryan has a strong, huge voice, and she is not afraid to use it” — American Blues Scene.

“Man o man, Janet Ryan crashes through starting gate on the very first number, ‘He Burned that Bridge,’ rolling ’n’ tumbling like Etta James in full fury, horns blaring, slide guitar burning, chords crunching, hot high-five rhythms full-barrel smokin’”— Mark S. Tucker, for Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange.

Straight Up! has played together 14 years , performing traditional blues, soul and funk. Its past venues have included Iron Horse Music Hall, The Pines Theater and the Pioneer Valley Blues Festival in Northampton.

Straight Up! includes guitarist and founder Ray Chaput, hammond organist Joe Elliot, saxophone player Joe Meo, bass player Dennis LeBeau and his two sons: guitarist Tommy and drummer Paul.

As a female musician, Ryan recognizes it’s difficult for women to be successful professional musicians. The prevalence of female bands in the lineup of the Riverside Blues and BBQ Festival is something she noticed immediately.

“There are more female acts than male. You have to dig a little deeper to find females doing music,” Ryan said. “I love that this blues festival has booked local bands and they booked a lot of female bands.”

Bands with female leads at the blues festival include Gracie Curran and the High Falutin’, a local blues country rock band, Eva Cappelli and the Watershops Band and Tennessee’s Vaneese Thomas.

Other performers throughout the weekend include New York City blues legend Charlie Hilbert and the Pioneer Valley’s big blues band, the Wildcat O’Halloran Band.

For the third year, barbecue enthusiasts and competitors from across New England will converge on Beacon Field, where the festival features a New England Barbecue Society Grilling Contest, a Kansas City Barbecue Society contest, two days of beer sampling from local brewers and two days of crafts and vendors.

The festival is hosted by the Franklin County Rotary Club and Greenfield Recreation Department.

Competitors arrive on Friday and the festival events occur Saturday and Sunday. Daily admission is $5 for adults. Children 10 years and younger are free. The BBQ sampling costs another $5 from noon until the food runs out. Saturday, it will be chicken wings; Sunday it will be pulled pork. The BrewFest Beer Samplin’ Saloon is $20 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Only cash will be accepted for festival entrance and sampling fees.

Parking will be available at the 48 Sanderson St. Lot (across from the Baystate Franklin Medical Center) and at the Greenfield Middle School. The Greenfield Trolley will provide shuttle service to Beacon Field.

As she takes the stage on Beacon Field, Ryan hopes to engage the audience.

“I like to bring the audience into the musical experience. I like audience participating. I like to get people singing along with me,” Ryan said.

“I’m blessed with a wonderful husband and children and people that understand that this is what I do,” added Ryan. “I find it very difficult to not be in motion.”

For more information on Ryan, visit JanetRyan.com. For more information on the Riverside Blues and Barbeque Festival, visit www.riversidebluesandbbq.com.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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