Starlight and Tall Tales
Initially what is striking about LA-born/Nashville-based session guitarist and award-winning singer- songwriter Bart Ryan’s Starlight and Tall Tales is his soulful bluesy guitar and lap steel playing, but the album offers a good dose of roots variety as it unfolds, including some very soulful tunes. Twangy and bluesy songs showcase his fierce riffs and solos, and although Ryan describes his fifth full solo album as intimate it mixes the loud and forceful with many ballad or slow tempo songs to which he is well suited. He opens gloriously with two horn-driven R&B songs, “Wanna Be,” and “I’d Be a Fool,” which were inspired by “Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and a complicated love life.” He does reveal intimacy and a flair for a well rendered R&B ballad in “Half Way,” a true standout. On “Evil,” which to these ears gets a little too raucous and derivative of other blues-rock, Ryan offers his thoughts on the current political leadership, while “Nobody” reflects upon a particularly rough patch in his life, pointing out the importance of being connected to something important or to somebody when the struggle gets tough.
Ryan knows his way around a song. He has produced music for movies such as the Oscar-winner The Descendants. He was raised in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, struck by fabled axe men such as Albert Collins, David Gilmour, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Even as a teenager he was up all night playing in nightclubs, trading riffs with Coco Montoya and other LA blues masters, so for him it all starts with a killer guitar tone. He claims to have played six different guitars on this album: a custom shop ’62 Strat made to spec for me by John Cruz (with hand-wound pickups by Abigail Ybarra,) a tobacco sunburst ’93 Les Paul w/Burtsbucker pickups, a Mongrel U.S. Tele, Rickenbacker lap steel, Dobro Resonator, and a Collings dreadnought acoustic. He uses an array of amps including a Carr Slant 6v, a Supro Rhythm Master, and a little souped-up Fender Blues Jr. These considerable guitar chops are on wondrous display in “Walk Away” and the slow burner “Bring Out Your Joy.”
Guitar terminology aside, as mentioned Ryan knows how to construct good song and he’s a powerful but not necessarily distinctive vocalist. Together he has an impressive tool kit, but the album is uneven. He brings the funk and a bit of Hendrix on “The Healer,” falling again into cliché riffing, only to again redeem himself on the tender “Nobody.” He closes with some acoustic blues in “Desire,” offering a refreshing change to some of the blaring tunes.
Ryan taps some potent players from L.A. and Nashville, including Ryan’s three longtime collaborators — Jim Evans on drums, Ted Russell Kamp on bass, and Mark Kovaly on keys. It also features Steve Smartt and Jeff Byrd on horns, Matt Higgins on bass, Aubrey Richmond on violin, and Amber Gartner and Michael Mishaw on backing vocals. During the sessions, mixing engineer Preston Tate White contributed so many great ideas that he ended up as the album’s co-producer together with Ryan. Cameron Henry completed the finishing touches in mastering.
In his best moments Ryan brings an infectious smoldering fire, and he has enough of those moments to make it a worthy listen. Yet, it seems like he’s still experimenting with his style, still trying to locate his own signature sound.