‘We’re in the throes of a new folk revival’ An interview with Ryan Spearman

Sara Finke

Ryan Spearman is many things in many musical moods, but all his roles show a passion for setting the spark of innovation to the good tinder of tradition.

A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader, solo artist and teacher, Spearman was born and raised in St. Peters, Mo. and after a stint in Colorado with the band High on the Hog, he’s continued to make his home and his music in St. Louis.

When Spearman and Pokey LaFarge take the stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Friday, November 30 for the Folk School Grand Celebration, they’ll be doing what comes naturally — making music the old-time way – and while they’ll make it look easy, it most certainly isn’t. It takes years of hard work to play country, blues, folk and swing as well as they do.

I met Spearman for coffee to get a preview of the Sheldon show and to catch up on his current musical endeavors.

Roy Kasten: When did you first meet Pokey?

Ryan Spearman: The first time I met Pokey was when I moved back into the city about four years ago. I had just come back from Colorado and I had been living out in the country in Herman [Mo.] for two years. I’d been hearing about Pokey but hadn’t seen him. I caught him at BB’s, and a mutual friend introduced us. Pokey knew who I was, he knew my history. Our musical paths had been crossing for a while. He’d seen my band [High on the Hog] before.

After that I’d see him every once in a while and we’d talk about our mutual musical histories, but we’d never played together until last year at the Sheldon for the 10 year anniversary for the Folk School.

The idea was to get the two of us to just play together. We’d been talking about. I thought it would be fun and people would enjoy it. With Pokey being so busy we don’t get to practice much. He’ll come to town and we’ll spend six hours and then he’ll be gone. This year we’ve had one eight-hour session so far.

Did you feel like you had a shared base of musical knowledge? Did you know the same tunes?

Yeah. What Pokey does on stage and what I do on stage, it seems disparate to the average listener, but we both have similar musical histories, what we’re into and the different types of music we play. That’s the other reason we wanted to get together. Pokey will do stuff that I play and I’ll do more what he plays. Last year we had him on the mandolin. Our interests are similar and our experience with country blues and old time music, and then Pokey’s recent obsession with country swing — I had just been getting into the same kind of stuff in Colorado.

At this point, it’s a perverse challenge, to see if we can put together a set and make it interesting, and make it sound good.


Have the two of you done any writing together?

No, not at all. I’m interested in that. We’ve talked about it. We’re both writers, writing our own stuff that comes out of the same vein of American music.

Did you move out to Colorado just for music?

Yeah. I’d been traveling a lot, going to festivals in Colorado and on the West Coast. I saw the scene out in the Boulder area and I really liked it. It was acoustic, traditional, but it had a lot of contemporary, progressive ideas going on. Yonder Mountain and Leftover Salmon were doing really well. I thought it would be cool to bring an old-time band out there, because that was a niche that hadn’t been filled. I brought some people with me and met the other people on the street.

How successful was High on the Hog?

We toured nationally, got on some festivals, and had a decent following, with the help of Yonder and Salmon, those kinds of bands. But we reached that point where from everyone else’s point of view we were big time, but from our point of view we were sorry and broke. (Laughs.) We reached a certain level of recognition. I’m still surprised that people know who we were.

In the last decade or so, there’s clearly been a grown in the audience for old-time music.

There’s a revival going on. It’s happening as we speak. It maybe started some time after “O Brother [Where Art Thou].” When you have very well-known national acts that have banjos and acoustic guitars, and melodies based on traditional tunes, I think we’re in the throes of a new folk revival. I think Pokey’s success is a reflection of that and a cause of that as well.

Are you working on any new recordings?

I’m doing a recording right now. I’m almost done with all the tracking, but the final product is still up in the air. Some of it was recorded with a scaled-down version of my band and a lot solo. There’s traditional stuff and original material. The original idea was to get some of these songs I’ve been doing for a long time on a recording and then move on. So it’s a bit of a confusing project. It will either be two releases or one release with a bunch of outtakes. But that should be out in February.

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