Ryan Lee Crosby photo by Lisette Rooney
Ryan Lee Crosby Brings The Heat and The Cold To Winter Hill Blues
Ryan Lee Crosby recently released his new album, Winter Hill Blues, via Crossnote Records. It was Produced by Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson and is the first release by Crosby to show the direct influence of meeting his mentor, Bentonia Blues musician Jimmy “Duck” Holmes in 2019. Prior to this, Crosby had been delving into Bentonia Blues and had been influenced by Fat Possum releases, particularly, but this in-person experience of both influenced the sound and approach to the new collection.
Winter Hill Blues pulls from Crosby’s development over a period of years, with many of the songs hailing from his live performance history, particularly in Europe, where he came to know the songs as a more “lived” experience. Some of the songs, however, came together quickly shortly before recording the album, and give us hints of where Crosby might be headed after spending even more time playing at The Blue Front Café and conversing with Holmes. I spoke with Ryan Lee Crosby shortly before the launch show for the new album in Massachussetts and we talked about how these musical and personal relationships developed for him, what part Indian classical music has played for him, and why there may be extra “winter” in his life compared to other blues musicians.
Americana Highways: I saw that you were going to have a full band for your launch show, and having listened to the new album, I’m wondering how you adapt the music depending on whether you are playing solo or not. Do you build out or scale back as needed?
Ryan Lee Crosby: It’s an ever-changing thing. It’s not a conscious thing, but I feel like it’s important to me that any song that I play could be presented by myself or with any configuration of musicians. On the record, it’s kind of half and half. The way that I personally play throughout the album doesn’t really change depending on whether it’s acoustic, or electric, or whether there are other people playing or not. When I’m home as well as when I’m traveling, I often don’t know who I’m going to be playing with or what songs I’m going to be doing. Sometimes I don’t know until a few hours beforehand. For the launch show, it’ll be a different take on the songs and it’s always changing.
AH: I imagine that approaching things from that standpoint allows you to be more open to opportunities that might come up, whether it’s someone joining in, or taking on a solo show at the last minute.
RLC: I think it’s a way to practice being open to whatever comes or however music is going to come through you at the time. More and more, I want my experience of playing or of playing with other people to be an experience of letting go. I like to play in a way where even the song structures themselves can be free and ever-changing, and the instrumentation can be ever-changing too. That’s the way I’ve had to do it for probably the last ten years ago, but also a record that I made a very long time ago was heavily arranged and produced.
Everything was so meticulously arranged that I felt that I could never really present it that way. I think a lot of my musical journey since has been a response to that, where I try to be more open, fluid, and flexible in what I play and how I play it. Winter Hill Blues was really recorded in just a day or two and a lot of it is first takes. So that attitude is present in the record as well.
AH: When were you able to do that recording with Bruce Watson?
RLC: That was actually in June of 2019. The plan was that it was going to come out in 2020 and I was working with a label in Europe to distribute vinyl. Then everything came apart in 2020, so I felt like I wanted to wait until it felt right in my heart to share it. If there’s been one silver lining to all of this, it’s been that we’ve been able to look inside our hearts and do what feels right rather than doing what might be expected of us.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve also recorded a lot of music here at home, and that’s been really meaningful. It was nice to step away from Winter Hill Blues for a little while and then come back to it.
AH: Recording this in 2019 places it even closer to the time that you originally started working with Jimmy, right?
RLC: I met Jimmy in February 2019. It’s funny, though, since so many things in music feel so non-linear. That feels like so long ago. I went there [to Bentonia] also in June of that year, and I met Bruce right after that in Memphis. The record was made that summer. I went back to Bentonia in January of 2020. I’ve seen Jimmy at least once a year, but at least two or three times a year recently.
But something that gave me a lot of hope and gave me something to organize my focus around during the lockdown was really trying to spend time processing some of the things that I felt that he had taught me and what I felt that the experience of spending time with him meant to me. I would call him and write him letters during that year. One of the shows I’ve heard him play recently seems like the best I’ve ever heard him play, so it seems like he’s doing well.
AH: It sounds like Winter Hill Blues might only be the beginning of a specific journey that’s continued for you. Do you feel like you’ve pursued some of those directions further in now?
RLC: I feel like Winter Hill Blues is both an end and a beginning for me. Something that’s meaning for me, personally, about the record, is that when I hear it, I feel like I hear the culmination of a phase that lasted maybe five or six years. It was from the point in time when I first heard of James and not long after started going to Europe every year and playing there, around 2013 to 2013. Maybe two thirds of the music on Winter Hill Blues evolved from touring Europe a couple of times a year and trying to live the music that way.
Then in 2018, I started going back to Mississippi and met Jimmy in 2019, and also Bruce. So much of what inspires me to play the way that I play goes back to record produced by Bruce. When the record was made, it was suddenly a very fast process of experiencing what I was playing in a new context. Being down there, ultimately the sound of the record came from those new relationships, and the feeling of excitement and inspiration of meeting new people who you want to be around.
As I’ve been working on things since, I feel like my playing has perhaps grown, but also settled some as a result of spending time around Jimmy. I also just think that getting to spend time at The Blue Front and getting to play there, you can’t help but pick up on the feeling there that is very casual but also very heavy and weighted with meaning and with history. I often feel overcome with appreciation whenever I get to be there. Being in that space and playing in that environment more has helped my playing a lot. I hope that the next things that I do will reflect that.
AH: Thematically, what we’re talking about kind of fits with the song, “Slow Down,” which you’ve also released a very fitting video for that suggests the texture of the town, Bentonia. How did you decide to use the footage of Bentonia for that song’s video?
RLC: I shot that video footage in January of 2020 on a quiet morning. I was driving around town a little bit. I didn’t really know what I would do with it, but whenever I’m down there, I try to take some pictures and shoot some video because I want to be able to remember it. It seemed like a nice idea to make a video and that video seemed like a natural pairing with the pace and the content of the song. My own video production skills are extremely limited at best, but I liked looking for that space where nothing feels too forced.
AH: The pace really does fit. It’s a slow drive.
RLC: I found that when I looked at the video later. Bentonia in January has a slow pace, and you can see, even from the clips, that there were no other cars around.
AH: Is this one of the songs that you’d already been performing in Europe?
RLC: For a hand full of songs on the album, some of them came together only a week or two before the session, and “Slow Down” is one of those songs. There’s also a song called, “Was It The Devil?”, which is a very traditional, Bentonia-style song, and those two are ones I started playing right before the session.
When playing in Europe, I was usually performing alone, so Bruce’s influence, as well as the musicians who played on the record, really made the songs sound the way that I had imagined them in my mind, but I had never really gotten a chance to present them in that way.
AH: One of the songs, “Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down,” was written by someone else. What led you to include that song on the album? Was it a performance favorite?
RLC: Yes, that’s by Reverend Robert Wilkins. My friend and longtime collaborator Grant Smith plays on that. It’s a song that I was playing a lot on stage and one that has resonance for me. It feels really good to hear someone play it, or to play it myself. I went through a phase of playing it quite a bit. It’s usually something I play when I perform.
AH: There are a number of things about the song that jump out. Though this is true of a lot of Blues songs, this one is particularly open to interpretation, so it leaves you thinking about the feeling of it. The different guitar parts on this recording also feel a bit like two different voices. There’s another layer of activity happening here beyond the lyrics.
RLC: I wonder if the very little amount of time I’ve been able to spend studying Indian classical music shows up in that song. I didn’t really play any slide guitar until I was interested in Indian slide guitar, so there are things in the way that I play that feel quite particular. It’s not quite Indian classical, it’s not quite traditional blues, but it’s something else.
AH: What’s the timeframe for you becoming interested in Indian classical music? How far back does that go for you?
RLC: I think an appreciation for it goes back to high school, hearing music by The Beatles. But I think I went through a big change in how I wanted to relate to music about ten years ago. The time in which I decided to devote myself to studying Mississippi blues was also the time in which I became very interested in Indian classical music, maybe between 2015 and 2018. I took regular lessons in playing Indian classical on slide guitar and that emerged alongside, in and around, my interest in Mississippi blues.
When you think of how deep and ancient both of these traditions are, I don’t feel I’ve accomplished a huge amount in Indian classical music. But I do feel that it profoundly shifted how I relate to sound, and how I relate to thinking about music socially and spiritually. I continue to embrace the idea of being a student of all music, as well as being a teacher, since I teach music. The experience that I had around Indian classical musicians was really positive for my attitude, so that when I met Jimmy, I was very comfortable, and open, and full of appreciation.
I was ready to look at any interaction with him as being a priceless one and was in a student, beginner mindset. The ways of relating to music in terms of Indian classical music also helped me to think beyond genre to sound and notes. There’s a lot of complimentary stuff that happens because the Bentonia style and the North Mississippi Blues styles have, relatively speaking, minimal chord changes. In Indian classical music, there aren’t any chord changes. To me, it feels like they have similar properties that can hold the mind.
AH: Do you think that people focus their attention on them in a similar way?
RLC: Absolutely, because when you have chord changes happening frequently, whether you know it or not, your attention is responding to a constantly shifting center, in a way. But when you have the single point of focus that comes with a song like, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor,” the effect of that centeredness and harmony can do something to the mind and to the heart, for the listener and for the musician.
AH: I meant to ask you about the title song and how it became the title for the collection. Do you see a thematic connection there? The seasonality of that is not something I’ve come across a lot with Blues.
RLC: I’m so glad you asked about that. “Winter Hill Blues” is one of the oldest songs in the collection. The first person to teach me about the Bentonia style was a musician up here [in New England] called Paul Rochelle. When I was first learning about it, I thought, “I wonder if I can write a song in this tuning that has some of these qualities.” So the song was rooted in where I was living at the time, and Winter Hill was the neighborhood I was living in. One of its claims to fame is that there was a gang called The Winter Hill Gang, led by Whitey Bulger. So I set the song in that scene. When recording it with Bruce, he suggested I should name the record Winter Hill Blues, and that seemed like a nice idea to me because the image of the hill country has its own meaning.
It grew for me in personal meaning and resonance because I like the cold. When I go to Mississippi, particularly when I go to Bentonia in June, the heat is hard for me. I have very fair skin and don’t do well in the sun, though it’s kind of a joke in my house. So I started asking myself, “What is the role of the cold in my own way of playing guitar?” As much time as I try to spend in Mississippi, I understand that in some ways I’m a New Englander by nature. There are things that show up in my guitar playing that I don’t think would occur if I lived in the warmth of the southern sun all the time.
It’s hard to articulate, but I think it shows up as a pensiveness or an introspectiveness. The function of blues can be to create joy as well as express sorrow. It can be music for dancing and for lifting one’s spirits up, and when you go out in the sunshine, you feel a boost in mood in a similar way. But when you go out in the cold, it affects your mood. In my experience of my own playing, I like the idea of trying to help people feel good with my music, but I’m not sure it’s party music, like the great juke joint blues. I see that as being the presence of winter in my life.
Thanks for talking with us, Ryan Lee Crosby. You can find more of his music and information here: https://ryanleecrosby.com