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Three Chords And The Truth With Charlotte Country Musician Kelsey Ryan

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Photo courtesy of Kelsey Ryan.
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Country musician Kelsey Ryan performs on stage in 2019.

Without a doubt, the coronavirus pandemic coupled with ongoing demonstrations and protests have changed the landscape for conversations and creative output. In particular, musicians have taken this time for self-reflection on the state of the music industry and their individual responsibilities in moving the conversation forward.

For Charlotte-based singer-songwriter Kelsey Ryan, the past five months have been an opportunity to write, listen, and find new meaning through the "grit and grin" of country music.

"Country [music] is so broad these days. But I think the heart and soul of country is telling real stories of real people, often real painful things that have happened. ‘Cause in the honesty and simplicity of that, you can find relatability and universality."
– Kelsey Ryan, country singer-songwriter

Interview Highlights:

On her music inspiration:

I grew up on country music in Texas and Tennessee. It’s pervasive. It’s everywhere.

One of my biggest first loves was Dolly Parton. I make jokes about how she’s the “Queen of Tennessee.” Her ability to combine toughness with femininity and vulnerability is just mesmerizing and is why she’s an icon to people even beyond country music. Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and June Carter -- they speak about being wives and mothers and women, but also being powerful and standing up for themselves. It’s a wonderful role model to follow. I like that it can be fun and humorous and relatable.

I’d say what draws me to country, in a way, is how simple it can be. A lot of country is three chords and a truth, and I’ve always connected to that. I love how you can use this form and genre to really get down to the bare bones of things.

On growing up with music:

I’ve always been singing, as long as I can remember. My mom, more than anybody, injected music into our lives. She would try to make any activity more fun by making music a big part of it. I remember every Saturday, she would crank up the stereo and blare music throughout the house while we were supposed to be cleaning our room, vacuuming and wiping down the counters.

On country music in Charlotte:

There’s more room for [Charlotte country musicians] to play with the genre and hearken back to old school roots of country music without any pressure from any sort of institution like Music Row or the Nashville Sound to capitulate to what’s popular country.

I have several friends who are doing old-school honky-tonk, which makes me think of Texas country music with really strong dance roots where they’re trying to get people on the dance floor and have fun. Jason Moss and the Hosses is a great band in that way. Then you have bands like Wes and the Railroaders and Justin Fedor who are doing more of those stylistic things, and they have the space to do the genre how they want to do it.

I’d love to meet some more women country artists. I’ve only met a couple here in Charlotte.

It’s a small community, but it’s really talented, really passionate, really creative in how they’re approaching the genre.

On her 2019 full-length album The Trigger:

The record was born of some very personal things that I went through. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t pull any punches, and I really needed to use my writing and my music to go through some of those things that I dealt with, namely domestic abuse and some PTSD issues. That’s what the title track “The Trigger” is referencing. There’s a lot of really dark themes running through this record.

But at the same time, it’s dealing with the refusal to not being held down or being held back, in reclaiming my turf as a strong, independent woman who is fierce and fun and funny and going to make it through this. That’s with funnier songs like “Handyman” and “Glass Slipper” and “Songs about Whiskey.” It’s a dual thing: dealing with the pain, the hurt and the struggle, all while trying to climb out of it and overcome it.

On the impact of COVID-19 on music:

Thinking back to March [the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Charlotte, North Carolina], it feels like ages ago. We had shows booked all the way through June at that point. We really wanted to focus this year on playing live and getting out there and pushing the new record. I was hoping to play an original set in town every month this year, and obviously that goal got completely obliterated in March. No one knew how long [quarantine] would last, but you finally get to the point where you’re like, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to play another live show this year.”

I got blindsided by it and have struggled to understand what to do next. So for me, I decided to let go of the disappointment and rotate more to, “What can you focus on? What can you do to continue to grow as an artist and grow your voice?” And for me, that meant to go back to writing and what I could bring to the page, what stories I wanted to tell and what feelings I wanted to explore.

Sometimes I worry if I’m writing enough, doing enough, or moving along as an artist as I should be. When those thoughts come up, I have to remind myself to be compassionate with myself. You can’t do everything all the time, and the things that are happening are majorly stressful, day in and day out. It’s so hard to tap into creativity when you’re burdened by stress. So if I come out of quarantine with 100 new songs, amazing! If I come out with 15, OK! If I come out with five, OK.

On the role of country music in social justice:

I think music has an incredibly powerful role to play in bringing to light social justice issues and furthering conversations. The role of country music in this is a mixed one. There’s a lot of instances where country music and some people who love it have held rather regressive views, and that’s a complicated history of the genre that have to be dealt with.

But then it’s had ways of being extraordinarily powerful in its own right in pushing forward agendas, songs like “The Pill” by Loretta Lynn, which have taken these situations and movements and telling a personal story as a powerful statement.

So how does country approach what’s coming right now and what’s happening right now in terms of systemic racism and oppression? There needs to be a lot more said from country music and country artists, including finding those black artists who utilize country and helping to raise their voices. It’s their voices and their stories that are going to resonate and help move things along.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Kelsey Ryan - "Glass Slipper"
Kelsey Ryan - "Handyman"
Kelsey Ryan - "The Trigger"
Kelsey Ryan - "Sway Gently"
Kelsey Ryan - "Jolene"

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).