Greg Ryder sits alone with his guitar on a small stage at the Diamond Belle Saloon. He wears a smudged, off-white, cowboy hat that's a bit small for his head, a crisp white shirt, wrangler jeans and brown cowboy boots. His light brown mustache is thick on his upper lip. He strums his acoustic guitar, and his baritone fills the Victorian room. He chats familiarly with the customers, calling many by their first name.
The bar is lined with cowboys in wide-brimmed, fancy, felted-fur hats. One buys Ryder a shot of tequila and before Ryder sips from the shot glass, he says that the magic juice will help him sound great. But the magic juice has nothing to do with the way Ryder sounds. A lifetime of singing has helped him hone a voice that is reminiscent of Marty Robbins. In fact, but for a wider nose and blue eyes, Ryder resembles the country and western crooner who wrote and sang ballads like "El Paso."
During his set, Ryder follows an original version of a Marty Robbins song with a Gordon Lightfoot tune, a song by Ian Tyson, a Merle Haggard song and a cowboy melody from the 1850s. The music is familiar, yet original. "He doesn't copy songs," customer Chris Christiansen from Gilbert, Ariz., said. "He interprets them." Christiansen and his wife, Denise, are Ryder regulars. They call themselves Ryder groupies. "He has a great voice," Denise added.
Ryder is also a songwriter who performs his own music, Western folk in the tradition of some of his favorite songwriters: Freddy Neal, Bob Dylan and
Gordon Lightfoot. His latest CD, which is out soon, will be all original songs.
Ryder grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the middle child of his father's second marriage, he said between sets on Saturday. He has an older brother and younger sister. He says he's been a singing cowboy since kindergarten and credits his mother and her brother with always singing and playing music. Because he grew up surrounded by music, it was only natural that performing became his way of life. Ryder moved to Vail in 1971 so he could ski and play music. He came to Durango in 1979 and has been skiing and playing music ever since. He doesn't have a day job or another career, and he was never interested in pursuing the political life of professional theater (which he also loved) or the music scene in Nashville.Besides, there isn't any snow in Nashville.
Ryder is as talented as any singer on country radio. His deep baritone resembles contemporary country artist Josh Turner, though Ryder's rendition of "Long Black Veil" is far superior. Just don't ask him to perform a contemporary song. "I'm not a request guy," he said when a woman asked if he knew "Fields of Gold" by Sting. "I don't play music that other people want to hear." He laughed and then smiled a charming smile. "I always pick songs that weren't hits, but were probably the best song on the album in my opinion. And I'm pretty opinionated," Ryder added.
When Ryder sings the audience listens and enjoys. When he harks back, Hoagy Carmichael, Hoyt Axton and Marty Robbins must smile from their cowboy heaven. It isn't the magic juice that makes Greg Ryder sound great. It's the passion of a singer and songwriter who knows exactly what moves him and stirs his soul. Even if it is a soul he claims is cracked and dried like dark red Naugahyde.
Leanne Goebel is a freelance write specializing in the visual arts.
Leanne Goebel - Durango Herald (Nov 27, 2007)
Country music hold a special place in my heart. But I’m picky. I’m drawn only to country singers who are humble, whose music is gritty with a high lonesome sound, Grey Ryder is one of these country musicians, singing his and classic country tunes four night a week in the relaxed confines of the Diamond Belle Saloon in Durango’s historic Strater Hotel.
My love for country music is derived from my father, a country boy from the Francophone Acadian Region of northern Maine. A Cold War soldier, he tells “war” stories, 50 years after the fact, as if they just happened. They’re always exciting, beginning where my father began his service, Ruidoso NM, before being transferred to West Germany.
New Mexico is where I conjure the most vivid, romantic visions of my father. Thanks to the details of his stories, I see him and his buddies cruising in the 1949 Pontiac that he purchased with money he made farming the hills of Ruidoso. Windows down and the radio blaring popular tunes like Johnny Cash’s “Hey Porter,” Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” or the classic Marty Robbins song, “El Paso,” I see a much younger man, looking for trouble, with a wild grin on his sun-burnt face. Behind the grin he’s chuckling in his harsh French accent. I see the carload of soldiers arriving at a smoked-filled cantina in El Paso or Juarez intent on raising hell. That done, I see them heading back to the barracks in wild laughter. As a vision of the Southwest, for years this is how I saw it.
Moving to the Southwest three years ago, I instantly felt a strong connection to these stories. Other then maybe a drive through the high deserts of New Mexico, nothing evokes this nostalgia like the music of Greg Ryder. The sights and sounds that I associate with my father spring to life upon stepping into the Diamond Belle Saloon, where Ryder’s singing fills the room.
Ryder is a Durango Favorite and a mainstay for the local music scene. For years he had worked with the Bar-D Wranglers. His smooth voice - so smooth a friend of mine likens it to her favorite characteristic of her favorite beer - was first to catch my attention for how it seems to gather the wide open spaces of the Southwest.
Ryder’s studio album showcases his wonderful voice and his songwriting talents. Life Is Flyin’ By is a nice collection of songs written by Ryder with support of Wayword Sons front man Benny Galloway. Also helping out with the album are some of the area’s finest pickers: Anders Beck, also of the Wayword Sons, on dobra, Robin Davis on guitar and mandolin and Pete Neds on slide and lead guitars.
The album’s opening and title track pays tribute to the fine supporting cast. In a classic Texas Swing style reminiscent of the great Bob Wills, Ryder introduces the musicians prior to each respective solo. “Life Is Flyin’ By” is a happy song that illustrates relish of life’s simpler things: “Smoke ‘em while we got ‘em / Drink that rock and rye / The old folks was right boys / Life is flyin’ by boys / Here’s to you and I boys / Life is flyin’ by.”
“The Sunday Blues,” written by Ryder and Galloway, may be my favorite song on the album. Bittersweet melodies and vocal harmonies accompany lyrics that address that fragile nature of love. The song laments inevitable loss. “Oh but honey we’re still here / Though it’s just a matter of time / In a heartbeat we’ll be gone / And we’re already down the line / I feel I’m losing you / I feel I’m losing you .” The song concludes with interchanging solos from Davis and Beck.
I hope to never lose the romantic visions I have of my father and his days in the dusty Southwest. Each time I hear Ryder croon, I am reminded of these memories. At the Diamond Bell, he sings country songs the way they were meant to be sung, humbly, gritty and sounding lonesome. Maybe they’ll conjure up a memory or two for you too.
Paul Paradis follows the music scene from Durango where is a recruitment coordinator for Southwest Conservation Corps.
Paul Paradis - Inside/Outside Magazine (Mar 15, 2007)