Many people in the country music industry have credited Mike Ryan as being one of the best songwriters to come out of Texas in the last decade. The 31-year-old singer, originally from San Antonio, is a thoughtful lyricist and incredible guitarist with a smooth, soulful sound. He’s had five No. 1 songs on the Texas Country Music charts so far and more than 105 million streams to date. His latest single, “Dear Country Music,” is a love song to a genre he grew up listening to, painted with memories of his youth. And, like many of his other hits, he wrote it in such a way that many of us feel he was writing about our memories, too. Postcards Magazine sat down with Ryan at one of his last shows before COVID-19 brought live performances to a screeching halt. And, we later checked in with him to see how he and his family were adjusting to social distancing.
How did you discover your love for music?
I was whistling before I could talk, if you ask my dad. He said he always knew if I was in a bad mood or if I was sick, because I wasn’t whistling. When I was whistling, everything was good. Being a father myself now – if my kids were whistling all the time, I’d probably get tired of that. My 2-year-old is a fan of the drums, so he just beats on everything all day long.
And, my grandfather was a band director, so from as early as I can remember, there was always an instrument involved. I had piano lessons starting in elementary school; I played saxophone in middle school; I was in choir; I started playing guitar my senior year of high school; and when I got to college, I started writing songs. Music got its hooks in early.
When did you start honing your crafts as a singer and songwriter?
I was singing a lot during my senior year of high school, and I had an incredible range – I don’t have it anymore. I can still hit some high notes, but I can’t get as low. That’s when American Idol was getting big, and I would hear people sing, and the judges would be so impressed. I would think, “I can do that.” Maybe it was just supreme confidence (laughs); I was a very confident high schooler, for sure.
When I first started playing guitar, it was because I had nothing better to do. It was the second semester of my senior year, so football season was over, and my girlfriend at the time had already gone off to college. I had all this time on my hands, so I put a guitar in them and would play for 4 or 5 hours a day. I progressed quickly. I then started writing songs – those progressed slower (laughs).
The songwriting was fun and, at first, it was kind of therapeutic, because that girlfriend didn’t work out. I realized I could turn sad memories into something better and make other people feel something. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was setting myself up for what I would end up doing.
What happened after you graduated from college?
I gave myself a 5-year music plan. That’s how long I had to figure out if I could make it playing music. And, at 3-and-a-half years, I got a publishing deal with Sea Gayle Music in Nashville – that was 2013. That is where the growing and hoping turned into a business and thinking this could work out.
Since then, you have written and recorded some cool songs, and you’ve co-written with some big names out of Nashville… even Brad Paisley. How did that relationship get started?
There’s that saying – “there’s a first time for everything.” I was in a writing session, and we started talking about how sometimes there’s a last time for everything, and not always because of death. You grow up and change, and things don’t happen like you think they would. We sketched out a chorus and a couple of verses before I had to head back to Texas. We were going to finish it the next time I got back to Nashville, but two of the writers, Chris DuBois and Brent Anderson, had a session with Brad Paisley the next day, and they played him what we had written. Brad loved it and finished it and recorded it in his home studio the next day. A week later, Chris called me and said, “Hey man, I just wanted to let you know that song – ‘Last Time for Everything’ – we played it for Brad, and he’s thinking about making it a single.” I thought – this is the best phone call I’ve gotten in my life. And, I had a co-write with Brad.
He’s an incredible artist and guitar player. I’ve been a massive fan for a long time, and to get to meet him and later end up recording part of my record at his house – and to get to write with him and have a song cut by him – it’s pretty cool.
Talk about the writing behind one of my favorite songs of yours – Girls I Date. I love the line, “I ain’t Merle Haggard and I ain’t George Strait, but I’m close enough for the girls I date.” That’s the coolest!
I’m pretty sure Chris (DuBois) came up with that line. We went into a writing session, and I was just tuning my guitar. It must have had an old set of strings. I was having trouble locking it in, and it was taking longer than normal to tune. Then I was just like, “…close enough for the girls I date.” Chris said, “Well, that’s what we’re writing today.” It’s just about a guy who appreciates the simple things.
What artists inspire you?
I’m still inspired by The Eagles, ZZ Top, John Mayer and a lot of 90s country artists, but I like all kinds of music – Stevie Wonder and Elton John are big favorites. But now that we’re out playing shows with our friends, my peers are my inspiration. Guys like Parker McCollum, Koe Wetzel, Wade Bowen. You see them hustling, and they subtly remind you – you better be doing this too, dude. It keeps you on your toes. And it’s cool to call some of these guys my friends, because I grew up listening to them – like Stoney LaRue, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers. I’ve done shows will all of them, and they still keep it fresh.
People say Texas Country and Red Dirt is a family, and the longer I’m in it, I know it’s true.
Let’s talk about life on the road. What’s in your tour bus fridge right now?
In the fridge? Bottled water, fruit of some kind, and most likely the majority is meal preps. About half the band and me have been regular meal preppers. It’s easier to stay on task when you have something to heat up, and you spend less money and eat less garbage. It’s convenient, and you can have something wholesome – sounds kind of boring (laughs).
Not boring at all! Tell us about your family and normal life in Granbury.
Sarah and I have two kids. M.J. turned two in December, and he is getting into everything. And, if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will keep asking the same question. He’s a handful, and he looks almost exactly like me. It’s weird when you pull out a picture from my childhood. I see the satisfied looks on my parents’ faces, and I know it’s because they love him and are living vicariously through me; but part of it is them thinking, “Now it’s your turn.”
Myles is almost 8 months. Of course, I have loved him ever since we got him, but I’m liking him more and more. His personality is coming out and he makes “Dada” sounds a lot; and he has the cutest smiles – the biggest toothless grins. It’s a real cool thing to see every day.
When you’re not on tour or spending time with your family, what do you like doing?
Cooking, working out, playing golf. I like any kind of hunting, but prefer hunting with a bow. To be prolific with a bow, you have to put time in and think about what your body is doing. That way, when it’s time to make the shot happen, you don’t have to think about it but can release the perfect arrow and hopefully go right into the target.
Recent weeks have been unprecedented with the coronavirus pandemic. Your shows were canceled, and the nation pretty much shut down. What has life been like recently?
We’ve been enjoying a lot of family time. We’ve been spending time out at our place in Oklahoma. We’ve been taking some jeep rides, riding around checking on cattle, and we tilled up some soil and planted a garden. My dad and I built a lofted bed with a fort underneath for M.J. We are trying to get M.J. on this potty-training deal, but he’s providing significant resistance.
As for songwriting, I’ve been doing some with Zoom video conferencing. It’s different. The concept is new for me, but I might end up doing more because it gives us an opportunity to get in sessions with different writers.
Last question: Let’s pretend this is a job interview. Mike Ryan, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Well… (laughs)… Still playing music in some form or fashion – hopefully in arenas or stadiums. But if I’m still playing in honky-tonks, well, I’m a musician; I’m a lifer. When you do music, it’s because you love it– and it would be hard to fall out of love with it.
Mike has a brand new single out now – Ghost Town. Listen for it on country radio or download it on iTunes. He hopes to be back on the road very soon, playing live for his fans across the U.S. Visit mikeryanband.com to find out where you can catch him live.