Doug Robinson: The unique sounds of Ryan Shupe

The musician confounds categories, delights listeners

Published: Friday, Nov. 24 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Ryan Shupe plays his violin while recording new songs during a session in a Provo studio.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — The first problem you have when you hear (or write about) the music of Ryan Shupe is deciding what it is you're listening to. It has confounded reviewers and music-industry people, who tend to worry about such things. Is it country, pop, bluegrass, new age? Or is it, as Shupe likes to say, PostHeeHawFunkadelicHipHopNewGrass?

Maybe that sound you hear coming from your dashboard — if you're dialed into a radio station that gets his unique sound enough to give it airplay — can be defined as whatever you call music that employs guitars, mandolins, bouzouki, fiddle, bass, drums, banjo and keyboards.

Such matters might seem trivial, but not when it comes to the bottom line. Years ago, Shupe and his father, Ted, who managed much of his son's career, had this conversation:

Ted: "Where are we going to put your CDs (in record stores)?"

Ryan: "I don't know."

Ted: "Well, we've got to be something."

What is that something? "It's kind of a modern twist on authentic American instruments," the younger Shupe says of his music. "Most of the instruments we use have been around a long time. It's good old American country bluegrass music with blues and rock. They all branched off from the same core group of instruments. It's a mix between the Dave Matthews Band and Dixie Chicks, without the political agenda."

Let's just call it the category of Ryan Shupe (say it "Shoop"), and now that we have that settled, it's worth noting that Shupe, after decades of shredding the fiddle at every gig and festival and Fourth of July celebration from Lagoon to Nashville to Austin to Portland to Telluride, has finally struck a record deal well.

Some 2 1/2 years ago, he signed with a label for the first time — Capitol Records. Until then, Shupe and the RubberBand made their own CDs (four of them, to be exact), handling every part of the process themselves, from distribution to press releases to the album cover artwork. Since signing with Capitol, they have produced an album called "Dream Big," which showcases their fine musicianship, tight harmonies and upbeat, optimistic lyrics that run counter to the life-sucks trend in pop music. The album's title cut climbed to No. 23 on the country-western charts, getting radio airplay around the country (not to mention Amy Grant's TV show, "Three Wishes").

"I guess it was sort of a self-fulfilling song," Shupe once told The Desert Sun. "When I wrote it I wasn't actually planning on playing music for a living."

· · · · ·

If this spare, 35-year-old man with the shaved head dreamed big, he did it patiently and realistically. For Shupe, dreaming big meant being able to play music for a living,

period. To do that, Shupe lived frugally, driving a VW bug so long that it went through two engines, and subsisted on a steady diet of Taco Bell. For years, he and his band drove to their gigs in a van with a trailer in tow to hold their equipment. On tour, they stayed with acquaintances or sometimes slept in the van.

To remain in the music biz, Shupe mowed lawns, taught music and snowboard lessons, maxed out his credit cards and hired himself out as a studio musician for other bands, commercial jingles and videogame and movie soundtracks ("Work and the Glory," "Xena Warrior Princess," a CBS TV series whose name he can't even remember).

These days he lives in a modest house in Provo with his wife and baby and hasn't made much use of that public relations degree he took from Weber State. The big money hasn't rolled in yet, but he's still playing his fiddle for a living.

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