While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.
Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.
Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).
He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.
“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”
Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.
Thank you, sir!