In planning for last year’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a good friend of mine was very excited after we confirmed Hiss Golden Messenger, the critically acclaimed project helmed by North Carolina songwriter MC Taylor.
As luck would have it, the guitar player (and North Carolina native) for Hiss Golden Messenger – Ryan Gustafson – was a pretty danged good singer/songwriter in his own right and my buddy Rob was insistent that we reach out and book a solo set for Ryan under his own project, The Dead Tongues.
Rob was spot on with this booking. Ryan – with just his guitar – held an early Friday afternoon crowd spellbound with his songcraft. I caught a bit of the set at Cumberland Park, stretched out on the grass, and it was a moment of peaceful repose before I began an incredibly hectic festival weekend.
Unsung Passage, the brand new record from The Dead Tongues, drops today. Joined by a score of collaborators, the collection of tunes has cello, banjo, and fiddle providing a delightful sonic backdrop to Gustafson’s stellar and soul plumbing songwriting.
I recently caught up with Ryan to chat about the new record, hitchhiking, and some of his favorite songwriters.
BRO – You have spent a lot of time backpacking and hitchhiking around the world. What is one thing you learned about yourself out there on your solo travels?
RG – It helped me realize that I need people in ways I hadn’t realized. Some of those early moments in deep solitude and aloneness, or in times of vulnerability, taught me to open up to people more than I had previously and that really went on to deepen my relationships with those close to me and in the brief interactions I had with total strangers.
BRO – How has playing and working with MC Taylor helped you as a songwriter?
BRO – It can be inspiring to get into the other’s creative processes, particularly someone I respect, and I certainly found that to be the case with MC. One thing I took away from the time I spent with Hiss Golden Messenger, and MC in particular, is that you can’t put a timeline on any of this thing, not your career or your songwriting. Sometimes it’s going to take 25 years of touring to start making a living at it, whereas on the other end it might take a month to write an entire album. It’s not about the end of the line. It’s about the journey there. I can’t speak for MC and say that he agrees with that statement, but given the way he’s gone about his life, I bet he would, and that’s a concept he helped illuminate a bit more to me.
BRO – Last great book you read?
RG – The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson.
BRO – We are featuring “Won’t Be Long” on this month’s Trail Mix. What’s the story behind the song?
RG – I think of it as a song about how we can lose ourselves in life sometimes. We can get lost in the fight, whatever that may be, and disconnect in ways. Also, it’s about the journey we’re all on, in some capacity, of not only trying to survive but figuring out what do with this life we have.
BRO – IF you were to invite three other songwriters over for a pickin’ party, who would you invite?
RG – That’s tough. Andrew Marlin, because he knows so many old-time tunes. Chance McCoy, because he’s such a vibey fiddler. And Julie Byrne, because her album Not Even Happiness gives me chills and takes me to a very deep, watery place.
Friends and fans of Ryan Gustafson can catch him tomorrow evening at Pisgah Brewing in Asheville, as he celebrates the release of Unsung Passage. After that, Ryan is off to Europe, with a host of dates across the continent on tap.
For more information on The Dead Tongues, some insight into the new record, or when Ryan and his band might end up on a stage near you, be sure to check out his website.
Be sure to take a listen to “Won’t Be Long,” along with new tunes from Holly Golightly & The Brokeoffs, Bishop Gunn, Keats, and The Promise Is Hope on this month’s Trail Mix.