Bob Ryan,
The Spirit of Andy Devine
(Leaping Armadillo, 2007)

Danny Schmidt,
Little Grey Sheep
(Waterbug, 2008)

I am impressed that, unlike a whole lot of musicians who live there, Danny Schmidt was born and raised in Austin -- and then left. He dwells and works in Charlottesville, Va., these days. I am, on the other hand, less taken with the cover of Little Grey Sheep, which depicts two fornicating animals of the species. I'm sure that any 13-year-olds who find their way to this CD will judge it endlessly hilarious.

Those probably irrelevant considerations aside, Schmidt is a singer-songwriter of the sort that causes many to think of a "folk singer" as somebody who plays acoustic guitar and writes all of his or her own material. Even Bob Dylan, who invented the singer-songwriter genre in the modern sense, long ago expressed exasperation at that sort of performance practice and exercise in linguistic abuse. I realize, however, that ours is a minority view. We have now reached the point at which performers are actually criticized when they don't write their own songs. The noble art of song interpretation, if not dead (and even showing some hints of resurrection), has been in eclipse these past four decades.

On the other hand, Schmidt isn't bad at this. Sheep's songs are set in pleasantly modest acoustic arrangements and put to better-than-average tunes. Schmidt reminds even the skeptical among us that you can still create decent self-composed songs with simple folk-like melodies and interesting lyrics. Much to my surprise, I hear little I don't like, and I don't mean that as the stingy praise it sounds like. Schmidt is pretty good, and he's given us a set of solid, worthwhile songs that you'll want to hear more than once.

Arizona-based singer-songwriter Bob Ryan's influences in The Spirit of Andy Devine are as much pop and rock as folk. Unlike Schmidt's work, nothing suggests any particular awareness of traditional music even though some of the songs are set in rural landscapes where most folk songs come from. Ryan's most full-bodied songs observe the closing of the West's wide-open spaces. If these are laments, they are clear-eyed ones. As one who resides on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, I am witness to the ways in which those who live in the West have squandered their heritage even as they loudly proclaim it; that process began, actually, as soon as their ancestors settled there in the 19th century, and it continues relentlessly. The imaginary West, in which all Americans used to be immersed, is a more congenial place than the real one -- one theme, or so I infer, of Ryan's perhaps most compellingly realized piece, "South Dakota Bound."

Decades ago, character actor Andy Devine (1905-1977) was familiar to Western-movie fans as a comic sidekick with a funny frog's croak of a voice. His spirit does not haunt the West in any literal sense, of course, but I confess I don't get Ryan's metaphor either ("The spirit of Andy Devine/Hovers over the West"). Simply from a lot of reading, living and geographical location, I probably know more about the West than the average fellow citizen. The notion that Devine plays a role in anything beyond some fading memories of Saturday-afternoon matinees escapes me.

I should add that Spirit is beautifully produced by Ryan and studio veteran Billy Williams, who find a perfect mix of acoustic guitar up front and electric guitars, percussion and (sometimes) strings tastefully behind.

[ visit Bob Ryan's website ]

[ visit Danny Schmidt's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

27 September 2008

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The Spirit of Andy Devine

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