Traditional folk music is a cornerstone of the American story. Perhaps no one is going more to make sure that it is not forgotten than St. Louis’s Ryan Spearman. Between winning awards for exploring the connections between sustainability and music, touring around the world, working with Muddy Waters Theater Company and more, Spearman also finds time to work as an instructor at a school focusing on folk music.
BB: We’ll start with an easy one… how did you get into music?
RS: I'm not sure when it all started. Music just always spoke to me in a profound way. Most of my earliest childhood memories involve music in some way or another...I'm just wired that way, I guess.
BB: Did you grow up in a musical family?
RS: Yes and no. My parents didn't play music but my neighbor's father did. He played banjo in a bluegrass band and guitar in a country band and there were a lot of jams and practices in their basement. I think that really influenced my dad. He started listening to the bluegrass shows on the local station every week and he even bought a kit and built a banjo. He made my older brother take lessons but it didn't stick (years later, I dug it out of the closet and made it my own). All of those experiences probably had a lot to do with where I am today, musically.
BB: I noticed that you’re a multi-instrumentalist, how many instruments do you play?
RS: I've got about six instruments that I would say I actually play regularly enough to claim any kind of competency on them: guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, harmonica, and lap steel. I'm just attracted to most any instrument. I've never understood how someone can see and hear a new instrument and not be absolutely compelled to try it out for themselves.
BB: Is there a particular instrument you gravitate to when writing music?
RS: I used to write mostly on guitar but these days I'm all over the place. I've been writing a lot with my banjo these last couple of years.
BB: Were you always into folk music or did you guy through a punk/metal phase as most of us did as teens?
RS: Yeah, my first guitar was an electric. Some of my guitar heroes at the time were Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Kirk Hammit (I loved the early Metallica records). A few years later I got heavy into Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and those two influences turned me on to the power and adaptability of folk music.
BB: You’re a music instructor as well at the Folk School of St. Louis. Tell us a bit about your experience as a teacher and someone who helps promote the traditions of folk music. Like I said before, I'm just wired to love music and it's always been such a profoundly important part of my life that I can't help but want to share it with others.
RS: So, I've found my way into a variety of endeavors that have allowed me to "spread the folk gospel": I've taught at the Folk School in St. Louis over the years and now I'm the educational programming consultant there. I teach online at PlayBetterBanjo.com and at OnlineLessonVideos.com. My wife and I founded the St. Louis Folk & Roots Festival. I've made music-folk and roots music in particular- the focus of my life's work and it makes me feel happy and useful when I can help somebody else out in their own acoustic journey.
BB: With it’s long and deeply rooted history, getting into folk music can seem a daunting task. What artists would you suggest for someone just getting into folk music?
RS: Wow. That's a hard one to narrow down so I'll list a bunch of my favorites and a bunch of the artists that really inspired in the beginning of my folk dabblings:
Cannon's Jug Stompers
Memphis Jug Band
Kirk and Sam McGee
Fiddlin' Arthur Smith
The New Lost City Ramblers
I'll just stop there because I could go on forever.
BB: What’s been your biggest moment thus far in your music career?
RS: This is gonna sound a bit cliche' but I'd like to say that this very moment is the biggest thus far. I've got twenty plus years of professional musical experience behind me and I've managed to work myself into a nice comfortable place where I feel very secure in my art these days in both a financial and an artistic sense and that feeling has allowed me to really let go and enjoy the experience.
I'm always a bit more excited about where I'm going than where I've been. That's the human experience, right?