A Big-Hearted Voice
July 13, 2017
Not often do you find yourself standing in front of someone who you can instantly feel would a be good person to know, a "one piece of advice from them and it changes your whole outlook on life" kind of person.
When that someone is in a basement full of friends, belting out songs that are familiar yet yearningly original with everyone around you singing along, that feeling intensifies. And when you get so caught up in the moment that you don't realize the person isn't using a microphone or an amp to fill the dingy, dirt-floor room with modern folk music that makes you long for a time decades before you were even born, you know you've found someone special.
Ryan Kerr is a musician who can make you feel like that. Though he's from North Manchester, he can be found playing shows in Fort Wayne anywhere from actual music venues to someone's living room or porch. His folk-punk, Americana music is decidedly Midwestern, but bigger than that.
Kerr, a big guy, not only in stature but also in presence, voice and heart - has been heavily influenced by family.
"Raising children has changed songwriting for me, and continues to. I think my perspective on things has just broadened a bit over the last 10 years of being a father, and now I'm mindful of a legacy for my kids," said Kerr via email.
Kerr's solo music has changed a lot from the beginning.
"Through middle school and high school I was in a few different punk bands. My family moved around a lot, so sticking with one band was really difficult, and by the time I was a senior I was writing solo acoustic stuff. At first the project was a complete joke. I wrote story songs inspired by westerns I was watching at the time. I played a show at a local coffeehouse because they needed another act on the bill, and I ended having a lot of fun. That was when I realized that being a solo musician on a bill with a bunch of bands was exciting. I started writing songs that weren't jokes and playing shows while standing up and moving around with folks in the audience. I didn't know anybody in northern Indiana, so I just started booking shows at every coffeehouse and bar that would have me," he said
Young acts tend to have a rough start quality-wise, but the friends you make when starting out can last a lifetime.
"They were terrible shows, but I started making friends with some bands that would ask me to come play bills with them. It took awhile, but the solo sets on full-band billings started to make sense. Since 2011, I've toured as much as being a father and holding down a full time job will allow. Booking is a lot easier now because I have friends and know folks all over this half of the country. It's still funny to watch scene kids get bummed when they see me get out of the van with an acoustic guitar and suspenders, but I try my best to give everyone at every show the best performance I can. Oftentimes they end up buying some music from me or coming out to see me the next time I'm in town," said Kerr.
Kerr is no stranger to touring or to playing actual music venues, but intimacy is where he feels the most at ease.
"I love house shows. There is something really special about being invited into somebody's home or onto their property to play music for them and their friends. They also work really well for solo sets because I don't have to worry about a microphone and can just have fun with good people," he said. There's definitely a charm to not being reliant on electricity or certain equipment to sound good, or to make sound at all, especially in the current world of computer-based instruments and highly processed musical output.
Recently, during a concert for 60,000-plus people in Germany, the power went out on Green Day mid-song. With some quick thinking (and their already electrically catchy songs) the show went on with a lone guitar ringing out and the air filled with voices. What does this have to do with Ryan Kerr? The audience singing there in that field and an audience sitting in a living room watching Kerr are feeling the same thing: camaraderie.
Camaraderie usually takes time to form. Through experience it grows and strengthens. But when you watch someone play songs that spilled out of them through an open valve located behind the ribs, in the middle of the lungs, it makes it something more than just music or more than just a show to pass the time. You can find camaraderie like this at a lot of punk shows, but you can also find it a Ryan Kerr show, and that's a distinctive, special thing.
If you threw some distorted power chords behind Kerr's vocals, you'd have one of the best working-class punk bands in the area. If you had a grand piano and a violin sitting in a high-ceilinged hall, you'd have a beautiful soundtrack to a film like No Country For Old Men. With his mostly rhythmic acoustic guitar and without a lot of melody, Kerr stands out among singer-songwriters in northeast Indiana for his punk ethos.
Though you'll most likely find Kerr strapped to his Godin Seagull guitar with his face a little flushed from singing across a room, whatever its size, when he's amplified it's even better. When accompanied by Robert Lugo, Ian Skeans and Aaron Bushong, who make up his live band, something exceptional happens.
Lugo plays bass and does backing vocals. He also engineered, mixed and mastered Kerr's superb full-length record, Live Well.
"That came out in February of 2016. That record has a lot of full band songs on it, but I wasn't playing with a band at the time. I had a lot of friends that were in other bands and were super helpful and excited to come into the studio and play parts for me," said Kerr.
Skeans plays lead guitar and also recorded a split EP with Kerr back in 2013 while Bushong plays drums. Each musician is talented, and together they truly create something special: one of the best sounding live shows Fort Wayne has to offer from a local artist.
Kerr is currently recording songs for a future record and a compilation.
"We're finishing up the tracking for a song that has been in the works for a little while. That will be on a project that a couple other Midwest acts are involved with, and I'm really stoked.
"Then the plan is to get in the studio and start tracking the next record. I couldn't be more excited to put a record out with this group of guys. They're all great friends and great players. It'll be my first album that is recorded with an actual band that I'm playing shows with and are a major part of the writing process," said Kerr.