Visiting Phnom Penh this weekend is Ryan Cook, a Canadian singer-songwriter in the classic vintage country style with a good dose of hillbilly rolled in. “It’s somewhere between folk and country and hillbilly, and I do some yodelling,” he says in explanation. “But it’s definitely a modern landscape for the lyrics and storylines, they’re all set right here in the present and the future. The music itself is a throwback to more classic country. All with a Canadian twist; I’m not from Alabama or anything.”
As a teenager he was influenced by Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains. “I progressively got into heavier and heavier music. I was always a singer, a screamer for scream bands. So in my late teens and early 20s I was singing in death metal and punk bands in Nova Scotia. [But] I had grown up on all this old country music.
“I come from a big dairy farming family, my grandparents and my lineage is all farmers who listen to nothing but country and hillbilly music. I came back around to it around about the time Johnny Cash died. Then the movie came out, there was a big boom for retro rockabilly and old hillbilly stuff, and I kind of circled back to it. I grew up on it so I feel like I know it.”
Not, however, in the way one might think. “I started writing country songs as a lark, a piss-up for my metalhead friends. They thought it was quite amusing, and we did some demos, did a few showcase concerts and people started to take it quite seriously. It was just one big happy accident. Now it’s been 13 years, and I’ve been really blessed. In Canada I ended up touring on folk circuits and being able to make a career out of it.”
It’a a career that has seen him open for such names as Dwight Yoakam, Roseanne Cash and Travis Tritt, record a string of award-winning albums, and performed in musical tributes to Merle Haggard, Merle Travis and Hank Williams Snr.
Ryan now spends life on the road. “I do about 80 or 100 concerts a year. I spend the winters in South East Asia – the weather in Canada is brutal between December and April, so I just stopped booking shows at that time of year. I started coming to South East Asia, a nice budget place to travel, it’s tropical and sub-tropical climate. So I dabble in doing the odd show over here. I’ve done quite a few shows in Taiwan, I have a network of people in Taipei, I played at some festivals in the south. This will be my first time performing in Cambodia.”
Coming up this year for Ryan, along with an appearance in August at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the longest continuously run outdoor music festival in North America, is the release of a new album, Old Faithfuls, that revives the gospel side of country. “It’s ten hyms, the old faithful gospel numbers, a lot of the ones that country artists like Johnny Cash recorded over the years. I grew up hearing a lot of that in the Baptist churches. I started going back to church this past year in my travels and noticed that they don’t play that kind of music anymore in churches. They play more like pop music with inspirational words, and I can’t relate to it at all. But the old songs from the 19th Century, whether you’re religious or not, when they’re sung well they have a real power to them, a real resonance, they’re really meaningful. So I wanted to tackle those songs.”
Ryan plays at Alchemy on Friday night at 8 pm, and – who knows? – he’s on the road and might stick around.