Wrestling with demons

Ryan Cook straddles country's divide

Belle Hatfield belle.hatfield@thevanguard.ca
Published on February 12, 2013

By Belle Hatfield

On Sunday, Feb. 3, Haley's Lounge at the Grand Hotel was the site of a shooting – a video shoot, to be precise, in support of country singer/songwriter Ryan Cook's latest album.

Wrestling with Demons will be available Feb. 28, but the first single off the album, Honky Tonk Music and Tatooed Women, hit the airwaves Feb. 12 and the video in support of the single will begin airing a week later on Feb. 19.

The Vanguard spoke with Cook after the videotaping session wrapped up. This marks the first narrative video Cook has been involved with. It tells the story of a hen-pecked husband who takes momentary solace at a local bar in the company of some honky-tonk music and a few tattooed women.

Like a lot of Cook's music, this latest album offers a traditional country sound with contemporary lyrics. His themes are rooted in 21st-century culture, but the crisp, clear sound of the steel guitar harkens listeners back to country's early days.

“My goal has always been to blend traditional-sounding music, whether it be western swing or country or folk and juxtapose that with really modern themes,” Cook said.

The contemporary themes are trumpeted in titles like Facebook Waltz, Lulu Lemon and Children of the Corn (about genetically modified food). But he isn’t above reaching back into country’s rich history, either.  He covers I Don't Hurt Anymore, an old song first made popular by Hank Snow in the 1950s, in a duet with Nova Scotia singer/songwriter Jennah Barry.

Barry will be joining Cook on tour in support of the album starting March 1. The duo will perform Sunday, March 3 at the MacKinnon-Cann Inn on Willow Street at 7 p.m.

 “It’s going to be a really intimate show, stripped down and very personal. This is supposed to be a celebratory thing, so I guess we’ll have 35 of the people who really want to be there,” he said.

This is his first album since the Yarmouth native went to Nashville in 2010 to produce a big-production studio project.

“I went there and made this big expensive album. It was very exciting and it lived up to its title,” said Cook.

 Peaks and Valleys was a critical success, earned him awards and helped him secure gigs with some of country music’s giants, like Travis Tritt, Dwight Yokum and Rosanne Cash.

Referring to his two-week tour with Tritt in 2011, Cook says, “That was probably, to this day, the biggest experience I’ve had. It was a time in my life when I could really feel the momentum in my career happening.

“I try to be really honest. My show is modelled after the singers like Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb. It’s all about the big smile, telling jokes, poking some fun at myself and being outward with the audience.”

Cook lives for those moments on stage. In that moment, adrenaline pumping, the knot of nerves releasing, relating to the audience – when he’s performing – that’s the payoff for everything else he needs to do to get him to that moment.

“I spend 80 per cent of my year either travelling or doing other administrative work. So basically the hour-and-a-half that I’m on stage, that’s when I actually love what I’m doing. It makes it worth it,” he said.

He laughs at the perception most people have of the music industry.

“It’s so opposite of what anyone might think, unless they’ve done it,” he said.

He’s been chasing that adrenaline rush, what he describes as the runner’s high, since he stood on stage in a talent competition at Maple Grove Education Centre when he was in Grade 8.

“It’s still the same thrill that I felt in the moment,” he remembers. Back then it was heavy metal music and his audience was mostly young guys. Now his audience is mostly women. Country versus heavy metal. It might appear to be a study in contrasts, but scratch beneath the surface. There is a sub-text of alienation, of fighting against the flow, in Cook’s country music path.

“There’s always a conflict. Me being a person that is trying to win people over on a style, on a format or particular genre … It’s really outside the box to be going full tilt playing this stuff that is a specific type of western music. It isn’t the current popular thing,” said Cook, adding, “I’ve been dancing around the industry for the last five years on my own, sort of in a no-man’s land. But I don’t mind being that guy.”

World Wrestling Federation (WWF) features heavily in the art on the CD cover for his new album, Wrestling with Demons. A childhood fan of the WWF, Cook has amassed a huge collection of vintage memorabilia (some of which was sold to help pay for the album).

He remains fascinated by the WWF’s larger-than-life performers and in a strange way finds himself relating to the reality of their lives, which were driven by heavy performance demands that eventually took a toll on their industry, their lives and in some instances their sanity.

“It’s just that moment when you realize that truth is so much stranger than fiction,” he says, adding,  “Now I’m a 31-year-old guy that spends my life travelling, and sleeping on people’s couches, and lugging stuff through airports, and always being tired. And I kind of feel some weird connection.”

“They were searching for the high of being in front of 80,000 people who are screaming in adulation. I’m really fascinated by it and I can definitely relate.”

Tickets for Cook’s Yarmouth show are on sale now. Call 866-698-3142. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of the CD. @bellehatfield