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Barb Ryman: Press Kit/Reviews

St. Paul Pioneer Press Review

Barb Ryman's Talent Unfolds On 'Lay Me Open'

I've never met Barb Ryman, but after listening to her new album, "Lay Me Open," I feel like I know her. Family, lovers, ex-lovers, heroes, warts and all.

Which, of course, is what music does. Or is supposed to do. Alas, too many careful souls out there who call themselves "singer / songwriters" these days reveal nothing of themselves to their listeners and merely execute a connect-the-dots exercise in rhyme-and-gloss.

But taking in the Twin Cities-based Ryman's sophomore effort is a lot like sitting across the table from a new acquaintance at an autumn-chilled coffee shop: Sometimes she talks too much; sometimes her bleeding heart, obvious observations and the way she puts things make you blush. But you swallow your tongue because you can't help being amazed by the power of her presence and the sound of her voice.

You can't help but listen.

Ryman is a forty-something Texas native who returned to the folk-music wars after a 20-year hiatus, and this batch of songs reflects all the potholes and brass rings she has encountered on her long, strange trip back. Her debut of two years ago, "Winds of Good Fortune," had some promising moments, but "Lay Me Open" is a much stronger, more fully realized vision.

With a voice that alternately recalls Lani Hall, Janis Ian and Rosanne Cash, Ryman traces her metamorphosis from 60s folkie to family woman to reinvigorated artist. "With age comes wisdom," says an old bromide, but in Ryman's case, there are other things, too: patience, a knack for sly social commentary, a sharp wit steeped in the storytelling folk tradition of Steve Goodman.

Her ode to a homeless woman, "Maggie of the Street," is one of the album's most powerful tracks - for its sympathetic, but never patronizing, approach. And on paper, Ryman's "Bureaucracy" might read like another ordinary letter-to-the-editor rant on the red-taping of America, as the singer bemoans the hassle of changing a class at the university and the universal quagmire of health insurance. But her tribulations are, fittingly, put to square-dance music, with a grab-your-fellow-sucker-by-the-arm chorus: "Whirl, whirl, round and round, back and forth, up and down/ If that paper pile gets low, we'll make more rules so you can go."

When Ryman focuses her muse on the family unit, she's not nearly as deft. The prosaic, if heartfelt, "Broken Families" offers little true insight, while the pedestrian, if mildly amusing, "All-American Dysfunctional Family" could be the rejected plot for a Fox TV sitcom - from five years ago.

Ryman fares much better when writing about matters of the heart, from the aching title track to her exquisite ode to grown-up love, "Letting Go," to her brittle break-up songs, "Moving Out" and "Love Gone Wrong," and her heartfelt tribute to explorer Ann Bancroft, "To the End of the World," which benefits from a sweet clarinet part from Ryman's 11-year-old son, Tommy.
Talk about grass-roots music.

"Some laugh and say I am a failure to draw a crowd that's so small/ But I can recall a gig in St. Paul where I got to play to no one at all," she sings on the wonderfully self-deprecating waltz, "Playing for Two (at a Club Called the Blue Guitar in the Town of Stillwater)." "Yes it's strange when your life is half through and you realize no one's ever heard of you."

For Ryman, that shouldn't be the case for much longer if she keeps this up "Lay Me Open" may have been released on her own Renegade label, but the next one is bound to be worthy of the likes of Red House, Philo or Rounder - three labels with the tradition of cultivating artists who reveal something of themselves to their listeners. Artists such as Ryman.

In her press kit, Ryman includes her business card. Complete with the requisite black-and white picture of the artist, it is one of those cheesy Music Biz 101 things you see tacked up at the music store bulletin board/graveyard, along with a hundred other polka, wedding and cover bands looking for jobs.

It seems a particularly ignoble, the altogether necessary, piece of promotional propaganda for an artist of Ryman's talents. But along with the name, booking phone number and mailing address, it gets something right. Underneath the artist's name and photograph, there is the simple description of her avocation: "Singer / Songwriter."
Jim Walsh - St. Paul Pioneer Press