Q&A with Ryan Lee Crosby, timeless power of Mississippi Delta, refracted by Hindustani slide guitar and his own unique style

"I believe that each of us has a spirit (lower case) and is a part of Spirit (upper case). Our spirits are the essence of who we are and the urges of spirit are part of what propels us on this journey."

Ryan Lee Crosby: Winter Hill Blues

Ryan Lee Crosby’s new album Winter Hill Blues (2022) captures the timeless power of music from the Mississippi Delta, refracted by influences of Hindustani slide guitar and Crosby’s own unique approach to the style. Its nine songs resonate with a sound and spirit forged from his life as a traveling musician and his studies with masters of the Delta and Indian traditions. Produced by Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson at his Delta-Sonic Sound studio in Memphis, Winter Hill Blues. And listening to Winter Hill Blues, it’s obvious Crosby has learned them well. Today, Crosby’s most crucial influence remains 74-year-old Holmes, who is his mentor and the leading proponent of Bentonia blues—a haunting style characterized by high singing and eerie minor-key melodies, played on open-tuned guitars, that emanates from the small central-Delta town that lends the music its name. After a series of European solo tours that became an odyssey of musical self-discovery through playing long sets and traveling many hours alone, reflecting on his music and life, Crosby’s thirst for new inspiration and his fascination with the Bentonia sound led him there in 2019. He traveled south from his Boston-area home to begin his apprenticeship with Holmes, who learned to play from the Bentonia style’s inventor, Henry Stuckey, and Stuckey’s inheritor Jack Owens.

(Ryan Lee Crosby / Photo by Lisette Rooney)

The gentle cadence of his six-string also reflects Bentonia blues’ deep roots in the African tradition, as expressed in modern times by Mali’s Ali Farke Touré and Boubacar Traoré, both of whom Crosby cites as influences. Another source of inspiration that echoes through Crosby’s playing, and even the microtonal shifts of his singing, is his appreciation of Hindustani guitar and chaturangui, a fretless instrument from India, which was created under the guidance of that music’s leading light, Debashish Bhattacharya. Crosby’s earliest influences were Iggy Pop, John Lee Hooker, the Velvet Underground, and the Ramones, and he began playing guitar in bands when he was 14, after having the instrument for only a week.

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Ryan Lee Crosby & Nick Loss-Eaton

How has the Blues and World/Ethnic music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The blues and music traditions of the world have led me to believe that we are all one and that music has the capacity to help us cultivate a conscious connection to ourselves, to each other and to the divine. I personally see the study and practice of blues music as a path to more compassionate living. The music was born of an urge to transcend suffering and experience freedom. This foundational intention has the power to speak to all people in all walks of life, because the desire for freedom is a universal human need. It is vitally important to honor the roots and meaning of the music, but it is also possible to affirm the power of the blues to bring meaning and healing to all people everywhere.

A love of the blues has taken me all around the world, both physically and symbolically. It was the influence of Bentonia and North Mississippi blues in particular that helped me to find a sense of connection with others - in Europe, in Mississippi and around the US - not only as a performing musician, but as a student and also as a teacher, too. The hypnotic one chord style in Bentonia and North Mississippi (especially when played with a slide) led me to realize one day that the music shared similar qualities with Indian classical (raga) music - the trance inducing drones, the resonant melodies and forward moving rhythms. I was fortunate to take a number of lessons with the Indian slide guitar guru Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya and to study for a period with the great Khyal vocalist Warren Senders. I also take lessons when I can with South African guitar virtuoso Derek Gripper and have a Boston based mentor named Tom Alden. All of these wonderful teachers have reshaped the way in which I think about sound and music. These teachers, along with Paul Rishell, helped me prepare to meet and be mentored by Jimmy "Duck" Holmes in Bentonia. Through learning from each of these artists and by teaching from my own experience, I am continuing to develop an appreciation and respect for tradition, while also choosing to think of music more and more simply as elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and space.

"I don't really miss anything from the blues of the past. So much of the music and tradition is still right here... which also includes the conditions that created it. If I have one hope, it's that people will recognize the opportunity to see the music as a path for compassion and healing, thereby waking up to the truths of their own lives and the lives of others." (Ryan Lee Crosby / Photo by Lisette Rooney)

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I experience my sound as being very much rooted in what I have learned from my teachers, but also specific to the 12-string guitar. I feel that I relate to blues through a view that was shaped by studying Indian classical music... as well as my early years coming up in a punk influenced rock band. My philosophy of music is that it is a path to wellness, healing and freedom - music offers us an opportunity to live in harmony with ourselves, with each other, with nature and with the divine. The logic and order of music is an expression of the logic and order of the universe. Sound and music provide a gateway between the dimensions, which offer us the ability to feel what we cannot see. Both recorded and live music give us this gift. I know that when I listen to the 1931 recordings of Skip James, it is a form of time travel and yet also a way to experience what my mentor Tom Alden calls "the wide present."

In terms of my songbook, it comes essentially from my own life experience, what my family has gone through and the music that has been shown to me directly by the people who have taught me. If something is in my repertoire it is because I lived it or it was shown to me by a musician in person or I saw an artist play it. There are nuances - Robert Belfour was not a teacher of mine, but a tremendous influence on my approach. Seeing him once in person profoundly affected how I play and tune my guitar. Also, I have put effort in transcribing music of the Bentonia school and done so from records, since nearly all of the artists have passed on. I do, however, consider everything that I observe in those records within the context of learning from Jimmy "Duck" Holmes and my time in Bentonia.

My creative drive comes from a desire to be healthy, clear, kind and free. Many of my young adult years were spent living in dark, self-destructive ways. For a long time, members of my family and I were quite unwell. Music has always been a refuge from these difficulties - from loneliness, anxiety, depression and addiction. When I was younger, music showed me a path towards light. Now, I try to live in that light in the present, each and every day.

"Each of us, as a spirit in a human body, has a capacity for spiritual life because we are a part of something greater than ourselves, something divine. Music is an expression of the divine and the natural order of the universe. As living beings, we exist in rhythm, we seek to be in harmony, and there is a kind of melody in how we think and relate as our lives unfold." (Ryan Lee Crosby / Photo by Eleonora Rancati)

What´s been the highlights in your career? What do you think is key to a music life well lived?

For me, the highlights have included any time that I have been able to be or work in spaces where my heroes were - this includes playing at CBGBs in New York and the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia, recording with Bruce Watson (from Fat Possum), as well as learning from Jimmy and Debashish ji, and also when I've been able to experience things that my parents would have been proud to witness, such as playing theaters in Europe, hearing my recordings on the radio and seeing my work positively reviewed in publications that influenced my previous musical development. Those things are meaningful to me not for the attention, but as a way of measuring growth and as some kind of evidence that I'm working to fulfill my potential. I think that part of a musical life well lived includes honoring the gifts one is given, which can be done through an intention to continually evolve and mature. It also includes self-love and care, so that a sense of worth comes from within and so that any of the external markers of progress, when and if they come, can be appreciated as simply that. A person can be a deep and true musical artist without ever receiving any public recognition. In fact, I believe that oftentimes, external indicators of success can be quite distracting.

What touched you from Malian / Indian music? What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

I love and appreciate the beautiful music from Mali and India for its rhythmic and melodic depth, as well as its ability to open the mind and heart. I believe that technique is a means to express what is in one's soul and not much more. Sometimes, very little technique is needed to create a truthful, life affirming expression of one's experience. Iggy Pop's early albums with the Stooges are a great example of this. Technique is the means with which one expresses what's in their heart, but it is not what's actually in their heart and soul. How a musician values technique may say something about who they are, but technique itself is not an expression of soul. For better or worse, what's in one's heart and soul inevitably comes through in their music, whether they are a pop star, an unknown musician or a classically trained artist. Music doesn't lie.

"Music is an expression of truth and a doorway to the divine. It is a path by which to live one's life. If one gives oneself completely to music, then music will take care of you. If you seek to honor music through a path of service to others, benevolent forces will come to support you. No sincere effort in music is ever a waste." (Ryan Lee Crosby / Photo by Lisette Rooney)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don't really miss anything from the blues of the past. So much of the music and tradition is still right here... which also includes the conditions that created it. If I have one hope, it's that people will recognize the opportunity to see the music as a path for compassion and healing, thereby waking up to the truths of their own lives and the lives of others. I look at experiences I've had with Jimmy "Duck" Holmes at the Blue Front Cafe in Bentonia as a model. I came into the community as an outsider and have always felt welcomed by him. My interactions with him have helped me to be more respectful, appreciative and hopefully more sensitive. I try to show him appreciation and to give back regularly. I try to listen when he tells me what he feels I should know. He, in turn, by welcoming me from Boston, has helped me to feel some healing for the losses in my own life. We've never talked about any of this directly - there hasn't been a need to. The music has done that work for us... and I hope it can do that for many more people, as well. This is something I want to put forward in my own musical journey.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Because blues has the power to speak to people all over the world, I want the music to give people a feeling of being connected to all of life and to see themselves in others. I hope that the music helps people to feel less alone. As mentioned, I believe the blues can help us to build compassion from the inside out. Blues helps us cope with the challenges in our own lives... and in doing so, we can then extend that outward across the human race and beyond. The music gives us an accessible means to look at difficult truths of the past, present and future. If we are willing to do so, it could have a very positive effect on the world.

"I love and appreciate the beautiful music from Mali and India for its rhythmic and melodic depth, as well as its ability to open the mind and heart. I believe that technique is a means to express what is in one's soul and not much more. Sometimes, very little technique is needed to create a truthful, life affirming expression of one's experience. Iggy Pop's early albums with the Stooges are a great example of this. Technique is the means with which one expresses what's in their heart, but it is not what's actually in their heart and soul." (Ryan Lee Crosby & Jimmy "Duck" Holmes / Photo by Gilbert Vowell)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Music is an expression of truth and a doorway to the divine. It is a path by which to live one's life. If one gives oneself completely to music, then music will take care of you. If you seek to honor music through a path of service to others, benevolent forces will come to support you. No sincere effort in music is ever a waste.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

I believe that each of us has a spirit (lower case) and is a part of Spirit (upper case). Our spirits are the essence of who we are and the urges of spirit are part of what propels us on this journey.

Each of us, as a spirit in a human body, has a capacity for spiritual life because we are a part of something greater than ourselves, something divine. Music is an expression of the divine and the natural order of the universe. As living beings, we exist in rhythm, we seek to be in harmony, and there is a kind of melody in how we think and relate as our lives unfold. Spirit is something we can’t generally see, but we can feel. The spirit of something greater communicates with us constantly and music is one way of receiving that communication and participating in the conversation. Through this dialogue, we have an opportunity to learn and grow and evolve, which I believe is part of the purpose and meaning of life. Another meaning of life is to love. Music helps us realize this purpose and meaning, as well.

Ryan Lee Crosby - Home

(Ryan Lee Crosby / Photo by Lisette Rooney)

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