Interview: Ryan Hamilton talks about Jack Kerouac, Geordies and John Prine

Ryan Hamilton is a Fort Worth native, steeped in country music since birth, who just happens to have a UK backing band, The Harlequin Ghosts, who play music that shows the influence of classic rock as well as that of country and roots music. The group record for Stevie Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records, established to support emerging garage rock talent that was not being picked up by the majors. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ryan Hamilton at home in Fort Worth to talk about Jack Kerouac, Tom Petty, the impact of John Prine’s passing and the similarities of Newcastle-upon-Tyne with the American South.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
It sucks, like everyone I have my days but I’m trying to stay positive and busy. This new record, ‘Nowhere To Go But Everywhere’ has really helped.

Texas is a Republican state. What’s the feeling now about the response to COVID?
It is a nightmare. You have people who turn it into a political thing, you know, the pro-Trumpers “I will not wear a mask”. It is just a human thing, everyone is trying to stay alive. This state is so Republican it creates a very intense environment. It is not fun here because I am surrounded by idiots. But at the same time, I love Texas, I’m proud to be from here.

There is a lot more to Texas than Trump.
Exactly, well said.

Texas garage bands. Roky Erickson died last year, how influential was he on your music?
I never got to see him, but I have a lot of mutual friends who did. A friend, Bob Schneider, played with him. I have heard so many wonderful crazy stories. What a hero that dude is. I am probably just aware of him as this icon that everyone knows and looks up to, but when his music comes on you know what it is and everyone looks up, nobody is going to change the channel. Some  East Texas legendary musicians are almost bigger than their music.

You currently live in Fort Worth which has a very rich musical history, with Ornette Coleman, Delbert McClinton, T-Bone Burnett, Stephen Bruton among others coming from there. Has the local music scene influenced you?
Fort Worth has a real history of great country, or country-tinged, music.  ZZ Top got started here., Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie are also from around here.

Your new album title, ‘Nowhere To Go But Everywhere’, is a direct quote from Jack Kerouac. How long have you been a fan and what about his belt?
When I was in college in Abilene, Texas, they had this thing in the college bookstore, and it was professors’ recommending their favourite books. This was a private Christian university and a lot of them were very Jesusy books, but this one professor put ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac and beneath the book’s description he had put “O Boy”. I thought I don’t know what this is but I am getting this book and when I read it, it totally changed me. I have always loved the ‘60s, I like the music from then, Bob Dylan is a hero, so it was all of that wrapped into this book and that crazy journey, just that feeling. It was the first time that I read a book that gave me a feeling that I wanted to experience life. Since then I started playing music, I dropped out of college, my parents were very, very unhappy about that I can tell you.

You will have to prove them wrong.
They are very proud now though. I tell you, since I read that book, Kerouac has become a constant in my life. I do have his belt that he was wearing in the ‘60s, the estate gave it to me with the correct provenances. It should really be in a museum or something. He just keeps coming at me after all these years since I first read the book.

Your new record has a set of themed songs around the break-up of your marriage and your personal and actual journey on Route 66. Is this a concept album or just a collection of themed songs?
That is an interesting question. The record company wasn’t expecting another album from me anytime soon.  The last album did really well and this album was a surprise. When I went on the trip I went for me, you know, and for no other reason.  The songs didn’t exist before I went on that trip. They started to appear about halfway through, and I was on the road for about two months solid, sleeping in the mountains and the desert, my dog was with me, it was wild but it was wonderful. The songs came from that trip and so it is a little bit tricky because I guess it feels like it tells the story about the desolation and getting to that place where you start to feel hopeful, like everything is going to be OK, knowing that it is going to be a fresh start. The album is definitely sequenced to follow that, can we say it is an accidental concept album?

I will go with that.
My ex-wife is from Newcastle, and I didn’t know what a Geordie was until I meet her, somebody should have warned me about that s%&!. I must say that we are both still friends after the divorce, which was devastating and heartbreaking,  But Geordies, what a tough group of women and people.

There is a view in the UK that the North of England is, apart from the weather and the food, quite like the American South in terms of the level of wealth, cultural ties and nature of the majority of the jobs. Did you see any similarities?
I spent a lot of time in Newcastle and there is that kind of family ties that we have here in the South, the regular family meals and Sunday lunch felt familiar and the shared family pride. I have never really thought about it but you are right, there is personal pride in a family thing that is really interesting.

Your single ‘Oh No’ sounds like it was a lot of fun to record, how representative of your music is it?
That was really fun to record. You know, there are so many sad bastard songs I wrote on the trip “I’m so sad my heart is broken”, and then there were some like that which weren’t directly about the divorce. For me, there are definitely references in that song about my relationship. That was a very welcome moment of fun, recording it. I want people to listen to the album and feel good about being on this trip with me without getting depressed.

Who took all those photographs that were used to animate the video for ‘Oh No’?
I did, and you know what’s funny, with COVID we were very limited, so I said look, we need to get creative. I thought I can do that here at home, it will take me forever and I will end up hating the song, but I will do it.  It took days and days to do and includes, I don’t know, something like two thousand photos.

It is very effective
That’s good. I am proud we were able to come up with something in these challenging times. We wanted to do the video in LA with Kay Hanley, who sings on the song, but clearly, we couldn’t do that right now.

How long have you known Kay Hanley and how did you get her to record with you?
I’ve known Kay for a long time, we have a lot of mutual friends in the business. I was a fan of ‘Letters To Cleo’ in the day, and she did the soundtrack to ‘Josie and the Pussycats’ movie. I was aware of her as a fan and then through mutual friends, I started chipping away at her over ten years saying “We should really do something”. I’m glad we didn’t do anything until now because she gave this song the lift I wanted it to have in the chorus.  Because we had become friends over the years, we had a great time recording the track. 

You cover Tom Petty’s ‘Southern Accents’ on the album. Why that particular track?
Of course I relate to the lyrical content of the song coming from Texas, but everyone seems to cover the same five or six Tom Petty songs even though it is mind-numbing how many great songs he has. I heard that song live, I saw him live quite a few times, and it really moved me. I didn’t know the song though I knew the album, it wasn’t like my go-to Tom Petty album. When I heard it live I went back and listened to the album. I then got to know Mike Campbell’s guitar tech, Chinner,  and I started playing ‘Southern Accents’ occasionally. I was quite proud of my version so I sent a copy to Chinner and he said “Nah, I’d rather listen to Lucinda Williams”. I was like “What the hell Chinner?” I was then determined to work up a version of the song that would make the Petty camp proud and I put it on the album. 

How much country is there in Ryan Hamilton‘s music?
That is a really fascinating question for me. You grow up here and you are surrounded by country music all the time. I grew up ten minutes from the Fort Worth Stockyards, I grew up getting a fake id to go into saloons with swinging doors, it was still that old school bar thing. The only country albums I bought when I was a teenager were Gareth Brooks, maybe a George Strait record but I can sing along to hundreds of country songs that come on the radio, it is a part of me, you know. I didn’t have to buy the records because it was on all the time. There is a certain era of ‘90s and early ‘00s country that I find myself knowing every lyric and I never bought the records. It is really interesting to me that it is just so steeped in it here, and nobody complains because we all love it. It is just part of my DNA because of where I grew up.

So you don’t think about it, it is just there?
Yes, that’s it exactly.

Tell me about your band, The Harlequin Ghosts.
They are still my band but we can’t work together at the moment, thank God for the internet though. Nobody knew COVID was coming, so the fact I got to sneak in at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, into the studio in the UK, and finish this with those guys was like boom. We are so lucky we got it done but it would be impossible at another time, when the internet didn’t exist, to make it work as we do.

So what are they doing now?
They are OK. They are sitting around wondering when, and if, anyone is going to get to work again. I write all the songs, and our producer Dave Draper and Stevie Van Zandt are a big part of that. Those guys in the UK, Mickey Richards drums and Rob Lane bass, have been with me for years. The people outside of that has been a kind of rotating cast of characters. I like that, I like collaborating with different people. It is a little bit easier because I show up and say here is the song, let us record the song, They are really solid and I love having a British band.

A Texas songwriter with a British band, that is unusual,  what do they bring to the album?
They kill me with some of their references. I love classic rock but they can reference Thin Lizzie, Saxon and even Slade and I will go NO, give me something else. They grew up in a different place so they have different points of reference that even though we clearly meet in the middle, and we all love americana, country music and country rock ,they also have this dose of UK grown rock. It definitely mixes it up a bit. I will say it like that.

What is it like to have Steve Van Zandt as your label boss?
He has really taken me under his wing. He has sent me voice memo notes or he would just call me up on the phone for every song on this record. We ended up co-writing ‘Jesus and John Lennon’ and he has become a mentor, it would be great just to be on his label, but for him to take the time to pick up the phone is amazing. I cherish the voice memos I have from him because you hear his acoustic guitar, he asks what are you doing here or maybe suggests changing this or that. You have ten minutes from a true legend, and when he actively promotes me and demonstrates his faith in the record and me as a songwriter, it is something I am eternally thankful for. It is worth saying, we could have done one record and Stevie could have gone, well we tried it and it didn’t work. He is now Uncle Stevie to me and that is mindblowing to me because he is at a certain level of celebrity that he has from Bruce that is not lost on me.

You did the artwork for the record yourself. What was your inspiration?
I did put the whole thing together.

Did it come from your trip?
There is one photo on the front that I took on my trip of an old truck on Route 66 at a Mexican food restaurant. The other stuff, I just spent hours and hours looking through old books, going to used book stores and looking for things. I wanted it to look like the end of the world, with references to adventures, a drive-in movie, and layers of history about previous trips. I also wanted people to wonder about it and get a feeling of evil, ominous is a better word I guess.

Unsettling is another.
I wanted it to make people react. What is the point of putting an album cover out that nobody is going to notice? I want people to see it and go what is that? There have been very few albums I have bought in my life just for the album cover, but I have definitely seen some album covers that make me go I don’t know what this is, but I am buying it. That album art is my attempt at doing that.

Post COVID, what do you think the music industry will look like?
I think the music industry is going to change in the way that there will be more people performing from home. I think that is going to stay. I have friends who have been really great about getting online to keep themselves busy. It is so sad to see so many venues barely hanging on or closing, I just hope they can hang on. When we get through this, I think it will feel like it did after a war. There will be this sense of wanting to celebrate and feeling like we made it through. Let us drink a little bit more, let us sing a little bit louder. I can’t wait for that.

Despite streaming concerts, the overall drop in income has been a problem for many artists. How have you coped?
I have been OK. There are so many artists like me who operate in the middle, and they do this and it is their life and their career for quite some time, but they have never quite broken through to that next level. I am hoping this record will help me breakthrough, but operating at this level my costs are minimal, there is not a big crew to look after as far as salary goes. It sucks really because I know these people count on the money from tours and that has been taken away. I hate to look at it in any positive way because it is all terrible, but because we were not touring there is not the cost, but those people are missing out. I’m OK because I’m not touring but others aren’t and I hate that. They count on me to be out there touring, they have their year planned out, The touring musicians who play in more than one band map their year out and I have taken a piece of that away.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on your playlist?
I have been listening to a lot of John Prine. When he passed, it was so sad and it upset me more than I thought it was going to. I love seeing all these people listening to John Prine’s music, you know, more than ever. Elliot Smith, there is something about how sad things are now, that I went back to him after last listening in the ‘90s. I am almost always listening to Tom Petty and he has this ‘Wildflowers’ thing coming out and I’m excited about that.

Is there anything else you want to say before we go?
I do want to say this before we go. I think because Ginger Wildheart was such a big advocate of mine when I first started that I was grouped into the rock world in the UK. I said about a year ago, if you are going to pigeonhole me in a genre, make it americana because I don’t want to be in this rock world, no offence to anybody. It warms my heart to be able to go OK, I feel like I am home, I feel like I am talking to the people and community I feel I belong to.

 Finally, is there anything you want to say to our readers in the UK?
We keep planning tours then moving them back, so when we finally get back over I want it to be one of the most joyous tours we have played. The UK has been good to me.

And it will be americana
Absolutely.

Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts album ‘Nowehere To Go But Everywhere’ is released on 18th September on Wicked cool records..  

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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