There are three pianos and a drum set in Ryan Bonner’s kitchen. In the next room, there are 10 guitars hanging above 12 amplifiers, a banjo, a wind organ, and a cello. A giant soundboard sits in front of the double window to the backyard, alongside a computer, a turntable, and stacks of records.
Bonner has lived in this James Island house with a revolving door of Charleston musicians for six years. Last January, in the room he dubbed Blue Curtain Studios, Bonner began recording his first full-length album, Think of England. Some would call it Americana, but Bonner won’t. “To me, it’s just American,” he says. “It’s got banjo and piano, things we do here. But no sitar, no British snarkiness.”
Ironically, the title suggests the opposite.
“Every musical decision I’ve had to make, I would say, ‘What would the Beatles do?'” Bonner says. “I read that in Colonial America women would say to their daughter on their wedding night, when they’re having their first romp, ‘If it hurts, just close your eyes, darling, and think of England.'”
On the title track, “Close Your Eyes (And Think of England),” Bonner says he wanted a “Beatles-style song with a walk-up bass line and lots of oohs and aahs.” The combination of that phrase with the simple Fab Four style rounded out his thought process.
For the last few years, Bonner has performed with guitarist Cory Jarrett, bassist Malin Wagnon, and drummer Jack Friel as Ryan Bonner and the Dearly Beloved. The quartet released their first EP, Monsters in the Hallway, in 2010. While all of the members play on the new record (along with several musician friends), Bonner handles bass and banjo and even does two tracks entirely by himself — the bluesy “Hey Mama” and the soft, country closer “Circus Town.”
As they’ve done for years, Bonner and his Dearly Beloved bandmates play all over town, sometimes six or seven nights a week. But at a gig in Atlanta last year, they noticed a California band on the club’s schedule called Dearly Beloved, fronted by Juliette Lewis.
“We got a few polite letters asking us to please think about a new name at that point,” Bonner recalls. “So now we’re simply the Ryan Bonner Band.” They’ve also added guitarist Wallace Mullinax and keysman Whitt Algar to their rotation.
Bonner’s “American” style retains his early influences: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s solos, and Dave Matthews’ creativity. But it took on new life in Bonner’s mid-20s when he got the country bug, obsessing over Son Volt, Ryan Adams, Gram Parsons, and Buck Owens.
“Ryan Adams was my gateway drug leading me to country,” he recalls. “I found Gillian Welch because she sang on his album, and he covered Gram Parsons’ ‘$1,000 Wedding.’ And now this album [he holds up a vinyl copy of Parsons’ iconic Grievous Angel] has changed my life. I was driving through Texas a few years ago, and every station was a country legends station. It was awesome. Thank God they still got those in Texas. At least they’ve still got them somewhere.”
That country influence is all over Think of England. The strongest track, “Walking in Circles,” with Cary Ann Hearst on harmonies, is straight from country-songwriter heaven. It carries both the simplicity and the weight of John Prine.
While the album was mixed by Danny Kadar and mastered by Dave Harris, Bonner produced and engineered it at home. “There are times when I think it’s the perfect setup,” he says. “I can immediately get an idea down and even record it as I write it. Also, I have odd recording hours because I’m completely nocturnal, and it’s always there.”
Bonner adds that home recording can have its downsides as well. “If it’s an acoustic recording, nobody in the whole house can talk,” he says. “And we have to flip the breaker for the fridge and turn the AC off. We’re good at running the AC really hard for 20 minutes, and then tracking for 10.”
This Friday, Bonner and a massive cadre of the local scene’s elite celebrate the release of Think of England. Admission includes a free copy of the album. Bonner is especially excited to share the moment with the music community in which he’s so entrenched.
“There’s nobody in the music community who’s not supportive,” he says. “If I need a 12-string guitar today, someone will get one, and I’ll do the same for them. I think of it like Seattle or Athens before they were ‘Seattle’ and ‘Athens,’ because a close-knit, talented community snowballs. It inspires people to find more talent. When I see friends play, it inspires me to go back and work harder. I just wish I didn’t have to play so much so I could go see other people’s shows.”
At least for one night, he can do both. Stay cool. Support City Paper. City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.