When Ryan Tanner won American Songwriter magazine’s annual lyric contest for his tune “I Never Did My Best,” he didn’t exactly celebrate with champagne and caviar.
For one thing, such an audacious display isn’t fitting for the mild-mannered troubadour who deals in exquisite melancholia in much of his music. For another, he’d sort of been down this path before, when his former band Atherton landed a song on the soundtrack to the MTV series Laguna Beach.
For many bands, having a song featured on national TV would be a “big break.” For Atherton, it was another signpost on the road to breaking up. As Tanner puts it, the group basically ran out of gas after recording its excellent album Skyline Motel. “We never recovered from making the record,” Tanner says.
Ryan Tanner performs "Peaceful Mind" at City Weekly's downtown office. Filmed and produced by Erik Daenitz
Now solo, Tanner might just find the American Songwriter honor offers a bit more of a push in the direction he wants to go. Not only did he beat out nearly 9,000 songwriters, but winning meant he got to travel to Nashville for a songwriting session with one of his heroes, Americana artist Jim Lauderdale. They ended up writing a song together called “Learning to Listen,” recorded it, and Lauderdale set up meetings for Tanner at several publishing houses, including BMI and Bug Music, where Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Alison Krauss do their publishing.
For a guy who sometimes questions his career choice, the experience was a much-welcomed shot of confidence that he’s on the right path.
“It was really encouraging to me as a songwriter,” the 36-year-old Tanner says. “I think about making music here in Utah, and I’m really glad I stuck with it while a lot of my friends have just moved on. Now I’ve realized my thing is just going after a song. I’m after a song. The song is everything. I’m not the hip guy. I’m not cool. I’m after writing a good song. I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve been able to stick with it long enough that I feel like I’m getting closer.”
The next step is capturing some of those songs on a new record, which Tanner hopes to record this summer. And though he’ll play those songs with a band when he can, he wants to be able to play them solo on tour. While Utah has fine musicians working in all genres, it’s not exactly a hotbed for roots music, especially compared to what Tanner experienced in Nashville, where “music is part of the everyday framework of life.”
Now, Tanner is trying to figure out how to make music and songwriting an everyday part of his life.
“I want to write songs, and I want to play songs for people,” Tanner says. “I don’t want to be a rock star, but I want to be a working songwriter. I realize it’s an uphill battle, but I also realize there are people who do it.
“I need to make a record. I have to have a record to go on the road, and I feel like I have a really good record in me.”
Visit RyanTannerMusic.com for info on his Kickstarter campaign and new album.