You don’t have to be “country” to be a country singer. Wolcott’s Corey Ryder isn’t from the South. Nor was he born in a drafty backwoods cabin. And he didn’t spend his teen years riding the rails from sea to shining sea. Ryder was born and raised in Vermont and came by his love for classic country the same way most fans did: through records, radio and TV. But as the title of his debut record, Rooted in the Country, implies, golden-country twang is simply in Ryder’s bones. And over 13 tracks, the songwriter and crooner attempts to pay homage to the heroes of a largely bygone era.
From the outset, it’s clear Ryder has a firm grasp of country-music archetypes. In fact, at times he may adhere a little too closely to genre convention for comfort. “Southern Sun” is a paint-by-numbers ode to the South that manages to hit on just about every sappy, blue-collar cliché about small-town Southern livin’. Similarly, “The Voice” is riddled with corny chestnuts that would make Andy Williams blush.
Seven of the record’s 13 cuts are culled from the voluminous pages of country history, including Dallas Frazier’s “Honky Tonk Downstairs.” Here Ryder spins a dour yarn about a star-crossed barmaid sentenced to wait for a jailed lover. It’s classic, whiskey-soaked country fare, and Ryder does it justice.
Sonically, Ryder’s debut sounds fantastic. The singer is backed by an ace crew of local Americana musicians, including pedal-steel players Jim Pitman and Asa Brosius, banjo player Steve Wright and vocalists Carol Ann Jones and Nancy MacDowell. Multi-instrumentalist Colin McCaffrey lends his talents on guitar, bass, fiddle, mandolin and piano, in addition to engineering the record. The veteran producer crafts a pitch-perfect classic-country aesthetic throughout.
Unfortunately, as a vocalist, Ryder has a hard time matching his immaculate, 1970s Nashville-ian surroundings. In an attempt to emulate heroes such as George Jones, he frequently oversings (overcroons?), which causes stilted phrasing and lapses in pitch. When Ryder relaxes and eschews overt stylistic affectations, as on Earl Montgomery’s “Where Grass Won’t Grow,” the results are far more palatable. But when he doesn’t, as on “Couldn’t Even Cry,” it is borderline unlistenable. You don’t have to be country to be a country singer. But it does help to be a singer. Though his heart is in the right place and he shows promise as a writer, Ryder has some work to do in that regard.