Earthbound dreamer WordsAndPictures: Minneapolis folksinger Barb Ryman relishes being
Courtesy of Barb Ryman
Telling the stories of women has been an important aspect of Ryman's writing, but she has remained open to all inspiration as an artist. "Whatever moves me emotionally, I tend to write about it."
by Lisa Haddican
Nearly two decades after setting her acoustic guitar aside, south Minneapolis musician Barb Ryman returned to folk music. Seeking an outlet for creativity and healing, she has found a considerable amount of success on the local music scene and has completed her fifth album, "Earthbound."
Finding her way back to song The title track of the album, slated for release Feb. 25, details the struggle of an ambitious artist to balance life's inherent constraints. "I have an open canvas and my visions are high/ I hold a palette but my paint's turning dry/ Cause I stand for hours wishing I could fly/ But my feet never leave the ground/ I'm a dreamer earthbound." True to the narrative style of folk music, the song parallels Ryman's experience as an artist. She began teaching herself to play the guitar at age 14-an interest she described as a "singular drive. No one in my family was musical," she said. She played on into her college years, until she decided music was not a practical way to a financially stable life. Music then came last to a career in speech therapy, marriage and two children. Along the way she earned a master's degree in counseling psychology.
Going through a divorce at age 40 was the impetus for Ryman to pursue her passion for music. "It was a shift in my life," she said. "I needed an avenue for my own expression, my own healing."
Prompted by friends, she made a successful showing at a songwriting contest held at the Fine Line Music Café. The experience was the encouragement she needed to go further-playing small venues locally and releasing her first album in the early 1990s. "Once you have that belief in yourself, it opens opportunities," she said. Opportunity came later in the form of the McKnight Composer Fellowship in 2002, a grant for local musicians. Her children were in college and no longer required full-time mothering, and the grant's financial assistance allowed Ryman to bring music to the forefront of her life again. She quit her job as a speech therapist. Although the timing was ideal, Ryman worried about her career change, admitting, "I was a bit terrified."
Though her career as a speech therapist is behind her, Ryman said her experience in the field helped her craft songs that touch something in listeners. "I get a lot of comments my music is healing," she said.
True to herself
Citing the restrictive nature of mainstream music, Ryman has refrained from transitioning into a market of mass appeal. "I have no interest in limiting what I write about," she said. "I think some of the best writing is in the folk genre. It's just under the radar." Ryman has indeed borne a heavy pen on a broad range of topics, touching on religion, politics and women's issues on the new album. Ryman said her favorite track is "Song for a Mother's Gospel," written about the forgotten femininity of religion. "It's a culmination of a lifetime of spiritual questioning and wondering," she said.
Ryman said that one track on the album, "The Great Invisible Woman," was inspired by both a Minnesota Women's Press article about female representation in the media and her own experience as a woman. "I went through a period of feeling invisible," she said.
Telling the stories of women has been an important aspect of her writing, she said, but she has remained open to all inspiration as an artist. "Whatever moves me emotionally, I tend to write about it," she said.
Her way of expressing those emotions clearly has struck a chord with listeners. Ryman's been nominated for nine Minnesota Music Awards over the years and has begun touring nationwide, playing at coffeehouses, house concerts and folk festivals. She has planned future shows around the Midwest and a tour of the West Coast in the spring.
Though a near 20-year hiatus derailed her plans as an artist, Ryman feels lucky to once again be following the path. "I don't think everyone gets to do that, especially women."
With a new album and scheduled tours, Ryman will remain a dreamer-earthbound.