BRANDON RHYDER: Interview "Head Above Water"

Texas is well known for cultivating country music and also for creating a unique sound. A name that is familiar and a sound that is as unique as the individual and artist is Brandon Ryder. When you hear the voice you know it’s unmistakably him. When he comes out with a new single you never know what you’re going to get. Brandon Rhyder loves to take you to the top and then jerk the rug out from under you and start the process all over again. Brandon Rhyder doesn’t write for a genre, but rather for the inspiration he receives. He’s as real as they come. He’s sincere in his approach and delivery and hard headed to boot. He knows his business and expects as much and more out of himself as he does those who he calls ‘his team’. "We have worked very hard to get to where we are."

Brandon and I recently spent some time talking about his career, the music, the inspiration and his future.

Q: Thanks for sharing an afternoon with me Brandon, tell me about the new project; what you have going on and where you are at with it.

BR: This project we just came out with is called “Head Above Water” and it came out in February. It has been out for three or four months now. Last year was a really good year for me. I had a publishing deal that was ending up here and I just made it a year of staying home. I have two small children, a four year old boy and a two year old girl. I wanted to stay closer to home for a little while because I have been up here in Nashville for the last couple of years.
I wanted to record a project with my band; I wanted to have Walt Wilkins who has been up here for many years, to be a part of the project. He is now back in Texas. I also wanted to do it in Texas close to home because I really wanted our families to be involved in what we were doing. We did all of those things. We recorded at a little place called “The Zone” and “Dripping Springs” outside of Austin. I pulled the entire band into the project. Walt Wilkins agreed to produce the whole project for us and it fell together so easily. It was the first time in the studio out of six full length albums that I have done that is just worked so effortlessly. There was not one bit of stress the entire time that we were in the studio and when you are able to pull that off, you come out with a really great project. This one is my favorite thus far and has done better than anything I have had out there. The life it has already had the last three months is great.

“Rock Angel” is the first single off the album and went to number one on the Texas Regional Radio Report and also on the Texas Music Chart. It is continuing to have a life of its own and we did a video on it. I have joined forces with Katie Messerschmitt who is the original creator of the Rock Angel clothing line and we have started a “Katie Did” line of Rock Angel shirts. She is selling them in some of the ten thousand boutiques she is in across the nation and also in her online store. We sell them at every show we play as well.

“Rock Angel” has been really good and the new single, “You Burn Me”, is out there and already in the top ten on both those charts after just a few short weeks. Hopefully this regional success we are having will continue and push us to bigger and better places. We are touring 200 dates a year and not slowing down. We are breaking it out one market at a time. It is a lot of work but at the same time I really like the responsibility part of it as far as it all falls on my shoulders. That has its definite pluses and minuses in this day and age in the music industry and how much it’s changing right now. I get the feeling a lot of times in meetings that everyone doesn’t know exactly what they are doing. It might be a really great time to be an independent artist out there pushing this our own way.

Q: How much involvement did you have in writing the songs on this project?

BR: I wrote the entire record. This is the first time I have written the entire record. It wasn’t intentional, going in I had three outside songs that Walt and I had discusses. One was a Walt Wilkins song, one was a Matt Powell song and one was a Keith Gattis tune. We were in the studio for a couple of days, has recorded eight or nine songs I had written and Walt said, “hey I think we should just make this a Brandon Rhyder project”. By the time you have six albums, it is really hard to pull that together and be able to write that many songs. Luckily with our growth and the things that are happening for us we are able to be on a bus now and that has really helped us out but also given me a lot of free time to spend time on the back of the bus and continue to write as much as I can.

Q: Do you have a favorite tune or one closest to your heart on this project since you wrote all of them?

BR: Not really. They are all like my own little babies so it is hard to like one more than another. From top to bottom, the thing I like about the record so much is that every song has its own life. I like to explain it in a way that it is not 13 different chapters in one book; this is 13 different books on one disc. Every song has a life of its own and is written from a different perspective. I have always said I am not a writer for a specific genre, I have always written from the inspiration, the new things you learn. Whether you sit down and play a guitar, learn a different riff or find a new melody in your head, I just love that approach. I think it would keep it from ever getting old because you realize when inspiration hits, you realize it is there and you have to take advantage of it. It is not one of those things you can shelve and wait for the next opportunity to come around. You have to take advantage of it when it’s there. I really love that aspect of it and so if that were ever to be taken away from me, I don’t know how I would handle it.

Q: Let’s talk a little about charity events, especially with Nashville just going through the flood. What charities are you involved with and why?

BR: We are involved with many different things, especially in Texas. Our backyard is pretty big and a lot of times we are asked to be involved with different events and charities. Something that I have recently been involved with and had fun with is a program in Texas that was started by a gentleman and his wife; what they do is take inner city youth and teach them how to hunt and fish. It is a great kid’s outdoor program. I have been able to be a part of that, raise some awareness and money for that. I have also been able to be a part of some of their extra curricular activities like getting to do some work with the game wardens of Texas. I love to hunt and fish and because is it a positive thing to be involved with, it has been really great for us. I have a friend that I graduated high school with, his name is George and his wife is Liz. They have three deaf, blind children, triplets. Believe it or not, there are a lot of deaf, blind children in the United States and there are no schools for them. We are pulling together a fundraiser in the fall, probably in November to help raise money. We want to raise enough money to help them continue on that path to build another school in the United States. They have had a lot of help from Dr. Field; they have been in Readers Digest, on a couple of hour programs on the Discovery Channel. Right now in this tough economic situation, a lot of those funds have dried up. We want to try to help them out.

Q: I know you have had six albums out, but for the fans that are not familiar you’re your history, let’s discuss the history of how you got into the music business.

BR: Growing up, all my life, people told me I should go to Nashville, I should sing. I grew up singing in the church. It was just one of those things I thought was unattainable, ludicrous. I didn’t believe it was an option for me. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. Then when I was about to graduate from college, around 1998, I discovered the guitar, I picked it up and immediately figured out there was a correlation between all the things I had written down. In 1999, I asked my wife if she wanted to move to Austin Texas, I wanted to try music and she said yes. I think she thought I was kidding. After that, we moved to Austin and in 2001, I came out with the first record, 2003 we came out with another one called “Behind The Pine Curtain” and then in 2005 we came out with the third project and it was called “Conviction”. “Conviction” is really the project that put us on the map. It was also a time when I was at my wit’s end. I had put a couple of records out there that didn’t do a whole lot for us, we weren’t drawing where we were playing, and we were playing all the time to empty houses. I decided I would put out this one project and I was going to do exactly what I wanted to do and if it worked, it worked and if it didn’t? I had tried. It worked and since that time we have been able to come out with three more records and hopefully I am stuck in this for life.

Q: What kind of crowd base do you draw? Do you find that there is a certain genre, a certain demographic that follows you?

BR: I have a ton of college followers, kids in college that come out to see us all the time. There are a lot of females and we don’t dislike that at all. (laughter) We see fans in the crowd as young as they can get them out to the shows and fans into thirties and forties, we have a really huge fan base, it is a grass roots type of fan base. Organic; that seems to be the word today, it really has been an organic experience from the standpoint that we built it from the ground up, from the first fan to where we are right now. As an independent artist, that has basically everything at our fingertips with respect to all of the people and things in place that you need to have to have a successful operation, we have those without having a major label behind us. We do get to make all the decisions and we get to point the finger at ourselves if we fail. I like that. I am not saying I wouldn’t like to find the right team here in Nashville to help push us quicker but if that doesn’t happen, then we will continue to push this as we have, from the ground up. I think it is much easier today for bands to do that with all the access to the media that we have like the internet, Facebook, MySpace, all of those things helping bands like ourselves can grow a fan base quicker and out of your reach in places you never thought you could draw on. You get a date and you go into that city and wow, there are people there.

Q: You mentioned the Facebook and Twitter. Do you do that yourself and do you enjoy it?

BR: I do. I try to keep up with all of it but I might miss a question now and then. I try to do that for the fans because that is how the fans have access to us. When we get through with shows, we always go sign autographs, take pictures with the fans and we feel that is just something that is expected of you. I love it. I feel it gives the fans more insight into what is going on so they feel like they are a part of it. There are nights when we stand in line for one or two hours at a time. I won’t leave until the last one is done, that is the way it is.

Q: What is the most bizarre thing that has happened, or the most bizarre thing a fan has asked you to sign?

BR: Fans have asked us to sign lots of things. There are different things, some want their boots signed, cell phones, wallets, their chests. I don’t really think of it as bizarre anymore, I am just kind of numb to it. The fans usually try to give us that space and don’t try to take advantage of us. It is an interesting life. I basically step out of one movie into another every day.

Q: Has there been a personal or emotional moment when a fan has come up to you and said that song has related to them personally that has caught you off guard?

BR: There is a song on “Conviction” called “Mister Soldier”. It was a prayer that I wrote for a friend of mine who was in the Marine Reserves and was called up. He lived across the street from me and had two small boys. I didn’t intend to write a song like this; probably because I felt people were writing songs to make money off them and I didn’t want to be that guy. I woke up in the middle of the night and I was having a dream about a soldier in a bunker and I couldn’t make out the person, I could only see the silhouette. I woke up and wrote a prayer basically to music. That song has been a really emotional song for a lot of the soldiers. It has been really great, especially when they are home where I can shake their hand and hug them and thank them. It is odd but we still forget. We have been doing this for nearly ten years and we still forget that we have service men and women dying on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Iraq. Any time we can reach out to them and thank them, we should.

Q: Have you done any USO tours or anything similar to that?

BR: We have tried but it hasn’t come together yet. In fact, right now there are a couple of guys talking to us right now and are trying to put that whole thing together. There are many restrictions, but I hope we get to do something like that, I would really be honored. There is a division of the Marines that call themselves the “cowboys” that were generous enough that when they got back, presented me with a flag that was flown over in Iraq and gave me a plaque that stated what day it was flown. Things like that really blow my mind. It is really special that those guys think enough of us as artists to be able to do something like that for us.

There are different situations all the time where I get told stories like “we were playing this particular song while going into battle in our tanks”. It is great to know your words are making a difference or lifting spirits or helping people get through things. That is a big thing. I can’t imagine having to strap on a helmet and do all the things and go into battle. When I wrote “I’m Mister Soldier”, that is what stirred my soul so much was the fact that I was watching my friend prepare and pack all of his gear to get up the next morning to leave and go into a war. That was the first time that it really sank in, that is definitely what stirred the emotions for the dream and the prayer.

Q: Let’s go back to the current project. What are you doing promotion and touring wise? Anything out of the ordinary?

BR: We have all those different online abilities,, Facebook and MySpace and those things. We tour constantly. Our game is to get out there and take it to the fans. We do, in one shape or fashion, 200 plus times a year, radio appearances, media appearances, everything we can do to push any way we can. We have been lucky that our growth has seemed to go to another level. The growth allows you to do a lot more things like television and things to continue to push to get your name out there. Right now we are in our own back yard of Texas and a few states around us. Our name is a known name out there and it is growing and our fan base is growing. What we are trying to do right now is continue to push those singles and find the markets. We get a lot of radio love regionally, we get quite a bit of print in magazines, newspapers, things like that. Now, we are trying to find secondary markets to continue to push this thing.

Q: You were not here for CMA Music Festival this year. Will you be here next year? Have you ever come for CMA Fest as a fan?

BR: No, I haven’t and I am probably too spoiled to do that now. You get use to being back stage and not being in the front row with the crowds and all. I think we have a story here. It seems that with my time away from Nashville last year, we developed so much more of a story over that 13 or 14 months. I think everything happens for a reason, you make decisions business wise that are based on growth and your sanity and so many different factors. It is crazy that I would finish up a publishing deal here in Nashville and then take some time off saying I am not going there and I am going to do all this in my own back yard and then have it come out such a great project and have that become a story. We have a lot to say and we have tenure and we have pounded the pavement with 200 dates a year for three, four or five years now. I think it is really paying off and another part of it is that the music industry is changing right now. A lot of people don’t know when the dust settles how this is all going to play out. I think it is important for guys like me to recognize that and try to take advantage of that. You see other aspects of it in the country world, the Zac Browns and the Uncle Krackers, people like that that are opening more doors for artists like myself that doesn’t necessarily fit in the country box but have country roots and definitely fall into the country category but we just don’t fit into that top 40 box. Growing up, that was what interested me anyway, the singer/songwriter, the person that was able to be on the edge but still be accepted into the group so to speak. The guys that were able to go out there and do their own thing that was not considered “main stream” but close enough, the fans dug it, they requested it and the wanted it. I think that is what we are seeing right now, more and more of that happening. I really hope with all this happening right now and labels struggling, with publishing struggling and trying to find different ways to make money, the whole industry, in my opinion has taken a back seat. Right now is the time to push for the artists, the musicians, for us to have the opportunity go out there and have the fans hear what we have to say and know that we mean it when we say it.

Q: What about the independent label and the struggles you face or challenges?

BR: I think the growth with many bands is leaning towards that; grass roots and independent. “Indy” used to be a bad word. If you were an independent people did not pay as much attention and now it is becoming a very popular word. It is so great to be able to go out and hire great publicists and booking agents, managers and road crew and run the entire operation from top to bottom, sometimes blows people in the industry away. They can’t figure out how we pull this off. It is great to say that there are 14 or 15 families we feed and there are 9 guys on that bus every week when we go out. We are “road dogs”, we do it three, four, five days every week. I got to spend a day at home, got on a plane to Nashville the next day, spent a few days and get to get on a plane and fly home tomorrow, spend a day or two at home and then back on the road. I am my Father’s son and he taught me to work hard and things will pay off. I really feel we are doing the right things, we are in the right spot and I really feel it is the right time. People ask me how big I want to get and I tell them we are going to take it as far as we can. I have always said that if you give us the opportunity to put it out there nationally, even globally, and they didn’t like it, at least I would know. I just want that opportunity.

Bev: Brandon, this has been so much fun. You are a great person and an amazing talent. I really am looking forward to seeing you perform live soon. Is there anything else you want to mention?

Brandon: To all the fans out there, we certainly appreciate all you do, the way you buy the CDs and make sure others hear them. You buy the shirts and wear them like billboards and you tell everyone you know, that is about the best pat on the back we could ever wish for. I have truly enjoyed this too Bev, and you are welcome to come out anytime and spend more time with us, we look forward to it.

For more information on Brandon Rhyder visit

Transcribed by Pam Stadel for Digital Rodeo

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