Banjo baron breaks the rules

Ryan McNally sounds like a black man. Sure, sitting right in front of you, squinting into the sun clad in a tweed blazer and hat, there's no mistaking he's a skinny, white guy. But he sounds black.

Ryan McNally sounds like a black man.

Sure, sitting right in front of you, squinting into the sun clad in a tweed blazer and hat, there’s no mistaking he’s a skinny, white guy.

But he sounds black.

In that, he’s a lot like greats Van Morrison and Buddy Holly.

In fact, Holly was the first white guy to play Harlem’s Apollo Theater, laughs McNally, noting the booking agent thought Holly and the Crickets were black.

Similarly, punch play on McNally’s newest album, Down Home, and your surprise at learning the swampy, southern swoon weaving around the frantic banjo picking and crying harmonica is coming from a Canadian boy can be forgiven.

In fact, McNally’s first visit to Louisiana and Tennessee didn’t happen until this past year.

However unusual, he’s comfortable with his decisions.

“Every once and a while, I feel like I should have gone to college or something, or back to school,” he said. “Or I should really get out of here. Or I should really do this, or that. But then, all of a sudden I feel like, ‘Wow, I am learning so much, or doing so much.’

“I’m doing what I want to do. And I have all kinds of debt to pay … but I’m not studying something that somebody tells me I should be. I just got my own plans.”

And this past year, those plans included a cross-Canada tour, followed by a dip down into the southern United States where the blues, rockabilly, folk, jazz and ramblin’ rock sounds that McNally plays originate.

“We went through Iowa, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and all through Texas,” he said, drawing his finger down and across the air in front of him. “I didn’t get to stay exactly as long as I wanted to, but now I know where I want to go back to. If I could go right now, I would.

“You go to all kinds of cities and there’s all kinds of people doing really cool things and it’s pretty inspiring, but in New Orleans it’s just like everybody. And I wasn’t even there long enough to really describe it well enough, but I just felt like down every street I’m just meeting and seeing these people play and they’re just the best people that I’ve ever seen play.”

The kind of music McNally loves to make does not necessarily shoehorn into a specific genre.

On his newest album, for example, one song can definitely be considered a straight and classic blues tune. But the next is a little folky, with some Dixieland jazz mixed in. Another sounds like R&B and, for the first time ever, there is one song on this album that could even fit into the realm of pop.

“Now that I’m learning so much, they’re all the same to me now,” he said. “It’s all kinda based on the same kinda thing.”

But overall, most music labelers would probably stick McNally in the broad “old time” category.

His music doesn’t sound like it was made this year, or last. It doesn’t need a whole lot of electronics or computer manipulation and it wouldn’t necessarily accommodate several backup dancers and costume changes.

He’s McNally, a Canadian guy who sounds a lot like musicians twice his age – or even those who have passed on.

And it was street after street of buskers, jazz bars and juke joints in places like New Orleans that affirmed his path.

“It’s still going on,” he said. “Just because it’s an old way of doing things doesn’t mean it’s still not pretty current. It just solidifies what I’ve been trying to do. It’s there. It’s not just some old thing that might be dying or something. It’s still as new as it ever was.

“Ultimately, I’m just trying to make good music.

“And people like it or people don’t. I’m just trying to keep doing something that I’m really going to really like.”

There is a CD release concert and party for Down Home at the Yukon Arts Centre from 8 to 11 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $20.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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