Ron Leary has one of those voices words aren’t good enough to tell you about if you’ve never heard him sing. He could make a pest control pamphlet sound like the truest song ever written. Lucky for us and the insects, he’s got his own stories to sing, and they’re full of the poetry of the everyday and the hard-to-say. I don’t think we’ve got too many real folk singers left, but Ron’s one.
I’ve been a fan of Ron the songwriter and Ron the person for a long time. A decade ago he invited me to be a guest on, Travelling Salesman, the CJAM show he was hosting at the time. I regret letting that pass me by now. We would have had a good conversation.
My main acoustic guitar at the time — back when I only had a few, most of them not anything you’d call “good” — and the one I was doing most of my writing on was in a bad way after the guys at Riverside Music who sold it to me failed to mention that it wouldn’t respond the same way to changes in humidity as a cheap guitar would. “We usually tell people about that,” one guy said when it had a crack in its belly longer than my middle finger, with the laughing sort of fake apology an unfaithful lover gives you when you’ve been in a car accident after catching them cheating on you and they don’t really care, but some circuit buried deep in their machinery encourages them to pretend they do. “Must have just forgotten to mention it the day you bought that guitar.”
I learned about humidity the hard way. None of my other guitars would have tolerated the tuning I was favouring on that one, and I guess I was a little too skittish to figure something else out until the thing healed up.
Ron was also at the only live gig I got to play during those lost years of not a lot of people having any real interest in what I was doing while I was busy spitting out new music at a rate that scares me a little now, offering support and kind words at Phog. He told me he enjoyed the pure vitriol of “Absolutely Manhole Blues”. What possessed me to end my set with that song, I have no idea. I don’t think I could have even told you then.
Strange to think that was about ten years ago too. Time needs to lay off the amphetamines and slow its ass down.
In the years that came after, we’d run into each other sometimes at Dr. Disc or Elia’s Deli, back when it was still the real Elia’s Deli. We’d exchange music and letters in the mail and write each other emails. We always meant to get together and play some music, but life had its own ideas. Life likes to be a disruptive little stone in your soup sometimes, until you choke on that stone, Heimlich yourself out of trouble, and drink the broth with your lips still halfway numb.
When I was figuring out who I wanted to talk to about being a part of the solo-album-with-friends adventure, Ron was high on the list before I even had a list. He got bumped up higher still after Zara rewired the song she sang on. I thought I needed to have a male voice in there somewhere taking the spotlight for a whole song, doing some similar emotional rewiring.
When you need a voice that can do that, Ron’s the guy you want to call on.
So I wrote a little thing for him to sing, and he came in and sang it. Hearing that voice coming through my headphones singing words I wrote was surreal. You hear Ron sing a line like, “Winter has a strange heart,” and you start to think maybe you didn’t write it at all. Maybe he wrote it while you were sleeping, but you looked so peaceful he decided to let you have it.
Not too many people have taken me up on the “I’ll record one of yours for free if you sing/play on one of mine” offer. Most of those who have taken me up on it have ended up hiring me to record a whole album for them not long after. That wasn’t ever what I was aiming for when I made the offer. It was more of an attempt at a fun musical barter than anything. But it works for me, because most of the experiences I’ve been having recording other people lately have been really positive and inspiring ones.
It’s not something I push anymore. Most of the time I just offer to pay people a session fee when I reach out to them now and leave it at that, because my plate is pretty full. But I really wanted to make the song-for-song transaction happen with Ron. He’s got some real beauties that haven’t found a place on any of his albums for one reason or another.
After singing on my tune, he laid down acoustic guitar and a lead vocal for “Grimy Old Shoes”, which has been one of my favourite songs of his ever since i first heard it when I played piano on a cover version Travis recorded six years ago for an album no one will ever get to hear. Then the bed tracks sat on a backup CD for some months. I’ve had so much going on music-wise over the last little while, some of the things I’ve most wanted to work on have ended up spending time on the back burner. My own songs included.
I had no idea what I was going to do with “Grimy Old Shoes”, but Ron encouraged me to have fun with it. When Facebook told me it was his birthday one day back in April, I thought it was time to give it a shot. So I dusted the raw tracks off that afternoon and added some things, thinking it might make for a neat little birthday present. I sent along a rough mix, hoping he’d like what I did.
It felt good, working on that song. Once I figured out what approach I wanted to take with the electric guitar, I probably finished adding everything — singing harmonies, floating on top with some piano and ambient guitar business, adding bass and brushed drums — within half an hour. It just clicked. If memory serves, I improvised some pretty good stuff on piano for the cover version that never saw the light of day, but this was a different ballgame.
Ron liked it. That felt good too. I said, “If you ever want to record another song that doesn’t have a home, just let me know. I’d love to do it again.” He came back with, “How about we do a whole ten-song album and build a home?”
Ron has gigged and recorded with a lot of talented people. Dean Drouillard produced, recorded, and played a lot of different instruments on Theroadinbetween and Dependent Arising. People like Royal Wood, Adam Warner, Kate Maki, and our man Kelly Hoppe have played and sung on those albums. Andy Magoffin is manning the boards for a new one in the process of being made at his House of Miracles studio in Cambridge. And if you weren’t at Ron and Kelly’s Taloola show in April, you missed out on something special. You get another chance to see those two guys perform as an acoustic duo in an intimate setting like that, you don’t want to miss it. Trust me.
I never dreamed I’d play any role on one of Ron’s albums. I would have loved to play piano on something at some point if the opportunity came my way, but I felt a little awkward asking. I think it’s better to let an artist assemble the cast they want when they’re making a record instead of trying to insinuate yourself.
Now I find myself recording a whole batch of Ron’s songs in my own lair of chaos, and he’s told me to just do my thing with them. Musical compliments don’t come better than that.
You know what else? I think I’m up for the job. There was a time when I would have doubted myself and said, “What business have I got recording a Ron Leary album in an untreated room in my house?” I still don’t feel like I’m a proper producer, inside or outside of my own music. I’ve always done most of what I do out of necessity. But I do know how to make and capture some noises, and I think we can make a great folk album with some interesting, off-kilter touches to keep you on your toes.
So that’s what’s happening. I’m excited about this one. Keep an ear out.