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The unique sounds of Ryan Shupe

The musician confounds categories, delights listeners

SHARE The unique sounds of Ryan Shupe

PROVO — The first problem you have when you hear (or write about) the music of Ryan Shupe is deciding what it is you're listening to. It has confounded reviewers and music-industry people, who tend to worry about such things. Is it country, pop, bluegrass, new age? Or is it, as Shupe likes to say, PostHeeHawFunkadelicHipHopNewGrass?

Maybe that sound you hear coming from your dashboard — if you're dialed into a radio station that gets his unique sound enough to give it airplay — can be defined as whatever you call music that employs guitars, mandolins, bouzouki, fiddle, bass, drums, banjo and keyboards.

Such matters might seem trivial, but not when it comes to the bottom line. Years ago, Shupe and his father, Ted, who managed much of his son's career, had this conversation:

Ted: "Where are we going to put your CDs (in record stores)?"

Ryan: "I don't know."

Ted: "Well, we've got to be something."

What is that something? "It's kind of a modern twist on authentic American instruments," the younger Shupe says of his music. "Most of the instruments we use have been around a long time. It's good old American country bluegrass music with blues and rock. They all branched off from the same core group of instruments. It's a mix between the Dave Matthews Band and Dixie Chicks, without the political agenda."

Let's just call it the category of Ryan Shupe (say it "Shoop"), and now that we have that settled, it's worth noting that Shupe, after decades of shredding the fiddle at every gig and festival and Fourth of July celebration from Lagoon to Nashville to Austin to Portland to Telluride, has finally struck a record deal well.

Some 2 1/2 years ago, he signed with a label for the first time — Capitol Records. Until then, Shupe and the RubberBand made their own CDs (four of them, to be exact), handling every part of the process themselves, from distribution to press releases to the album cover artwork. Since signing with Capitol, they have produced an album called "Dream Big," which showcases their fine musicianship, tight harmonies and upbeat, optimistic lyrics that run counter to the life-sucks trend in pop music. The album's title cut climbed to No. 23 on the country-western charts, getting radio airplay around the country (not to mention Amy Grant's TV show, "Three Wishes").

"I guess it was sort of a self-fulfilling song," Shupe once told The Desert Sun. "When I wrote it I wasn't actually planning on playing music for a living."

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If this spare, 35-year-old man with the shaved head dreamed big, he did it patiently and realistically. For Shupe, dreaming big meant being able to play music for a living,

period. To do that, Shupe lived frugally, driving a VW bug so long that it went through two engines, and subsisted on a steady diet of Taco Bell. For years, he and his band drove to their gigs in a van with a trailer in tow to hold their equipment. On tour, they stayed with acquaintances or sometimes slept in the van.

To remain in the music biz, Shupe mowed lawns, taught music and snowboard lessons, maxed out his credit cards and hired himself out as a studio musician for other bands, commercial jingles and videogame and movie soundtracks ("Work and the Glory," "Xena Warrior Princess," a CBS TV series whose name he can't even remember).

These days he lives in a modest house in Provo with his wife and baby and hasn't made much use of that public relations degree he took from Weber State. The big money hasn't rolled in yet, but he's still playing his fiddle for a living.

"It's a feat to play music and make that your livelihood," he says. "Hitting the big time is more similar to winning the lottery than not. It's like gambling. There just aren't many Garth Brooks. We've been really blessed to have enough success to continue."

Shupe has done it on his own terms, despite his eagerness to stay in the business. He actually turned down a contract offer from a record company a few years ago because he wanted to retain creative control, which went squarely against the wishes of his band at the time and led to a split. Besides taking a two-year break from music to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Shupe and his band also have set limits on how often, when and where they will perform.

"We spent years just performing around here and regionally," says Shupe. "We know what goes into putting on a show and going to a city to get people to come out to a show. It made us more mature. We went into this deal with pretty realistic expectations and also knowing what we would and wouldn't do. How many days we are willing to perform and travel. What's worth it to us. What kind of venues we want to play in. It's not worth it to us if we have to play on Sundays and play in clubs all the time. You have to set those boundaries."

Since forming the RubberBand as a vehicle for his music 11 years ago, Shupe has become a prolific songwriter in addition to being a fiddle/violin virtuoso. He files his songs in one of five color-coded notebooks — "One is for crappy songs I wrote," he says, "one is for songs I think are OK but are lacking a certain je ne sa quois, another is for ideas I like but they're not a full song yet, another is for songs I have completed and another for songs I'm working on. If I get stumped on a song, I just put it in a folder and get back to it someday. I have no problem ditching a song. If it's not working, put it away for a while."

"Ryan is a musical genius," says RubberBand guitarist Craig Miner. "He's always got multiple songs going through his head. He's probably simultaneously writing 30 songs at a time, going back and forth. He's a music factory. He practiced long and hard really early and got really good. Of course, that has served him well through the years."

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Shupe was 5 years old when his father began to wake him at 5 o'clock each morning to practice the fiddle. They met in the family room, which was really a music room filled with guitars, mandolins, violins of every size, banjos and a piano — and for two hours they would play.

"As long as I played with him, he would play all day," says Ted.

He wasn't trying to create a star; he was merely continuing a family tradition that dated back several generations to his Mormon pioneer ancestors. His grandfathers and grandmothers and great-grandfathers played the fiddle. Ted's great-grandmother is reputed to have hosted fiddling parties in pioneer times, and many of his relatives played in various bands at one time. When Ted's other children — Darren, Tara, Bonnie and Stacey — were old enough, Ted gave each of them fiddle lessons for 30 minutes every morning in their Ogden home before they dashed out the door for work and school.

"Music is not a choice in our family," says Ted. "We did the same thing in my family when I was growing up. It's like brushing your teeth; kids wouldn't do it if they weren't compelled. It was just part of the education. I wanted my kids to carry it on."

The five Shupe children followed this routine five days a week into their teenage years. "I didn't know any different; I didn't realize most people didn't do that," says Ryan, who eventually began to study with Ted's brother, Jim, who started the Utah Oldtime Fiddlers Association and played violin in the Utah Symphony.

"Aside from anything it would do for the kids, this was my one-on-one time with my kids," says Ted, choking back tears. "Once I left the house (for work), it was really consuming. But in the morning I had them. My greatest memories are working with my kids."

The Shupe children played in bands as well as an informal family band, with Ted on bass and his wife, Sandy, on guitar. The children continue to play in bands, and they have branched off to other instruments. Bonnie plays drums; Tara the mandolin, guitar and violin (she is studying jazz guitar at the University of Utah); Darren the banjo; and Bonnie the bass.

When Ryan was 7, Ted decided it was time to form a band to utilize his son's fiddle talents. He searched for other kid musicians and formed the PeeWee Pickers. They played at Lagoon for $25 a day plus food for two summers, then they took their act on the road. Each summer, they loaded up the family's motor home and toured. They played in Europe. They played at the world's fair. They played for President Reagan. They played in nearly every bluegrass festival in the country. Ted managed the group, sending out press material and booking dates.

"I could get them booked anywhere," Ted recalls. "If you closed your eyes, you couldn't tell they were kids."

Among those who saw Shupe on stage in those days was Miner, when he was 8 years old, a year younger than Shupe. "It was at the Kiwanis Park in Provo at the Fourth of July celebration," he recalls. "As my mom reports, I just stood there mesmerized the whole show. I immediately noticed Ryan and how good he was. That's about the time I started playing the uke and guitar."

In those days, Shupe's trademark enthusiasm and showmanship were nowhere to be found (that didn't come until after he returned from his church mission). "I tried to get (the group) to smile and to be showmen," Ted says. "I remember once Ryan was playing 'Orange Blossom Special' and just tearing it up, and he's looking at ants crawling on the floor."

The PeeWee Pickers eventually grew up and moved on to other things. Shupe joined an adult band, Powder Ridge, which claimed first prize at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

By that time, he was living in two worlds. During the week, he attended Weber High School, where he won the Sterling Scholar Award for music, started a snowboarding club with his friends and sang in the school choir. On weekends, he performed professionally with an older crowd in Powder Ridge. Then he left music behind to serve his LDS mission in Portland, Ore. He rarely played music during those two years, and upon his return, Shupe completed his public relations studies at Weber State.

"On my mission, I didn't really think I'd be a musician," he says. "Even today I wonder if I'll be doing music years from now. I'm not one of those guys who has to be a rock star. The mission was a good next step. I played better

when I returned. I understood people better. It made my songwriting better."

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Shupe resumed his performing career with a band called Salt Licks, whose biggest claim to fame was first prize in the Pizza Hut International bluegrass showdown, beating more than 300 entries, including Nickel Creek, which has since risen to mainstream stardom. The prize was a recording contract with Pinecastle, a major independent bluegrass label. When Shupe refused to sign away publishing rights, his band mates were apoplectic, according to Ted. Nobody turned down such an offer.

Recalls Ted, "Ryan said, 'Dad, music is my life. I am not going to be at the mercy of somebody else controlling my life and my career."'

After the band broke up over that issue, Shupe took a gamble. He formed a flexible — or "rubber" — band that used whatever musicians were available when he needed them. Using an ever-changing cast of guitar and banjo players, he produced his first self-made CD at a cost of about $20,000.

"I probably had a hundred bucks to my name," he says with a laugh, "and I just found a way to come up with that much money. I wouldn't recommend people doing this. I set up terms with companies and maxed out credit cards. It worked, and I decided to keep doing it. I don't know if I was determined to make it my career, but it just felt like it was what I was supposed to do. I kept selling enough CDs to pay off the bills."

Eventually, a permanent band solidified, comprised of drummer Bart Olsen via Spokane/BYU; Miner, who grew up in Utah; guitarist Roger Archibald, from Spanish Fork; and bassist Collin Botts, another BYU alum. They spent a decade playing 80 to 90 dates a year and honing their act, sometimes touring with the likes of Tricia Yearwood and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Along the way, Shupe and his friends became jacks of all trades — designing album covers, building a Web site, advertising, booking gigs, producing press kits, handling finances and bookkeeping. They didn't have a record label and all the promotional clout that comes with that, so they did it the long, hard way, hitting the road and developing a following and their own musical style.

"We spent so many years refining what we do," says Shupe. "When we finally went to Nashville, the reaction was, 'Hey, you guys are unique.' Being able to develop outside of the normal umbrella helped. Being on our own, we found our ways to do it. Mostly, I just followed my gut. People said, 'You need to go to Nashville;' we said, 'No, not yet, let's wait.' Then one day it seemed time."

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The time came when Shupe shopped one of his self-made CDs with a Nashville insider to gauge where he fit commercially and to seek a critique. That led to a meeting with a producer and to gigs in Nashville and the deal with Capitol. Shupe and the RubberBand are currently recording their second album for Capitol. Rather than record it in Nashville, they are working in a studio in Provo.

Unlike some bands, they perform on their album, and they spend extra time perfecting their arrangements.

"Where we are now is definitely as good as it's ever been, and it's getting better," says Miner. "We can go to a lot of cities and draw a pretty good crowd. It's a hard road to get there. You have to play a lot of places. The deal with Capitol is huge for us. They have so much visibility. Millions of people heard 'Dream Big.' We're going to continue to do what we do musically. We don't want to change to what someone else might want; we're just doing what we do."

In the end, the sheer joy and pleasure Shupe and his band derive from playing their music for audiences — so evident in their ebullient, almost giddy stage presence — has been what has sustained them through the years.

"I don't need to make millions," says Shupe. "There's a lot more to music than just being funneled through the giant music machine. What it really comes down to is if people leave your show feeling uplifted; they're going to come back. It's more a labor of love. You have to love it because you're most likely not going to strike it rich.

"People e-mail and write letters to tell us how our songs have helped them. I keep them all. I'm blessed — I get to play music and travel and meet lots of cool people and hopefully make a difference in people's lives."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com