One thing about being the son of a truck driver, you get some alone time.
Chris Ryan, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who goes by the stage name Thorp Jenson, grew up in Chester just south of Richmond, spending his days biking around the small town with his older brother — not unlike the "Stranger Things" kids, but replace the paranormal plot with daily pot smoking, he says.
After discovering his father's Martin acoustic guitar and rich collection of '60s and '70s records, he was drawn into playing music — a path that would lead through various bands to the jazz guitar program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"When I was 26 or 27, I started playing keys in a rock band," Ryan says, sitting outside Black Hand Coffee Co. in the Fan. "I remember I latched on to the Bob Dylan album 'Blood on the Tracks,' the greatest heartbreak album."
He became friends with Daniel Clarke, a local keyboardist already on the road with Ryan Adams, and the two made demos together to share with friends. At the time, Clarke had just come from working with legendary producer Glyn Johns ("Exile on Main Street") for the "Ashes and Fire" record.
"I was like, 'Why am I in jazz school?'" recalls Ryan, who was working as a guitarist with Beast Wellington at the time, honing his skills. "I went to South Africa with a VCU quintet twice. … but I was getting jaded on the overly intellectual side of music."
Ryan decided to hash out his demos and add some new songs for a solo record. He added friend and drummer Dusty Ray Simmons, bassist and keyboardist Andrew Randazzo, guitarists Andrew Rapisarda and Charles Arthur, and saxophonist and backup singer Suzi Fischer. Last July, they spent three nights recording at White Star Sound's farm studio in Louisa, once used by pop star Jason Mraz.
About a month ago when Tom Petty died, Ryan's debut CD "Odessa" arrived in my mailbox with a blurb from Rolling Stone magazine comparing him to a "deeper, raspier-voiced Ryan Adams interpreting riffs from the Rolling Stones with warm heartland sheen." The first two songs leave a strong impression; polished, catchy rockers led by a weathered Southern voice that sounds older than Ryan looks.
The entire album features imaginative, detailed storytelling that is confidently delivered — more like a 20-year veteran who's studied Bruce Springsteen and the Coen Brothers (the album title is a reference to "No Country for Old Men").
Hooky opener "Oklahoma," co-written with Russell Lacy, is a bouncy midtempo song based on a friend who always got in trouble. The second track, "All We Have Is Time," with its bluesy '70s bar vibe and nearly welped vocals, comes across like a classic Tom Petty B-side. ("It almost made me wince it sounded so close," Ryan says.).
Title track "Odessa" tells the story of a former soldier who returns home to a town he doesn't recognize. Other musical guests include the Mekong Xpress horns on one light-hearted, almost countrypolitan pop track and there's even a reflective, slowed down cover of the Modern English hit, "I Melt With You."
But the album's centerpiece may be the moving relationship ballad "Lost in a Moment," which weds simple lyrics with nicely worn, soulful vocals.
"I think that's my favorite track," Ryan says. "It's a little more autobiographical than others. Sort of a love song, but I was thinking about letting myself be vulnerable and be in the moment. We all put up walls. But it's OK to be vulnerable. I think it took me my whole life to realize that."
Lest you think he's too serious, Jenson got his stage name after showing up with a new mustache one night. Drummer Simmons bestowed the nickname as a reference to the "Anchorman" films starring Will Ferrell. Over the years it stuck.
"He's got that character to his voice that I was immediately drawn to," Simmons says. "It just sounds honest. He's got great songs and he's not forcing the issue."
The band has experience playing the new songs during a regular monthly gig at Cary Street Café. And Ryan says it was Spacebomb founder and international touring artist Matthew E. White who gave him the advice to hire a publicist. He spent around $3,000 with Baby Robot PR, and it seems to be paying off. After reviewing the album, Rolling Stone wants to feature him in its 10 Artists You Need to Know column, he says, but they feel his social media presence should be larger first.
So now he's got somebody working on that.
"It's like a modern-day payola," he says, cracking a grin. "But you want to find someone who believes in it as much as you do."
From the radio-friendly sounds of his first effort, Ryan has plenty reason to believe the accolades will keep coming, as will the believers. S
Thorp Jenson and his band, the Eastern Freightliner, play an album release show with Deau Eyes and Moosetrap at the Camel on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 9 p.m. $7.