Updated: Sep 11, 2019
We’ve all heard stories of hopeful singers and musicians moving to Nashville and living in their car or truck until they could land their first job. Country superstar Chris Janson (Buy Me A Boat) slept on the back seat of his Monte Carlo his first few weeks in Music City until he got a regular gig at Tootsie’s on Broadway.
Aspiring singer-songwriter Ryan Steele had a different reason for living in his ’93 Suburban when he first moved to Nashville four years ago. “My whole reason for living in a truck wasn’t financial at all. When I moved to Nashville I didn’t want there to be any distractions.” Ryan reasoned that living “uncomfortably” would be an incentive to work that much harder. “The alternative was either sit in my truck and do nothing, or constantly be out meeting people, networking, and saying ‘Yes’ to every opportunity that came my way.”
Six months before moving to Nashville, Ryan had auditioned for NBC's The Voice, and made it into the top 150 contestants. It was there that producers told him that despite his talent, he would not be advancing to the next stage of competition because he did not have what they considered "a good story." So he set out to write a new one. “I knew that if I went to Nashville it was like sink or swim, and I’m gonna find out what I’m really made of.” (Photo: Ryan's audition call back for The Voice)
Ryan arrived in Nashville with $1,000 in savings, a Tempurpedic mattress in the back of his truck, and a plan of action that he had discussed with his father. “I told my Dad I had it all planned out: I’m gonna get a PO Box so I have an address; I’m gonna get a 24-hour gym membership so I can shower and shave and brush my teeth; and I’m gonna get a storage unit for my music gear.”
With semi-truck drivers as neighbors, Ryan called the Walmart parking lot “home” for the next three months. He worked an office job during the day, and played out at open mics and writers rounds at night. For awhile Ryan felt like a kid at a playground. “I was thoroughly enjoying life to the fullest every single day, because I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. There was no agenda or game plan.”
(Photo: While living in his truck, Ryan kept a jar of business cards and a log of people he met.)
It wasn’t long before things took a negative turn. “I didn’t’ realize it while I was living in my truck, but I was out six nights a week, and that involved a lot of alcohol. I wasn’t paying any bills, so my money was going to booze.”
Ryan eventually moved into an apartment with a friend of a co-worker. After about a year in Nashville, the drinking -- combined with dissatisfaction with his day job -- began to take a toll. “I got into a rut, a funk, spiraling downward. I would have to take five shots of alcohol before going out on stage just to put a smile on my face. Everything that once felt good had shifted into this negative space.” Ryan became cynical and lost interest in music. “I’d go to work, come home, drink, play video games.”
He made the decision to quit drinking, but continued to have internal struggles about his beliefs and relationship with God. “I was searching so hard for this God that everybody was so familiar with that I was unfamiliar with…. I didn’t feel like He was showing up for me.” Ryan had felt distant from God ever since his grandmother passed away years earlier. “I didn’t step foot in a church for five years.”
Ryan felt like he needed to make another change; he announced at Belcourt Taps one night that it would be his last writers round. “I was so jaded and cynical about Nashville and what it was doing to me and so many other artists.” Ryan says the grueling process of pursuing a music career can “eat away at you until you are hollow inside… I think it’s a common trend throughout the music community that many of us at times have just felt so empty inside, which is good for writing, but not good for us as individuals.”
Playing for little or no pay made him feel devalued, and he decided to take time off from music. “It wasn’t even about putting down the guitar; it was about me getting right. I had to go on a journey within myself and find myself again."
After a year of soul-searching, Ryan says songs started coming to him in his sleep. Not long after that, he found himself listening to a prophetic message from his pastor about God’s timing. Less than a week later, he got a call out of the blue from an old friend who is a studio manager at Birdrock Music. “We had been trying to work together for a couple years, but I just wasn’t in the right place. The phone call made it clear that the timing was right.”
Ryan currently has 12 pop/rock/blues songs in pre-production for his new album, which he plans to record with a full band. The themes of his John Mayer-esque songs cover a mix of emotions. “It’s okay to be vulnerable; it’s okay to have your emotions out there for other people to see.”
Now that he has a “story,” does Ryan think about going back to audition again for The Voice? “It’s not where my head is at now. I don’t need that show to create my own name. I don’t want to come across as arrogant; I just have a new-found confidence in myself and what I’m doing musically.”
Ryan says his experiences since moving to Nashville have taught him several lessons: remain humble, always be grateful, and always love. “Now more than ever, I finally feel like every single day, I’m like a kid again.”
Ryan is doing a Kickstarter campaign to fund his album. Some of the rewards for people who contribute include an autographed CD, Hatch Show Print poster, a chance to hang out at the recording studio, and a private concert. To support his goal or learn more about the project, check out Ryan Steele's Kickstarter.
FUN FACTS AND TRIVIA
Ryan has a cat named Daunte (in honor of 2001 Minnesota Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper)
Restaurant: Martin’s Barbecue
Movie: Into the Wild
Thing about Nashville: Christians (they make him a better person)
Local band: Alt rockers Elliot Root (Ryan and their lead singer Scott Krueger attended the same high school back in Wisconsin)
Musical influences: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles, Coldplay