Rhode Island is no stranger to the blues. No, we’re not talking about the kind you get when your basement floods or a heavily traveled bridge unexpectedly shuts down. We’re talking about the blues that emerged from the cotton-filled plains of Mississippi, where legends like Robert Johnson, Son House, and Muddy Waters once roamed.
Musician Ryan Lee Crosby is a Portsmouth-based blues singer, recently arrived from Boston, where he had lived for over 20 years. Like many, he was seeking a little more space and a break from city life. “For us, it was the ripple effect of the pandemic,” says Crosby about the move. “My wife’s family lives on Aquidneck Island. We really love the area and were both working remotely a lot more. We wanted more space and beauty and certainly Rhode Island offers that.”
Although he lives “up north,” Crosby’s music rarely veers far from its southern roots. His latest album, Winter Hill Blues, was recorded in Memphis and released in the summer of 2022. In the classic storytelling tradition, Crosby believes that authentic blues music should be passed down through the generations. He plays in the Bentonia style, which typically features haunting minor chords and droning strings, creating an ominous
and eerie feel.
“I only play in styles that I have learned from somebody directly,” he explains. “[Blues giant] R.L. Boyce, who passed away in 2023, was somebody I was fortunate to play with, not only down there but also in Cambridge and New York. And Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, from Bentonia, is another I think of as a primary influence.”
Crosby’s guitar playing and vocal design are shaped by the early Mississippi blues singers. He tours the Magnolia State often, explaining that these visits “change the way I think about community and human relationships. When I’m playing down there, I don’t feel like I’m trying to turn anybody on to something.”
While Crosby acknowledges that he isn’t trying to teach his audience anything new when playing in the South, he says, “Up here, I feel like it’s important to create a context, letting people know where the music comes from. Certainly a lot of the great Mississippi artists came to Newport in the ‘60s, playing the Folk Festival – they were all here. It’s a lovely connection to try to make when playing around here.”
Crosby expects to release new music in 2024. “One of the great things about living here is that I’ve built out an analog recording space here in the house. I’ve been recording a lot and I have at least one full record finished which I am going to put out later this year.”
Crosby is playing Tiverton Four Corners Arts Center on February 10, with details and tickets online at FourCornersArts.org. Follow along at RyanLeeCrosby.com
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