Milo's Trip: Heartbreaking-Hero Ryan Dillaha Cites Ferndale as "The Best Musical Move" He's Ever Made

Singer/songwriter strikes upon the simple truths in songs

Music was the way Ryan Dillaha learned how to communicate with the world.

His grandma played banjo, his dad's archives containted hundreds of seminal pop 45's that spanned soul, doo-wop and Motown, and there were dance parties regularly hosted at his childhood home near Detroit. Dillaha's music-reverent parents and their guests displayed an array of elegant/cuttin-loose dance-moves from the 50's, like The Madison, as seven-year-old Dillaha watched from the corner. 

He figures he probably heard "Over The Mountain, Across The Sea,", a doo-wop classic by Johnnie & Joe, over one thousand times as a kid. He really responded to the longing in that song, that cathartic conveyance accomplished through melody and verse.

"I do find that most of my tunes are a direct reaction to something I am feeling at the time of composition," said Dillaha. "Music was maybe always the way that I knew people expressed themselves."

These days, he is seen regularly around town and much of Southeast Michigan, characterized by his blend of bluegrass, folk-pop and harmony-honeyed honky-tonk. 

Dillaha started playing guitar in 1996, the year his daughter was born. He was working at the Rouge Steel plant and needed something else to keep his mind occupied. He was listening to Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Band and Neil Young, artists who distinctly blended country and soul together inside of one album's songs. But his family's roots, literally and musically, were back in Tennessee as Dillaha sang Carter Family-songs with his grandma and uncles. The soundtrack of his dad's record collection skewed toward a healthy heap of pure country. 

While studying American Literature at Wayne State University through the late-90's, Dillaha alligned himself toward influences of a heavier-Americana/twang-type aesthetic: Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Willaims, Wilco, even Josh Ritter and Sam Baker. 

"All those folks focus on the song itself... I’ve learned everything I know about crafting a song from the records my Dad had, and the ones I found myself," Dillaha said. "That’s what I try to do with the band now."

If there's a word for his songs, for the sweeping Westerny-ballads, for that high-hazy warble to his voice, for the strummy-waltzing blend of whimsicality-and-world-weariness, then it could be 'Americana...' It could be... 

"But," Dillaha said, "I think that's just a word people use to try to get back to that moment when we didn’t separate things so much based on genre."

"I think it means music that draws from a lot of older American traditions, maybe it means those that admit to it, because it would be hard not to draw from them if you’re making music in the 21st century," he goes on. The commodification of music has forced folks into little separate boxes."

"I say forget those boxes, we’re all singing about love and regret and joy and anger; it’s the same human dance we’re doing."

Love and its singular power, its magical and terrible gravitas, that certain regret and joy and anger, sutured into "love," this preeminent inspirational force/element/chemical-reaction upon most any modern piece of pop music, was the main trope traversed with last year's Love Alone LP.

"Solid Gold Heartbreaking Hits," read the album's subtitle, and he meant it - because that was the exploration: love's effect on the heart and the healing process, hopefully, found through music. 

Credited upon its cover is Dillaha's first collaborator, drummer Tim Rios, with whom he performed his first shows; bouyed healthily by the freedom that an acoustic/drum duo provided, for blurring and exploring styles.  

"We were really honored to have Drew Howard on Love Alone and his playing really showed me things in my songs that I didn’t know were there," said Dillaha. "It was also a long time dream of mine to have a horn section on my songs; I think that goes back to my love for Otis and other Stax Volt artists as well as the Motown sound."

"I love the way Otis songs are almost a duet between him and the horn section... It’s become a metaphor in my life: just listen to your horn section, and things will be okay," Dillaha adds. "My friend Matt Martinez charts the horn lines for us, and he is just a great musician; I’m really glad he is in the band."

"Both Chris [bass players] and Mike [guitarist] are in another local band called Looking Up At Down," Dillaha said.

Dillaha returned to Wayne State to get his BA in English having realized, "early on" that he wasn't cut out for a three-decade's slog through the "industrial life." It was certainly tough, he admits, raising a family while working at a steel mill and going back to school; he credits the UAW tuition reimbursement plan as "second to none" saying "the Union helped me out of the mill." 

Starting his PhD program (English), finalizing a divorce and playing his first local live shows assured "no shortage of song-writing material."

His studies in literature helped him connect the tradition of American songwriting to other cultural traditions in this country. "I taught African American Lit at Wayne, and I think that tradition has an almost entirely unique dialogue between the literature, the politics and the music that I find fascinating still."

"Right now, I’m happy to come up with a good “cherry cake” line. I coined that phrase from Otis Redding’s song 'Direct Me,' when he says: 'Shame on me..I made a big mistake/When I see my babe again I’m gonna bake me a cherry cake,' .. That real simple kind of soul couplet seems to me how working class people talk and relate to each other," said Dillaha. "Cherry cake lines are all over old country tunes as well as old doo wop and soul tunes; I love the simple truths in songs, and keep trying to find them in my own."

Dillaha marks settling in Ferndale as the best musical move he has ever made, commending the talented artists with whom he's collaborated with who make the city "an inspiring town to live in."

"Your bartenders and neighbors in ths city are almost inevitably some creative person," said Dillaga. "I love this town."

Dillaha still maintains ties to his hometown, Southgate, and, nearby, Wyandotte, where the band performs about once a month at Gizzmos.

Wanna hear more of Dillaha's music? Listen here

Next: Motor City Special Records will release a 7" single of Dillaha's with a record release show taking place around Halloween. Currently Dillaha is hard at work on the next record for this current line-up.

"Expect some bad ass guitar parts and plenty of horns!"


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