Ryan Paisley comes out of his shell

Ryan Paisley with Rhonda Vincent at the 2019 Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival – photo by Frank Baker

The first time I saw Ryan Paisley on stage, I thought it was a gimmick. A cute gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless.

It was 2011, at IBMA in Nashville. Ryan stood on stage while his dad’s band, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, played a showcase set one evening. Ryan, 11 at the time, stood in the back, barely seen and barely heard.

The next time I saw Ryan on stage, a year or two later, I was amazed at how far he had come in a short period of time. His timing was steady and his breaks were solid. He was no longer the second mandolin player in his dad’s band. He was THE player. He was funny and fun offstage, still reserved on stage. But he didn’t hide in the back.

His evolution moved another step forward about a year ago, when Danny sat him down for a talk.

Both Danny and Ryan, between sets over the weekend at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, remembered the pivotal moment in separate interviews.

“He got to where he could play through a song, but I couldn’t get him to sing. I knew he could, because I heard him around the house,” Danny told me between talking with fans and signing CDs at the merch table. “So last year, when he turned 18, I told him, ‘if you want to earn big boy pay, you have to be a big boy singer.’”

Sitting backstage after talking about mandolin repair with Rhonda Vincent, Ryan remembered the conversation as a gentle ultimatum: “Okay, if you want to keep playing, you have to start singing. I didn’t want to. It was scary.”

But he did it, and he took to it like butter to toast. Still, he admits, “One year later it still scares me as much as it did. But I’ve learned a little nervousness is a good thing.”

For Danny, the emergence of his son as a full-fledged picker and singer came with a sense of déjà vu. He once was like Ryan, hiding in the back of the stage when his father Bob led the band.

“For years I just stood in the back,” Danny rememebered. But his dad pushed, gently but firmly, with instructions that Danny latter passed along to Ryan: Sing a little louder. Don’t take it so seriously. Look at people. Have some fun.

At Gettysburg, Ryan was the band’s emcee for parts of their two sets. He sang with conviction and picked with authority. You could see the admiration they have for each other. “Every once in a while, he’ll do something different on a break and I’ll do a double take, like where did that come from,” Danny said.

Eight years later, every detail of that IBMA debut is etched in Ryan’s memory.

“It was the first time I was ever in Nashville,” he said. “It was the first time I played a Loar. I got to meet everybody I ever wanted to meet. It was everything I fixated on, in one central location.”

He had a good laugh backstage as he compared where he had been to where he is today.

“They spent the first 18 years of my life trying to get me out of my shell, and the last year trying to get me back in it,” he said.

It’s clear to me, having watched the young man improve and mature over the years, that when the time comes to turn over the band to a third generation of Paisleys, it will be in good hands.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.