“We may be living through times of unprecedented change, but in uncertainty lies the power to influence the future. Now is not the time to despair, but to act.” -Rebecca Solnit

The lingering artifacts of this difficult year will take many forms, but I suspect the stories we carry forward will more or less take the shape of how we did the hard things together. For some Chattanooga musicians, the hardest part of the pandemic is over; the venues are opening their doors, the van is packed and the band is on the road again. But for some artists, those suffering with a mental health condition, the hard part is never over. Our mind goes on the road with us, and there is no mask to protect us from the crisis we carry within. Lucky for Chattanooga, we have musicians like Ryan Oyer and friends who take mental health very seriously, and recognize that we don't have a music economy without a healthy and mentally sound music community.
Mental healthcare is expensive and many artists on performing musician wages cannot afford health insurance, more or less talk therapy. Some people see this reality as a small problem in the face of bigger, more pressing community issues. But for Ryan Oyer, a Chattanooga singer-songwriter who lost two band members to suicide, there exists an absolute urgency to make a difference. At the beginning of the pandemic, Ryan got moving and got organized, and with the support of friends Megan Howard, Butch Ross and many more, Ryan and friends made the brave choice to do something to help artists afford therapy , and quickly raised over a thousand dollars for Mental Health Association of East TN.
And on May 11, 2021, Ryan did it again, shipping another musical projectthis time to replenish SoundCorps' Council for Creatives Fund, a special program created by the Chattanooga music community for the Chattanooga music community.
There’s no big organization behind Ryan’s project, no mighty foundation underwriting his work, just the drive of a few musicians who care enough to commit themselves to shipping a project that makes a difference. Given the opportunity to record a conversation with songwriter, Craft Masters graduate and project ship-master Ryan Oyer, I lept at the chance to pick his brain on what, why and how he launched A Chattanooga Collective’s 2021 project Bridge Over Troubled Water. Below is the complete partially edited conversation between me and Ryan Oyer. 

If this project is something you believe in. Donate today. 

Are you a Chattanooga creative who wants to talk to a licensed therapist about grief, depression, anxiety, anger, or substance abuse? SoundCorps can connect you with helpful resources

Emily Kate’s Conversation with Ryan Oyer 

Interview transcript edited for legibility. This conversation took place on May 18, 2021 between Emily Kate Boyd and Ryan Oyer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Emily: Right. Can you hear me?

RO: Yep.

Emily: Sweet. Well, alright, I've been trying to think of some different ways to approach this interview, and decided to approach it more as if I were consulting you on this project. I'm not a journalist, and there's a lot of questions that I could ask if I was a journalist, but I think I want to build a blog to help other artists do creative projects and ship projects. Because one of the things that I think is remarkable about who you are, Ryan, is that you get a project idea and you put it in motion and you ship it. And there's a lot of courage in that, and I feel like there's a lot to speak to about that. I also think that we can demystify the process to encourage others to try to make a difference. Alright?

RO: Absolutely. I think it's a really great idea.

Emily: If Chattanooga was a town of 500 Ryan Oyers, it would be a better place to live.

RO: Exactly. No. Maybe one's enough. No, no, but seriously, in all seriousness, I see the things that Nick Lutsko has done, and Strung Like a Horse, and the people that have come before all of this, really too. And yeah, I don't see why... It's not impossible. Any one of us can do this. And so, yeah.

Emily: Yeah, and it's more than just an idea. There's no shortage of ideas, right?

RO: Right, right, right.

Emily: I've seen your ideation process. I was in SoundCorps Craft Masters with you…

RO: Right, right.

Emily: You have an endless pool to draw from for creative ideas. So I'm gonna run through just some kind of core project questions that get a sense of who you are, where you're at in this project, how you got there. I also want you to take a moment to make some acknowledgements, because I think oftentimes those acknowledgements get overlooked in these kinds of projects, and I think that inside those acknowledgements are relationships and community members who really matter.

RO: For real, for real.

Emily: Now, go ahead, please, riff, riff.

RO: Yeah, like I saw that post that Barry Courter posted about Mike Dougher, who is one person that if he never took a chance on me, I wouldn't be standing here. But even before that, Mike McDade, Mike McDade was like the door to everything for me basically.

Emily: Mike McDade who runs the Tremont Tavern open mic night? Yeh. Mike who's been running open mic nights for probably longer than anyone who's still running an open mic night.

RO: Exactly.

Emily: Well, okay, I'm gonna ask you some quick questions, and this is sort of just rapid-fire blink, response, and if you do wanna pause with some, you know, if you're enjoying the conversation, just go, right? And I am recording you, by the way. 




RO: Okay, perfect, perfect.

Emily: Because I just wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything and if we love this audio, maybe we can even share that. We're already five minutes deep into an interview that you didn't know was being recorded.

RO: No, that's perfect, that's perfect.

Emily: Okay, great. Alright, so this is your project. Give me just some briefs on some project before this one that you started and shipped. Just list a few that come to mind.

RO: We did the Ever-Widening Circles single fundraiser for Mental Health Association of East Tennessee last year for Hunter White's birthday. This is kind of bouncing off of that one, and seeing how far, further we can take that, kinda idea. And actually this idea, what I'm doing now was my original idea, I wanted it to be a full compilation record, and it turned out that waiting a year allowed me to get in touch with a lot more artists, to listen to a lot more local music and say, "Hey, will you send me this song for this in particular?" And so prior to that, I had been involved in quite a few fundraisers that other people put on. And so, like Cynthia Joyner used to do the fundraisers for autism down at Honest Pint and some down at Lindsay Street Hall, and in my personal experience, I've had now two band-mates that have committed suicide, and so I feel like this is put on my doorstep as–you have to do something about this, whether it's viewed as successful or whatever, you still have to do something about this. 'Cause I don't wanna get that phone call again.

Emily: Yeah, I have to find that I go back again to that John O'Donohue phrase when there's nothing else to say to someone who's on that edge, “Your future self knows something you don't know now." 

RO: Exactly.

Emily: To me, that's what hope allows, every shape of hope ends up there, every form, every freedom of expression that is representative of hope at the very least says there's something out in the future that you can't know about with who you are right now. 

RO: Right. Well, and you know, every project that I ever do, there's always that moment of doubt, of, “Who do you think you are?" and, "Does this really matter?" And I end up just braving it out and pushing through it, as if saying, "You know what? Who cares if anybody even notices? I'm still gonna do this 'cause it's important to me, and it's important to the people around me and for my boys to see, and for the community to see, to say like, "Look what Ryan's doing. We could take that idea and make it better." Because I don't have the end all, like this is... This can lead to something great, I think.

How Ryan Found the Resources to Pull Off “Bridges Over Troubled Water” 

Emily: Getting back to this new project, remind me one more time the title of this project.

RO: It's called “Bridges Over Troubled Water: Chattanooga Artists Unite for Mental Health”. And I chose "artists" 'cause there's songwriters and there's bands. It's kinda hard to lump. But we're all artists essentially.

Emily: People can make plans to do these kinds of projects, and planning is important, essential even. So when you're approaching a project, obviously you need to find the resources to make better than average work. How do you find those resources? What is your process of actually answering questions, finding the resources that you need to ship a project you've never done? I'm assuming you've never done a project quite like this one.

RO: No, I haven't. A lot of it is networking, working with other artists and going to shows, going to open mics, building relationships with those people. The biggest one, my big ace in my back pocket, the biggest help ever for me, is Butch Ross, on everything that I touch, we always have a conversation about it. And because both of our heads are coming up with ideas about who we can talk to and who we know leads us to try to.  It may not give us the answer, but it gives us another person who might know someone better than we know. And same with coming to the SoundCorps events and working with all the people that are involved in SoundCorps. And so basically, as soon as I think, "Okay, I need this," I kinda start delegating like, "Hey, who can help me with this? I have this idea, how can we make this happen?" And my first stop is with Ross.

How Ryan Starts a Project

Emily: Speak a little bit about your process. Are you actually sitting down with a piece of paper and making a list of the people who can help you with the project?

RO: No...

Emily: Or just kind of in your mind?

RO: It's in my mind usually at first, and then I start texting people or messaging or emailing, and then once things start moving, that's when I make a note and everybody's got a notepad in their phone. Mine's full of like projects essentially, and things that I need to do.

Emily: Talk to me about the moment of commitment, where you say, "Okay, I'm gonna do this." Are you writing a deadline in a calendar? Does it go on the wall? Or is it lipstick on the mirror? What do you do? And I'm speaking specifically to Ryan Oyer' process of keeping a project present in your mind.

RO: Let's see. If I have a notepad in front of me, I'll write it down. I typically keep one in my car. And also, I keep notepads for certain things. So like for music things I have a notepad, and as soon as I have the idea, I write it down or I make a note in my phone. And then from there, kind of start asking the questions as to like, "How can I make this happen? Is it feasible? Do I have the budget for it? How do we get the budget for it, if not?" And, "Is this a good idea?" is one of the first questions, and, "How can that idea be better?" So that kind of comes as you bring more people into it because now you got a team brainstorming where it could go. What are the possibilities of it? And then as people give me those ideas, I write them down underneath, either that notepad, or literally physically write it on a sheet of paper.

Emily: From the one-dimensional world to the two-dimensional world.

RO: Right. 'Cause once I see it on paper, then I start seeing it as more reachable.

How Ryan Manages Fear

Emily: Right. And, okay, so do you ever get scared about these projects? Do you ever have fear that you might not be good enough, know enough, believe enough, care enough.

RO: Big time.

Emily: And tell me what you do when you're afraid. Do you have strategies that help you push through that?

RO: Yeah, well... 

Emily: And if you give in to the lizard voice...


Emily: To the lizard brain, that powerful part of your brain that lives in fear? What do you do? What are some of the ways you might hide? 

RO: Absolutely. In fact, that happened earlier this week. And typically, my personal voice of reason is my sister. We're 13 years apart, but we're so close and...

Emily: Is she younger or older?

RO: She's younger, yeah. And so I usually text her. She's the voice of reason, she's the... When I do have fears and when I have the, "What am I doing?" and "Is this too much?" she's the one that puts it back into perspective for me. 'Cause I'll get inside my own ego head, if you will, and I find that in that voice there's this big, "Who do you think you are?" part of it, and she puts it back into perspective of putting my feet back on the ground. And several friends, several friends. She's not the only one, but she's probably the closest to me. But yeah.

Emily: It really demonstrates how important the community around you is to your projects.

RO: Because you can be... Well, you can be the only one that believes in it, but you have to have a team around you that believes in what you're doing and why you're doing it, and trying to remind you of the reason that you started it in the first place, if that makes sense.

Emily: Absolutely.

RO: Because you have to have that spark and you have to have that fire for, "This is important," for whatever reason that is to you personally, and for somebody else it might be something completely different, but you have to have that team behind you that says this is worthy of your time, basically.

Emily: Let's talk about time. Do you put hard deadlines on your projects? And what does it look like? Speak to me about how you finish.

RO: With this one in particular, I had two deadlines in mind. And typically with me, I always have...

Emily: Deadlines established by whom? [chuckle]

RO: By myself, by myself. And typically, I like to do things that are date-significant. So like, originally, I wanted to release this September of last year because it was... 'Cause September is Suicide Awareness Month, but then I also put in my brain, "Okay, well, if I can't get it together by then, then I'll do May 11 of this year," which we're at now, because it's Mental Health Awareness Month, and it also happens to fall on Hunter's birthday. And so those were... Hunter's birthday became the–If I don't do it by then, I'm not going to complete it at all.

Emily: Alright, we're almost finished. Thank you, Ryan, this has been really exciting to hear you really get deeper into this project, talking about your influences. And I know we could sort of nerd out on more of your process, you obviously worked with Play It Forward for this. Was that a relatively easy tool to use? 

RO: It was so easy, and literally prior to finding them... Their website was exactly what I had in mind for what this needed to be, but I didn't know that they existed. And one night when I was just really contemplating, how do we make this work? And I had talked to Jonathan Susman, and you, and Stratton Tingle and several other people about why isn't this a thing, basically, and how can I do it? And then all of a sudden I just Googled musical projects for fundraisers or something like that, and then their website popped up and I went, "This is it." And what was cool about that whole experience is... Our fundraiser last year, raised over $1400. We were one of the biggest fundraisers that they had, 'cause they're just starting out their... I don't know exactly how many years they've been doing this, but it's a relatively new thing. And even during the pandemic, they messaged me and said, "Hey, would you do a personal fundraiser for us and do a live stream for us?" And I was all for it, and I did that. And I think the night that I played we raised them $200, which is great, and... 'cause every little bit helps, every dollar that you put towards fundraising for these good causes is not insignificant. We can stretch those... These are really creative people that know how to stretch these dollars to make them beneficial to their causes.

Emily: Right. One thing I've noticed with projects and just getting back to shipping a project... What you picture as perfect is never what actually happens, right?

RO: Oh no, yeah.

Emily: And now you shipped... You got this done, right? It was good enough, you got it out the door. What are the elements to you that were essential to it being good enough versus what were those things that you kinda had to let go of because either there wasn't time, or you just ran into... You just didn't have... Is this gonna do it? Can you speak about that?

RO: Yeah. Going into the very last minute of it... You know, originally I was gonna call it, "Ever-Widening Circles," which is also the fundraiser that we did last year, so I was like, "That could get a little bit confusing for people." I don't want to call it the same thing, and then people will be like, "Oh, didn't you just do this?" "No, we didn't just do this." So, I was talking, again, talking to Butch, and Butch said, "You should call it, 'Bridges Over Troubled Water.'" And I went, "Well, then somebody's gonna have to cover the song." So immediately I got on the phone with a couple of friends of mine and I'm like, "Hey, can we pull this off in less than a week? 'Cause I'm about to go on vacation and... " [laughter]


Emily: Can you tell me who you called, or is that private?

RO: Yeah, I actually called Haley Graham Duncan who's also 9 months pregnant and said, "Would you be interested in this?" 'Cause I feel... I felt like it should have been her voice, that's the one I heard in my head. But also, time constraints and situational constraints; she's 9 months pregnant, and we're in a pandemic. How do you make that happen? How do you record her safely? So then I start going to plan B and plan C, so I called Megan Howard, who's in my band, and I say, "If I do this, can we do this together?" Which leads me finally to... And she can't because she's got end of school, she's a teacher, and... She's coming down to the wire with getting all her things in for that, and so finally... And not to put her third because she was also on my brain immediately too, was Stephanie Brooks, who I work with in my band and... We're also doing the Make Music Day event together, and I said, "Stephanie could you record this yourself by the... by Thursday?" And this was like Tuesday that I messaged her. And so…

Emily: Wow. 

RO: And she did it, and she sent it to me, and I actually had a gig Thursday night and I got home from that gig, I'm leaving Friday by the way, to go on vacation, I get home from my gig, I listened to it and I say, "This is good, but it needs a harmony." And so I'm up at... From 11:00-1:00 recording a harmony for Stephanie's team before I had to leave for... I haven't even packed for my vacation and [chuckle].. But we got it out the door, literally Butch finished making it Friday morning. Adam Brown laid a leveling thing over it to level match all of the tunes together, and...

Emily: These weren't ideal circumstances. Were you using your iPhone for this?

RO: Oh yeah, oh yeah, that's what I did my whole album on and... And everything lately.

Emily: Now, what is your adapter to your iPhone? Are you just using your headphone jack?

RO: The headphone jack with the headphones that came with the iPhone 7 at the moment.

Emily: That's amazing.

RO: But I do have a 12, so it's a little bit better of a sound card, I think.


Emily: Great. Ryan, thank you for taking this time. I'm gonna start closing this conversation down. It's been such a pleasure to talk to you, and I hope we get to share this audio. I hope we get to share it with more people. I think there's a lot to learn from this about how to not only start a project, but see it through the dips, using the resources and community around you to make it happen, making the citizens that were good enough is good enough. Obviously, it wasn't a perfect environment for you to be on the road, tracking harmonies, but you made it work.


RO: Right, right.

Emily: And you got it done and you got it out there, and you had a very clear understanding of the "why" behind your project. And it sounds like you obviously used some tactics that are... Or strategies that really work, like creating the hard deadlines for yourself, like... And May 11 being that final one, and I imagine that final push was... Is a big part of that.

RO: Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I wanted to put the fullest, the... In what I do with every one of my projects. Butch and I always have a thing that projects are never done, you just let go of them.

Emily: Who would you like to acknowledge?

RO: So definitely Butch Ross, Mike McDade. My whole band, everybody who contributed to this compilation. And very gracefully... "Graciously" is the word, donated their songs. Monica Kinsey for her help with this. Mark Herndon who supplied the artwork, the picture of the bridges in Chattanooga, and SoundCorps of course. And the Mental Health Association 'cause they... They were easy to work with, but they did help, so...

Emily: And what a pleasure talking with you. We should definitely do this again. 

RO: Oh, and Adam Brown, Adam Brown as well.

Emily: Oh, Adam Brown. Don't forget the guy that's the mixed and mastered, right?

RO: Yeah. He... Well, yeah, he kinda... Everything was mastered, so he re-engineered it. Adam was a huge help and integral in getting the final pieces together.

Emily: Very cool. Well, thank you so much, Ryan Oyer.

RO: Thank you.

Emily: I'll let you know how this goes. It's been a pleasure speaking with you. One more time, the URL address where people can listen to this project and buy it.

RO: It is playitforward.com/projects/347 

Emily: It's no trouble at all. Play it Forward, the project's called Bridge Over Troubled Water with Ryan Oyer. Thanks man, appreciate you. 

RO: Thank you, Emily.

Emily: Take care, bye.

RO: Bye


If the Bridge Over Troubled Water project sounds like something you believe in. Donate today. 

Are you a Chattanooga area artist, musician, or music industry professional in need of affordable healthcare or counseling services? Here's a list of resources: soundcorps.org/wellness