Growing up as the oldest of four children on a dairy farm in Yarmouth County, Ryan Cook has been playing music most of his life. But you may find it surprising to learn his current trajectory as a country artist came from playing in bands not usually associated with the genre.
“I played in punk, heavy metal, and grunge bands growing up, I guess when I was 14, 15, 16 years old,” says Cook by phone from his home in Charlottetown.
Going onto study film after high school, Cook would eventually land a job in the local television industry, while continuing to sing with heavy metal bands in Halifax as a hobby. Laid-off from film work at one point, Cook thought it would be fun to make an album that would be the furthest from the heavy metal music he was used to playing.
“I thought it would be kind of hilarious for my friends if I made a six-song demo and wrote my own country songs,” says Cook.
Little did he know though that this would be a turning point for his music career. Having grown up with country and bluegrass music as a child, it turned out to be more than a joke. “It was kind of familiar to me, and it was a novelty that I was quite fascinated with as well,” he says.
Taking his country music more seriously than he had originally thought, Cook found people were also genuinely interested in the new music he was creating.
“Live shows turned into more shows which turned into figuring out that all of a sudden I was semi-employed in the music industry,” he says. “And now ten or twelve years have gone by, and a lot has happened since then.”
Some of the highlights from Cook’s career has included four studio albums, multiple Music Nova Scotia Awards and several nominations for the East Coast Music Awards. And before you ask if Cook might have an interest in returning to heavy metal, he says he is just too busy as a country musician right now.
“What’s actually required to be a touring musician in 2019 is a lot different from when I started in 2007,” he says.
The most significant change Cook has seen is with the proliferation of social media and just how important it is for musicians these days. “When I started in 2007, I had Facebook to use as a tool to promote myself. It was still new at the time, and I don’t even think my parents were on it then,” he says with a laugh.
Calling his first few years in the music business as “simple,” Cook would book a concert over email or the phone, put up some posters, and perform. And once the show was done, he would get paid in cash.
Today, however, it requires running multiple social media platforms, all vying for attention and treating it all like a small business. “It’s very different than what a young person might dream what it’s like to be a musician.”
Not that Cook has lost any of his love for the music he creates. While there is the practical side to the music industry these days, like most musicians, it is all but forgotten once Cook steps on stage. Performing up to 70 shows a year, he remains thankful for the opportunity.
“Those moments when I’m on stage with an audience, they are quite sacred to me,” he says. “Those are the times when I don’t have to think about all the other things I just mentioned to you, it’s a bit an escape.”
One of those performance opportunities will come during his October 25 Halifax Pop Explosion show with his band Sunny Acres.
Taking the name from a sign that hung at the top of his grandparent’s hay barn, Sunny Acres has seen many musicians rotate through its ranks over the years. “For the past ten years, anytime that I perform with a band, whether it be a string band or an electric ensemble, I would call it Sunny Acres,” explains Cook.
While primarily a solo performer, Cook looks forward to performing with the band whenever the opportunity calls for it.
“Performing with the band is by far the most fun because it takes the loneliness out of performing,” he says. “You have the energy of the band members to interact with, and it allows for some really interesting moments to happen. Not just musically, but also in-between songs that can be pretty fun too with the stage banter.”
For their upcoming concert, Cook and Sunny Acres will not only perform from Cook’s discography but will also pay tribute to Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound. It is a throwback to the Nova Scotia singer-songwriter recalling Owens’ smiling face as he watched reruns of Hee Haw at his grandparent’s home.
“I never thought much of his music, and it just never occurred to me to really dive into his catalogue until last year,” he says. “I had heard a really good podcast about his life in music and was fascinated by the story. I had to go back and check out his music.”
Quickly becoming a renewed fan, Cook put together the tribute to show others what he had discovered. “I had found what I thought was some really cool stuff, and thought maybe other people think this it was pretty cool too. It seems like so far they do.”
Finding his own self-described quirky musical style similar to that of Owens, the musician is even tempted to go into the studio to record an album of Owens’ material.
In the meantime, Cook will continue his tribute shows, perhaps changing things up a bit with the addition of songs by another musician of the Bakersfield sound, Merle Haggard.
Ryan Cook and Sunny Acres play Bearly’s House of Blues (1269 Barrington St, Halifax) on October 25 as part of the 2019 Halifax Pop Explosion. Visit halifaxpopexplosion.com for information about their concert and the entire line-up at this year’s festival.