For a while during his Nashville years, Jack Ryan Sullivan performed practically nonstop at the honky-tonks on Broadway.
“Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week – starting at 10 a.m. and going to 2 a.m., on stage with artists like Keith Urban and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith,” says the singer known locally as Jack Ryan, which some people mistake as his first and last names. “You didn’t get time off. If you turned down work, there was a chance you’d never get called back. I probably played 40 years’ worth of music in less than five years.”
That explains why Jack Ryan – protégé of Western swing great Jimmy Rogers, featured artist on The Vans Warped Tour, opener for country and pop acts Billy Currington, Brett Eldredge, Chase Rice, Sister Hazel, Paramore and Needtobreathe – has called Midlothian home since 2016.
Marriage to sweetheart Jensen and a yearning for life with a community feel landed Jack Ryan in a storefront studio steps away from Coal Mine Coffee, his favorite breakfast joint. There he cuts songs, teaches, makes occasional instrument repairs and even more occasionally sells a used guitar. He also composes, works on a television script, and performs at hip hangouts like Hardywood brewery.
Locals know Jack Ryan from the free festivals he’s put on since 2018 at Mid-Lothian Mines Park. This year’s, set for April, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the last one drew seven bands, 15 food trucks and 1,800 attendees.
The largely self-taught musician learned to play at a music store outside Clemson, S.C. The owner “put the instrument in my hands and told me to figure it out,” Jack Ryan recalls, adding with a shrug, “You had to know how to play the instruments to sell them.”
Today, his instruments include guitar, four types of banjos, cello, viola, tuba, trumpet, mandolin, dobro, upright bass, pedal steel guitar, accordion and piano, and he’s currently “playing around with bagpipes.” And lest you think it’s easy to move from, say, electric guitar to pedal steel guitar to mandolin to plectrum banjo to 5-string banjo because all have strings, he patiently explains: “A car… a tank… an airplane … a boat … a semi-trailer… and a cruise ship … they all have steering wheels. But let me tell you – you need to know a little about what you’re doing with each to drive them.”
With the store owner yelling instructions from the back of the shop, Jack Ryan figured out each instrument. And that “figuring out” process is what he recommends to his youth and adult students.
“Traditional teachers are like, ‘you must hold this way, you must sit this way’ – I don’t teach that way. I’ll be honest: Most of the guys who teach that way don’t play very well,” Jack Ryan says. “You don’t want to have to fight yourself. You have to have your way.”
After learning “his way” at the store, Jack Ryan honed his skills as many artists do – in church. “My great uncle was a pastor … church is in my blood,” he says. Once in Midlothian, he served 15 months as director of music for children and youth at Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church, earning accolades from musicians there.
“Jack is a talented and entertaining musician – a big personality with a big heart and smile to go with it,” says Eric Reynolds, Mt. Pisgah’s director of contemporary music.
Another Mt. Pisgah musician, Ray Oakley, was a backup player at November’s Midlo Mines festival. “While there I was reminded how huge a musical talent he is … and I’ve seen firsthand he also has a big heart, which I'd offer is a rare combination,” Oakley says. “He unselfishly shared the stage with a number of his students, giving many their first opportunity to perform publicly.”
Oakley added that when his granddaughter started violin lessons, Jack Ryan saw the girl would benefit from learning the basics on a ukulele – then gave her one. “To see him find a way to gift a brand-new training instrument to my granddaughter speaks volumes,” Oakley says.
While he presently enjoys a slower pace, Jack Ryan hasn’t left the national scene. He makes a half-dozen trips to Los Angeles annually to pursue his dream of writing music for television. He’s also creating content for the LA-based app The All Guitar Network, which features videos and instruction from some of music's biggest names. “I’m honored to be included in that room of incredibly gifted people,” he says.
Short term, he continues to write (his script-in-progress is set in a music store, of course) and perform around RVA. He hopes to hold another festival if sponsors can be secured – an uncertainty these days due to COVID-19.
For now, fans can find Jack Ryan’s album Struggle on Apple, YouTube, Spotify and Pandora, and check his website, Instagram and Facebook for future gigs.
Above all, Jack Ryan keeps playing. “For all the years I’ve spent doing this, I’m still learning,” he says.