While many up-and-coming musicians make a beeline to Nashville, just Southeast sits another strong music scene: Chattanooga. We talked to singer/songwriter Ryan Oyer about his movie-inspired third album Pin Up Queens and Silver Screens, and how this town down by the Tennessee River is about more than just Ruby Falls and choo-choos.
Tell me quickly about how you got from the small town of Ringgold, GA to the stages of Chattanooga?
Ringgold is right on the border of Tennessee, and I’ve been living there for the past four years. I started out with open mics, and eventually people got to know me. Dustin, who owns Tremont Tavern in Chattanooga asked me to play a gig, and I was like, “You’re going to pay me to play music?” [Laughs] That was the start of it. We just started playing a lot of venues based off of people hearing about me. It all came back to the open mics.
Do you use these open mics to test out new material?
After I first write a song, I’ll try it out at open mics. I typically start with Tremont Tavern. Their open mic has been going since 2008. It’s a really welcoming atmosphere. It’s kind of based off the The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. A lot of the local talent who play weekly are phenomenal. I’ve recently started hosting an open mic on Wednesday’s at The Honest Pint. I’ll see what everyone thinks about the songs and work them into a set at one of my shows.
You’re currently working on your third album called Pin Up Queens and Silver Screens. When can fans expect that?
Because it’s Pin Up Queens and Silver Screens, we wanted to focus on the movie vibe. I actually wrote a song for it last week—a “Let’s Go to the Lobby”-type of song that sits in the middle of the record. We’re almost done with it. This last little bit was a piece that was missing. We’re aiming for a Christmas release, and I think we’re on track to do that. I think I’m going to put out a 12-13 song record, and then put out an EP of the B-sides eventually.
Tell us why Chattanooga is a great place for live music.
What’s cool about Chattanooga’s scene is there are a lot of the people who are playing from my generation that aren’t rooted in country. It’s kind of all over the place. You have some people who do the outlaw-country type of sound, but it’s a mixed bag in Chattanooga. We have some people who do old-timey jazz—like ragtime Dixieland jazz. Then you have people who are more into alternative folk. And recently I got to work with a hip hop group.
Is there such a thing as a Chattanooga sound?
Naturally, we’re influenced by that Appalachia sound—just slightly. But I still stick to my influences as well.
For first timers, how would you describe the vibe in Chattanooga?
A lot of people have told me it’s like a mini-Asheville. I’ve never been to Asheville, so I can’t confirm or deny. But because of the landscape, it brings in a lot of outdoorsy people. You have a lot of college students coming here to study. And then you have quite a bit of tourism for the aquarium, Ruby Falls, Lookout Mountain and all that. It’s a beautiful city. And to me the beautiful landscape adds to a peacefulness in your writing too.
What are some of your favorite local venues to play at?
I love Rhythm and Brews in town. It’s not the biggest venue, but it’s one of the coolest. We get up-and-coming acts there, and also some veteran acts. Big River Brewing Company is attached to them so they have all their draughts. It’s a good place to start to check out the music scene, and they give a lot of opportunities to local bands. Once I started playing there, I got to open for people like Erick Baker and other acts on that level. The other cool place in town is Track 29—we get bigger acts like Arctic Monkeys and Julian Casablancas.
You also have a great amphitheater near the river. What goes on down there?
We do a lot of festivals here in Chattanooga. Riverfront Nights and Riverbend are our biggest draw. I’ve played the Riverbend Music Festival for the past two years in a row. They bring in quite a few acts. But Riverfront Nights is cool, and it runs in the fall. You see people doing yoga and listening to music. You get a lot of families and dogs and all kinds of life down there on the river.
You’re right near the Smoky Mountains. Are there places you go to clear your head?
I’ve been to Lookout Mountain quite a few times. I’ve also spent some time in St. Elmo, which is at the base of the mountain. It’s a nice little town—they still have milkmen. But the coolest thing is my commute from Ringgold to Chattanooga, when you’re driving through the beautiful mountains and seeing sunsets on the way to gigs.
Do you find that being in a small city helps your following?
Being from a town like Chattanooga, a lot of people come to most of the gigs. And because I kind of started playing in that open mic scene, there are other songwriters that follow you and help you out and want to see you succeed as much as them. So we all have similar superfans who want to see the scene thrive. That’s been encouraging to me; it’s all those groups of fans that follow you really closely.
I think I’ve built a good base here, and the next step is to get out to areas around here. I’ve made some steps to Atlanta and Knoxville. I’m not a huge fan of Nashville. You go up there as a musician, and you feel really small. My goal is to make it up to Asheville one of these days.