RYAN LEE CROSBY'S "WINTER HILL BLUES" IS AN EPIC JOURNEY IN SOUND AND SOUL
The fingerstyle guitar maven, songwriter and powerfully emotional performer blends echoes of traditional music from Mississippi, Mali, and India into compelling songs that speak from—and to—the heart.
Ryan Lee Crosby’s new album Winter Hill Blues captures the timeless power of music from the Mississippi Delta, refracted by influences of Hindustani slide guitar and Crosby’s own unique approach to the style. Its nine songs resonate with a sound and spirit forged from his life as a traveling musician and his studies with masters of the Delta and Indian traditions. Produced by Fat Possum Records’ Bruce Watson at his Delta-Sonic Sound studio in Memphis, Winter Hill Blues is available via Bandcamp and streaming platforms.
“Of all the world’s musical traditions, the one that speaks to me most directly is the Bentonia style of Delta blues,” Crosby relates. “Something I love about the blues is its timeless ability to express the entire range of the human experience: it’s brightest joys, deepest sorrows and everything in between. By listening to the blues, we can learn how to have compassion for ourselves and others. Its lessons are endless.”
And listening to Winter Hill Blues, it’s obvious Crosby has learned them well. The album opens with “I’m Leaving,” driven by a deft, rolling guitar riff supporting the gentle melody of Crosby’s voice as he examines the shadowed corners of the heart, where our motivations are a mystery, even to us. A quartet of songs, “Down So Long,” “Going to Bentonia,” “Slow Down,” and “Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down,” are the album’s core. “They represent all the musical aspects of what I have to offer: electric and acoustic 12-string guitar, the Bentonia, Mississippi, crossnote tuning, lap-style slide guitar, falsetto singing, and the direct influence of Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes and the Bentonia blues tradition he represents.”
With Bruce Watson as producer, Crosby knew he was in good hands. “I’ve been deeply influenced by the albums Bruce has been associated with at Fat Possum, including classics by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, and Robert Belfour. To work with Bruce brought me full circle.” Crosby was joined for various tracks on Winter Hill Blues by George Sluppick, on drums and percussion, and bassist Mark Edgar Stuart.
Today, Crosby’s most crucial influence remains 74-year-old Holmes, who is his mentor and the leading proponent of Bentonia blues—a haunting style characterized by high singing and eerie minor-key melodies, played on open-tuned guitars, that emanates from the small central-Delta town that lends the music its name. After a series of European solo tours that became an odyssey of musical self-discovery through playing long sets and traveling many hours alone, reflecting on his music and life, Crosby’s thirst for new inspiration and his fascination with the Bentonia sound led him there in 2019. He traveled south from his Boston-area home to begin his apprenticeship with Holmes, who learned to play from the Bentonia style’s inventor, Henry Stuckey, and Stuckey’s inheritor Jack Owens. In 2021, Crosby was heralded by Smithsonian Magazine as one of the young torchbearers of style.
“The time I’ve spent with Jimmy at his Blue Front Cafe, which his parents opened in 1948 and he has operated since the early 1970s, has been transformational,” Crosby shares. “Besides teaching the guitar riffs, Jimmy stresses the importance of singing about what you know, whether it’s something you experienced or something that happened to someone close to you.” Holmes’ guidance has led Crosby to highlight what is both personal and universal in his songwriting, which taps into the past while addressing the currents of anxiety and relief in modern life.
Part of the Bentonia tradition is songs about the Devil. Famed Bentonia artist Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” and Holmes’ “I’d Rather Be the Devil” are part of that canon, and Crosby’s own addition is Winter Hill Blues’ “Was It the Devil,” where he contemplates the untimely death of his mother through that lens, laying bare his soul in the song’s melismatic vocals and slow, contemplative guitar. The gentle cadence of his six-string also reflects Bentonia blues’ deep roots in the African tradition, as expressed in modern times by Mali’s Ali Farke Touré and Boubacar Traoré, both of whom Crosby cites as influences. Another source of inspiration that echoes through Crosby’s playing, and even the microtonal shifts of his singing, is his appreciation of Hindustani guitar and chaturangui, a fretless instrument from India, which was created under the guidance of that music’s leading light, Debashish Bhattacharya. “I noticed that Jimmy and Debashish both work with a movable tonic note attained through variable tunings, as opposed to being in standard tuning and playing in different keys, which is how I, and many of us in Western music culture, grew up playing,” he notes.
Crosby’s earliest influences were Iggy Pop, John Lee Hooker, the Velvet Underground, and the Ramones, and he began playing guitar in bands when he was 14, after having the instrument for only a week. “The spirit of throwing yourself into whatever speaks to you has always been at the heart of how I engage in music and meaning,” he says. Crosby moved to Boston in the mid-’90s, where he founded and fronted the Joy Division-inspired rock band Cancer to the Stars. But by the early 2000s, the sound and sensibility of deep blues began to permeate his musical character, until it took over. Since then, he has released nine LPs, singles, and cassettes, and undertaken a series of European and U.S. tours.
“For me, Winter Hill Blues is the culmination of all those experiences and influences,” Crosby says. “I hear blues, Indian classical music, and Malian guitar as being interconnected through the common traits of a centered harmony, with an emphasis on melody, supported by repetition and rhythm, while singing the truth of one’s experience within a spare, beautiful framework that reflects an openness of mind and heart.”
“"With a riveting singing style and the compositional chops to pull off such searing sagas “Institution Blues” and “Down So Long” plus add new lyrics to the 19th century “Was It The Devil,” Ryan Lee is the real deal. Recorded in Memphis by Bruce Watson of Fat Possum—the label famous for RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough—it sounds unique, proudly independent and like a relic from another time."” - Mike Greenblatt
“Boston songwriter Ryan Lee Crosby has played everything from raucous indie rock to Indian classical-influenced folk, always with sensitivity and passion. His new recording, Winter Hill Blues, reflects his frequent travels to the Mississippi Delta, where he’s frequently played with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, as well as other of the music’s elders. The disc is produced by one of the top champions of deep raw blues, Bruce Watson, and captures an artist whose creative growth never ceases.” - Noah Schaffer
“The dirty, electric Winter Hill Blues was produced by Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson, famed for producing albums for Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside. The result is the best work of Crosby’s career.” - JD Nash