After three decades in Nashville, Tim Ryan's coming home to tell his own story, in symphonic fashion.
The St. Ignatius native, who's written songs for stars like Randy Travis and George Strait and cut his own solo albums, is ready to unveil "Play Me Montana," a string-backed musical about growing up in the Mission Valley.
"I'm just trying to tell the true story of home here, let the world see what it's like growing up" on the Flathead Indian Reservation, he said. A key figure in that story is his fiddler grandfather, who taught him to play music. "All the wisdom he passed along the way" is part of the story.
The premiere in Missoula next week aims for grandeur and sweep: The 90-minute program, featuring about 13 songs, will have required about 200 people when all's said and done.
He co-wrote some of the songs with fellow Nashville scribes Alex Harvey and Charlie Black. He recruited Charlie Judge, an arranger who has credits with Carrie Underwood, to orchestrate them. The Missoula Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Gordon Johnson of the Great Falls Symphony, will back vocals by Ryan and Lari White, a Nashville and Broadway singer.
The big event will feature a youth choir from the Flathead reservation, Native dancers that Ryan grew up with, co-production from the University of Montana's Entertainment Management Program, and some spotlighted songs with a UM Jazz Band and Show Tyme Academy dancers.
To provide a scenic backdrop, Ryan shot video around the Mission Valley over the course of several years, and edited it together for a multimedia element. They'll film the entire concert with an eye toward a television broadcast and maybe even a tour.
"I've been writing commercial music for other people my entire life," he said. Now he wants enter a new phase "telling my story."
Ryan grew up in the Mission Valley with deep roots. He said his great-grandmother came to the valley with Chief Charlo; on his grandfather's side are French-Canadians from the Frenchtown and Tarkio area. (He performs under a shortened name — his last name is Rouillier.)
His grandfather, Vic Cordier, served as a judge for both the town and the tribe. He was also a logger by trade, and a fiddle player for fun.
"He and I played catch every day, we talked about life and his old Indian way of life. He always had a quick wit about him but ... he was a very serious man" regarding the law, he said.
"My grandpa was not only my grandpa but also my best buddy," Ryan said.
Often, Cordier and his logger friends would get together to play fiddle and exchange "pretty gruff talk."
"It was like watching a scene from 'The Andy Griffith Show.' Their little 700-square-foot tar-paper shack where there's nothing but music every night. So I wanted in on all that fun," Ryan said.
Cordier told his 4-year-old grandson that if he learned a few songs they could play shows together.
"I started practicing and by the time I was about 6, I was able to play along with Grandpa," he said. They played a party at the spring round-up at the National Bison Range when Ryan was 7. The two were joined on the back of a flatbed truck by a piano player. It was April, with blowing snow and a tipsy crowd, but it was Ryan's musical debut to the public.
"His music was so unique that only I could follow him. It was almost like a language. All my great music friends would get lost," he said. Cordier was a master at working the crowd, too. "Everywhere we went, he would tell these jokes and then get into a song. I was his sidekick, kinda," he said.
While Ryan said growing up in the area was magical, music wasn't as easy to come by as it is now. You'd have to go hear it live.
He remembers riding his bike at "9:30 at night (to) sit in the street so I could hear that band coming from the Teepee Bar or something."
The bands might not always be the best, he said, but "it was all we had. It was exciting to hear a real drummer, or some guy playing a solo on guitar."
Ryan began playing bars himself with his grandfather in the fifth grade. By the time he was 13, he was singing and playing lead, and getting calls from 50-year-olds to join pick-up bands.
By the time he was in college at UM, he was leading a popular band called Sugarfoot.
The only thing Ryan had left to earn his physical education degree was a student-teaching credit when headed to Nashville at age 24. Back in 1989, "Music City USA" more closely resembled a small college town like Dillon, where everybody knows everybody. Even a relative newcomer like Ryan could grab lunch with Chet Atkins or Harlan Howard.
He was only there a matter of months before he signed to CBS Records. A tune from his 1990 self-titled debut, "Dance in Circles," charted. When it came time to shoot a video, he brought his grandfather along to play fiddle. You can see them both in the video on YouTube, in which the band plays in a music hall in St. Ignatius.
In real life, it was shot on the set of "Gunsmoke" in Arizona, where his grandfather, a cut-up, entertained the crew with his jokes.
"Every time I see those guys they say, 'Tim our favorite video of all time is still the one with your grandpa,' " he said.
While pursuing a career in Nashville, Ryan returned frequently to his home state.
In 1993, he arranged for a concert at the Mule Palace in Evaro to benefit Mission Valley high-school students. It was a regular cause of Ryan's, and he brought in friends from the country world, like The Remingtons, Alex Harvey, Martin Delray, and Kostas — a Billings native who also found his way to Nashville and on to the charts.
Naturally, he invited his grandpa, then 91 years old, to play. Cordier stepped out on stage in a cowboy hat, crisp shirt and bolo tie and told one of his old jokes. Then "he started playing one of Grandma's favorite songs, 'The Old Kentucky Waltz,' and he just fell straight over backwards and died on stage, right there in front of everybody," Ryan said.
After he was rushed to the hospital, Ryan conferred with his mother and relatives, who told him they thought the show should go on — it's what Cordier would've wanted.
Harvey "grabbed a guitar, ran to the mic and said 'Don't nobody leave. This is a celebration of life. Vic went out the way that we wanted,' so by golly nobody left," Ryan said.
Back in Nashville, Ryan cut four solo albums of his own and continued writing for others. His credits are lengthy: Phil Vassar recorded eight of his songs, including "Last Day of My Life." George Strait did four, including "Somewhere Down in Texas." Randy Travis took "You and You Alone." Deana Carter sang "You Still Shake Me."
After he and his wife Peggy, who he met at UM, had their first child, Ryan said he didn't want to go out on the road anymore, and opted to make a career out of songwriting instead, a decision he doesn't regret.
"There are days that I wish I would've been as big as Alan Jackson, and maybe could have, but you know what? Hey, I'm sitting pretty good. Going on 30 years with my wife. My kids are college-educated and normal and happy. And we're happy. And I get to come home to Montana and do my own music," he said.
Closer to Montana, he toured with the reunited Mission Mountain Wood Band and contributed songs to their second record, "Reboot."
"Play Me Montana" blends new and old songs with another level of presentation.
"What makes it different for him, and I think for all us, and especially for the audience as well, he's doing what he's done for years, but he's presenting it in a completely different dimension," said Johnson, the conductor.
His arranger, Judge, one of the friends Ryan made in Nashville, is the "unsung hero" of the production, Johnson said.
Choosing the right arranger-orchestrator is "absolutely paramount in how the presentation is going to be received," he said. String charts for pop singers don't always add to the music. In Judge's case, he's made full use of the orchestra, Johnson said.
The June 17 concert at the Dennison Theatre will be filmed, and he hopes that PBS will pick it up for broadcast. He envisions touring the show, hopefully abroad, so it can showcase Montana, possibly bringing students from Salish Kootenai College or UM.
To help his alma mater, he reached out to the UM Entertainment Management Program, a certificate program in the School of Business Administration.
He's talked with classes and students have helped with the social media element.
"Not only is it unique, the beautiful thing is when you have an incredibly successful alum who wants to come back and give back," said Mike Morelli, the program's executive director.
"The thing that astounds me is that Tim is so driven to give these opportunities to students, and I appreciate that more than I can say," he said.