On a rain-soaked, foggy afternoon last week, an old barn tucked neatly behind a family dwelling on a rural route in Ransomville resounds with the full-blown emotional resonance of a pair of gospel singers. Inside the barn, which has been converted into a fully equipped, contemporary digital recording studio, singers Marcia McWilson and Connie Matthews are “taking it to church,” in gospel singer parlance. Gathered tightly around the same microphone, they’re running consecutive takes as they improvise incredibly soulful wordless motifs, each one different from the previous one, but all equally powerful, emotive and on-pitch.
Interestingly, this is not a gospel recording session. In fact, McWilliams and Matthews are riffing over stone-cold modern country. Which might explain the presence of the easily 6-foot-5 African-American man with the Stetson hat pushed squarely down over his brow, who is coaching them through their takes. That’s renowned Nashville hit-maker, songwriter, producer and “hick-hop” pioneer Cowboy Troy visible through the studio’s sliding glass doors, cheering on McWilliams and Matthews as if marrying gospel music to country was the most natural thing in the world.
What is Cowboy Troy – born Troy Lee Coleman in Texas and now an established part of the contemporary country collective known as MuzikMafia, which also includes country stars Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and James Otto – doing in the middle of nowhere?
Working, as it turns out, with a regional band that takes its name from the very town producer Dave St. Onge’s Digital Barn studio is cozily tucked within – Ransomville. Over the past four years, the country rock collective has developed into a songwriting and performing force poised to put the Buffalo area on the modern country music map. Troy is here to produce the band’s new album – which will include the very gospel-meets-country tune that McWilson and Matthews have been adding their vocal magic to this afternoon. Troy is reprising the role he filled on the band’s last effort, “Country Is What I Am.” Ransomville will join Cowboy Troy to unveil some of the new material at 8 p.m. Saturday in Club Infinity.
If this seems a bit incongruous – the idea that Western New York might produce legitimate country music and stake its claim in a medium traditionally associated with the American South – well, Troy doesn’t see it that way.
“Take a look around here,” Troy says. “You may have noticed on the way in that we are in the country out here. This is Western New York country. Yeah, it’s different than Nashville country, or the country I grew up with in Texas. But it’s country, legit. It has its own take on what country music is. That’s what you’re hearing right now from these guys.”
Faith in country
“These guys,” it turns out, are old friends who have known each other for years, and have been playing together almost as long, most notably as the popular pop outfit Seven Day Faith. Guitarists Rob Burgio and John Rosini forged a rewarding songwriting partnership, eventually leading to three singles in the Top 10 on local Top 40 station Kiss 98.5 FM. When Seven Day Faith split, the two decided to dig into what they describe as a long-enduring love of country music, with the help of SDF bassist Kevin Ernst and drummer Johnny Misso. Vocalist Dan McLurg originally filled out the band’s roster, but recently left and was replaced by former SDF frontman Rob Bilson.
All express confidence that this new Bilson-fronted version of the band is the definitive one.
“Burgio and I had been getting together before I was in the band, during the time I took off to be there while my kids were really young,” Bilson recalls. “We were working on this tune of mine called ‘Dear Daughter,’ which was originally just an acoustic demo that we worked up ourselves. But it felt right, and that was really the beginning of the journey that ended up with me joining Ransomville.”
When Cowboy Troy arrived in the Buffalo area to work on the tunes for Ransomville’s third effort, he and Bilson had never met. But the bond, he says, “was pretty much instant” between the two.
“It was seamless from the get-go,” Troy insists. “I listened to the demos first. One tune they were really excited about, ‘Sugar On the Spoon,’ I honestly didn’t get it at first blush. But I listened to it and thought and thought about it, and when I got to the airport to get on the plane in Atlanta to come here at 4 in the morning, I started working on it. By the time the plane landed in Buffalo, I had the changes in place. When we got together, it just took a minute to get it right.”
Troy speaks casually of this process, when in truth, it can often be tortuous, drawn out and capable of bruising egos on all sides. But the Ransomville guys insist this wasn’t the case.
“Troy helped us unearth parts of the song we didn’t even know were there,” says Burgio. “There was just an instant chemistry.” Bilson nods his head animatedly in agreement, stressing the effortless manner in which “Sugar On the Spoon” went from “not quite there yet” to “totally actualized” under Troy’s detail-oriented gaze.
“Troy gets us to think outside of the box,” says guitarist Rosini, while Burgio recalls the producer “urging me not to overthink it all, not to nitpick, but to just feel it, to realize that feel is everything in this music.”
Capturing the live magic
Troy relates a story in which Big & Rich’s John Rich cornered him on a tour bus to drive home his take on the difference between a singer and an artist. “ ‘Singers sing, singers will note the current trend, and they’ll mimic it,’ John told me,” Troy remembers with a grin.
“ ‘But artists just do what they do – artists have integrity.’ That really hit home with me. So I told Bilson when I met him, I said ‘Dude, you don’t have the typical country voice, and I don’t want to hear you trying to imitate the typical modern country voice – I want to hear you singing yourself.’ I told him to sing like he sings, not like what he thinks a country singer is supposed to sing like. He did, and from that point forward, everything has gone very smoothly.”
Troy’s other main contribution to the Ransomville sessions involved his insistence that the tracks boast a “live off-the-floor feel, a spontaneous feel without a million overdubs, so that it sounds like this band sounds live, which is the first thing about them that impressed me.
“I caught the band live totally by coincidence,” Troy recalls. “I was on tour with Big & Rich, and we had an after-party at the Hard Rock Cafe following our show in Pittsburgh, back in 2011. These guys just happened to be playing the Hard Rock that night.”
When Ransomville manager Trent Boling approached Troy, the latter expressed enthusiasm for the band’s performance. “A few days later,” says Boling, “Troy called me, saying something along the lines of, ‘Man, I would really love to work with these guys.’ ”
The Ransomville guys complied willingly with Troy’s dictum that the sessions produce a sound in keeping with the band’s live performances. “Troy unburdened us in that way,” says Burgio. “He encouraged us to be ourselves, and it just felt like the clouds were parting, and we could let go of all of this worry, all of this nit-picking and overthinking, and let the music flow.”
Saturday’s concert will kick off a series of East Coast dates that will find Ransomville opening for Cowboy Troy and then acting as his backup band for the latter’s headlining sets, following the release of the group’s as yet untitled new album in early spring.
For Troy, the recordings will provide the blueprint for Ransomville’s concerts, during which he expects the songs to grow and change.
“There was no formula for this record,” Troy says. “The whole process, from writing and arranging to recording, has been incredibly organic. That way, when the band plays live, the music can expand and grow, and it will all sound convincing, and not contrived.
“And that is what the listener responds to, in the end.”
On the web: Go inside the studio with Cowboy Troy and Ransomville at buffalonews.com