Ryan Bailey is an unassuming fellow. He sports a mod-rocker's haircut and a Southerner's typical mild manner. But he has a surprisingly passionate singing style and refined songwriting talent.
A local church worship leader by day, he's eager to press ahead with his nondenominational rock 'n' roll ideas in the usual music venue settings. "We're just getting into our thing, but I'd much rather have my music classified by genre than by subject matter," he says. "I'd like to be in the position to write about what I want to write about, not how we're being marketed or received."
While Bailey's committed to his spiritual beliefs, he's reluctant to let them slip into the forefront of his musical endeavors — from his band's live shows and production to his own personal songwriting efforts, as demonstrated on his new EP, Down to the Wire.
"I have some things that are much more explicitly spiritual than others, and, at some point, I'll try to record and release a lot of it," Bailey says. "The stuff on this project has hints of spirituality in there, like with the song 'Prayer for You,' which can be a love story if you like, or a tune about responding to someone who's throwing their life away and nobody seems to care.
"I've wanted to get something out for a couple of years now, and this collection worked out well," he adds. "I was getting into the idea of telling a story creatively, poetically, and vividly when I wrote these songs."
Bailey, 29, was raised in the Upstate town of Enoree (just south of Spartanburg). He and his family have lived in Charleston since 2004.
In recent years, Bailey essentially operated as a one-man band, recording at home and performing occasional solo gigs. Actual songwriting only recently came into the picture for him.
"My writing tends to lay back into the more country/folky side of rock," Bailey says. "I like a good sad song. The more rockin' songs on the front and back of the EP started out as laid-back folk songs with a little movement to them. Then they really came together with the band's input."
Cumberland Belle was named for nothing in particular from a random list of words ("It sounded cool and kinda Southern," Bailey says). They officially came together in 2009. Guitarist Carl Wine, bassist Shawn Leberknight, and drummer Parker Smith quickly started clicking as a rhythm section. As things took shape, Bailey put a considerable amount of time and effort into the preproduction of the new EP, carefully working out the arrangements, recording numerous demos, and banging on various instruments.
They ventured into Charleston Sound last March. Bailey and studio engineer Jeff Hodges were already well acquainted; they'd worked on demos before the studio was open for business. Well prepared, he and the group swiftly recorded a half-dozen of Bailey's strongest compositions, tracking most of the drums, bass, and guitar simultaneously, overdubbing extra tracks of guitar, keys, and vocals later on.
Much of the guitar and piano-driven material on the five-song Down to the Wire doesn't stray far from melancholy, although some of it is as upbeat and twangy as a classic '90s alt-rock hit by Whiskeytown, The Gin Blossoms, or Better Than Ezra.
"For this type of music, I really like to hear a lot of thick piano and organ," says Bailey. "You can hear that on some of the early Counting Crows records and stuff like that. We'd been playing out a lot at the time, so it felt good to go into the studio together and track them live. I like those kind of records where bands do that. The songs on Down to the Wire were the ones we were most excited about, and it feels great to be able to actually hold a copy of them in my hand."
His polite and laid-back nature masks his genuine excitement about Down to the Wire — but not entirely.