And folks are probably wondering if there’s something wrong with me...”
The first line of “Different” gives hardly a clue to what the song is really about. But for Justin Ryan, it’s more than a little autobiographical.
“The first time I heard it, I had the same experience I believe a lot of folks will. It was telling the story of my life. When I met with Will Hopkins to talk about releasing his song, I think my age did help seal the deal,” the 32-year-old chuckles.
Written with Nashville’s guitar-teacher-to-the-stars Ellen Britton, “Different” delves into waters that resonate deeply with someone who always believed he’d grow up to sing gospel music.
“I was forever memorizing the harmony parts on Goodmans records,” a pastime that paid off when the teen got to share the stage with the legendary gospel family. “Before the concert I’d been bragging I could sing bass on one of those old convention songs, and before I knew it, Vestal called me onstage!”
Justin’s coming out would dash his early promise in the conservative Southern Gospel world, severing ties with his even more staunch father-- but not with Vestal.
“I’d moved in with my first partner after my Dad kicked me out, and I hadn’t been in touch with her for awhile,” he remembers.
One day the phone rang. It was the gospel legend famous for her hairdo and hankies.
“Hello darlin’! I found you and Jesus found you! I just wanted you to know, no matter what anybody else says I love you and God loves you!”
Words Justin was hungry to hear, but ultimately not enough to stave off the heartbreak in his life. Ironically, it was his own suicide attempt that paved the way to put his music career back on track.
“I was working my retail job in Paducah, and one of my co-workers-- the only other gay person I knew-- invited me to MCC. He knew what a hard time I was having, and the way the Metropolitan Community Church loved me absolutely changed my life. They introduced me to Marsha Stevens,” he says, referring to the lesbian songwriter who composed the Jesus Movement anthem “For Those Tears I Died.”
“Marsha invited me to Nashville to sing on her next CD. The church paid my way. That led to studio work. Before I knew it I was singing backgrounds for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, George Jones too. It wasn’t long before I started believing what Vestal said was really true.”
Since then, he’s sung extensively in gay-affirming churches, his most recent tour in response to the rash of teen suicides because of bullying. Now, with four albums behind him, Justin has set his sights on new territory.
“Before I worked to make music to remind us God could still love us even though we're gay. We didn’t have to be disenfranchised. Now I think we’ve come so far the conversation had changed. On Different, I’m a lot bolder. I dare to ask if ‘church,’ however you define it, is really working for the LGBTQIA community like it should.”
Songs like Charlie Daniels' “God Save Us All From Religion” and “Our Father” drive the point home, the latter re-imagining “The Lord’s Prayer” from a lesbian point of view.
“Don’t get the idea this album is haughty, though,” Justin protests. “There are vulnerable moments like Julie Miller’s ‘Broken Things’ and Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now,’ and affirming songs like Reba Rambo’s “You Brought Us Out” and her daughter Destiny’s gorgeous storytelling in ‘He Starts With the End In Mind.’”
And if you’re worried he’s strayed too far from his gospel roots, you only need listen to “She’s Better Now,” his tribute to the beloved grandmother who supported him during his coming out.
“Did I say it’s really gay too? I did Kristen Chenoweth’s big song from Wicked, for Heaven’s sake! I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to do Levi Kreis’s ‘Love In Another Light’ earlier either.”
Stylistically, he shrugs off the question of how to categorize the album.
“I have no idea! I was harmonizing and rapping at the same time on (Pink’s song) ‘Perfect!’”
Listening to the record, you suspect the muses didn’t lead him astray.
“Even though I can’t help but make music for people like me, Different really leaves some room if you’re not traditionally religious-- even if you’re straight! It makes you think, but doesn’t tell you how to feel or believe.”
Five albums in, Justin has something to say, gleaned from a journey trying to fit LGBT life into religious experience, evolving into a mission to let spirituality waft its way into every day, all the while fighting for equality.
These days, the church kid even tempers his Coca-Cola addiction with the occasional shot of Fireball.
You get the sense Justin Ryan finally knows exactly who he is. And he's perfectly content with the answer: Different-- just like the rest of us.