Ryan Wong, longtime member of the garage-rock outfit Cool Ghouls, recently released his first solo album, The New Country Sounds of Ryan Wong. “I grew up in Benicia and moved to San Francisco to attend SF State and start a band,” Wong said. “I knew Pat Thomas and Pat McDonald from high school. They were already putting Cool Ghouls together. I joined up and as soon as we’d written enough tunes for a set, we started playing clubs. We put some songs up online and things took off.”
Cool Ghouls lasted 10 years and made four albums, including At George’s Zoo, released a few weeks before the pandemic shut everything down. “We never officially disbanded,” Wong said, “but we stopped playing and writing songs together. Our tunes were a mix of genres: rock, soul, country, folk and R&B. Sonny Smith [producer of The New Country Sounds and the man behind Sonny and the Sunsets] liked our stuff. He produced our Swirling Fire Burning Through The Rye album. He was always telling me I should make a country music record. He said it would be great to have an Asian cowboy singer, although I don’t bring anything explicit about my Asian background into the lyrics at all.”
“I had a batch of country songs that didn’t fit into the stuff we were doing in Cool Ghouls,” Wong continued. “Some of them from a few years back, when I was bartending. I’d go home and, to wind down, I’d turn on my 4-track and write songs at 3:30 in the morning. I’d be kinda delirious. I sent Sonny the songs and he said, ‘Give me four more.’ I sent him four more and he said, ‘Give me another four.’ We chose our favorites from the demos I sent him and headed into the studio.”
Wong, Smith and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Rusty Miller recorded The New Country Sounds of Ryan Wong at Speakeasy Studios, with engineer Alicia Heuvel. “She has a space in the basement of her house in the Mission District,” Wong said. “She was in a band called the Aislers Set. We’ve all known each other for a while, so it was a good fit. The wall is lined with posters from local bands. It’s an inspiring spot, with a live room and a tape deck. Everything was done in analogue. We’d talk over the songs, figure out what we were going to do and go for it. Sonny has a free-flowing way of working. He follows our inspirations, wherever they take us. He’d set the metronome and I’d play the songs live, with my voice and acoustic guitar. Then, we built everything around that.”
Wong added, “We finished it, just the three of us, over the course of two weekends. We went from morning to night, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. All of the songs are either first or second takes. Sonny helped with the musical composition, figured out where to put the solos and if it should be played fast or slow. It was the first time I ever gave someone complete creative control, but it felt right.”
Musically, Wong’s songs are pure country, but his lyrics are more surreal than the usual country song. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to call them low-key psychedelic country. “I was reading Thomas Pynchon’s V. at the time I was composing the songs,” he said. “He’s brilliant in the way he can talk about a beer and get very cosmic about it. I like the idea that simple objects can connect you to infinity. It was also a response to mainstream country, which is more like pop music than traditional country.”
Goldmark’s bouncy pedal steel and Miller’s drum fills highlight “Yo-Yo,” a song about an uncertain relationship. Wong quietly sings the forlorn lyric, taking consolation in the knowledge that earthly life is often beyond our control. “Shadow” is an enigmatic country rocker with a simple, catchy melody and a vocal hook that embeds itself into one’s mind after a single listen. Wong playfully sings the single verse over and over: “You need a light, if you want to be a shadow.”
“Cold Beer” is a brief narrative in the tradition of Red Sovine’s truck-driving songs. Wong strums his acoustic guitar and recites the mysterious tale of a bar in the middle of nowhere, while a lonesome juice harp twangs in the background.
Wong released the album to all digital platforms this past May. The first 100 LPs come with a songbook that contains the sheet music and lyrics to all the songs, as well as drawings Wong made to illustrate them. “I was inspired by the old Folkways Records that came with lyric books and song notes inserted into the record jackets,” he said. “That speaks to my whole attitude about country music. I always liked songs full of emotion; songs that can devastate you, things like the George Jones song ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’”
Wong said he enjoyed writing and recording the country songs on the album, but has no plans to forsake the other styles of music he loves. “When I think about the many phases of my art, I think about Sonny,” he said. “He’ll do a country record, a new wave record or something else. I like having that freedom. When I play solo, I do songs from all the projects I’ve been part of. I am writing more country songs, but I also do weirdo pop songs. For me, how I’m feeling in the moment determines when and how they come out.”
Listen to ‘The New Country Sounds of Ryan Wong’ on Wong’s Bandcamp page: ryanwongmusic.bandcamp.com/album/the-new-country-sounds-of-ryan-wong.