Writer Tom Scanlon
How many times has Ryan Sims strapped on a guitar and stepped on stage at Harold’s Corral? The singer with cowboy charisma flashes a grin that gives ladies butterflies as he tries to come up with a number, settling on 150. “The first time was when I was 19,” he says, the smile taking a slightly wicked, bad-boy twist. Those were the days, barely out of high school, rocking out at the biggest bar in his hometown.
Since then, he’s clocked more hours at Harold’s than some of owner Danny Piacquidio’s full-time employees. So his January 11 show at Harold’s is no big deal, just-another-gig, right?
Oh no, far from it. For Ryan Sims, this show is a turning point. The show in early 2014 will be the launch of Sims’ solo career as he leaves the comfort of his long-time band, EastonAshe. It would be quite easy for him to keep traveling with his posse, but he has decided it’s time to cowboy up and ride solo.
“The big difference is: EastonAshe has always been a group project, with four members going after the same thing,” Sims was saying, during a break at an EastonAshe show in late October. “Being solo will take 10 times as much passion as anything I’ve ever done.”
Which is saying something. EastonAshe has always been a pedal-to-the-metal band. Sims’ band has been playing 250 shows a year for the last decade, mostly around Arizona and the Southwest. And this is a band that delivers big, rollicking shows. EastonAshe charges through country, rock and pop songs, cranking out song after song – with medleys mixed in - during as many as four powerhouse sets. Most bar bands play one or two sets, before calling it a night.
After years of playing other bands’ hits, the former boy-wonder of Cave Creek has decided the time has come for him to grow up and stand on his own song-writing legs. A big part of that maturation is taking a risk, trying something different and challenging himself to make it on his own.
“I’m 31, now,” Sims said. “I’ve kind of perfected the craft of getting out and playing shows. EastonAshe is about the band – it’s about playing covers, drinking beer …
“Through my 20s, we were the fun-time, party band. Going out and playing shows and drinking beer every night, well, that’s kind of cute when you’re in your 20s. But it’s not so cute when you’re in your 30s.”
He takes a big drink – of ice water. Significant, as Sims noted that, while making his solo album, he didn’t drink any alcohol; this was quite a departure, for someone used to partying it up with his bandmates and fun-loving fans. “We became ‘the big local band’ and did really well. But I’m the kind of person who always wants to know, ‘What’s next?’ And there is no ‘What’s next?’ for EastonAshe in Arizona – we’ve done it all, here.”
While his focus is shifting, he notes the band is not breaking up. “EastonAshe will always be around,” he said.
Sims’ solo career really began two years ago, when he was selected to compete on the Simon Cowell TV show “X Factor.” Though he didn’t advance beyond the final 32 (out of thousands of entrants), Sims made a few connections and walked away with the confidence that he could fly on his own, without the safety net of a backing band. “What ‘X Factor’ did for me was that it gave me a chance to let me get back to being myself, and achieving more than just being a local band.”
Ryan Sims has had some invisible force pushing him for a long, long time. “I knew when I was 3 years old I was going to play music for a living. My grandma went to Goodwill and bought me a guitar when I was 3, and I hardly put it down for years.”
Except for a few weeks as a bartender, Sims has never had a paying job other than being a musician. Unlike many bands that consider themselves lucky if they can land one or two shows per week, EastonAshe normally has four or five shows each week.
“You have to work hard in Arizona, to make a living as a musician,” the singer says, his face darkening, for the moment. “Some nights, it does feel like work. But on my worst night of work,” he says, flashing that charismatic grin, “I’m still playing music.”
A Creeker to the core, he gives big credit to the local scene for fueling his passion and his development. “Growing up in Cave Creek, there was music seven nights a week – there was always a show. And the older guys were always great about sharing the stage and giving me a chance.”
Sims was talking about being “31, single and looking for love” – when he suddenly gave a start. Megan Ellsworth, a 26-year-old new fan, had snuck up behind and goosed him. After seeing Sims perform for the first time, Ellsworth was smitten. “When he was on stage, I was like, ‘Oh, that guy is sexy!’ I always like a guy with a good voice,” she added, her blue eyes dancing.
Sims blushed a bit, with cowboy politeness thanked the little lady, and told her it was time to get back to work.
A few minutes later, he’s back on stage, doing the only kind of job he ever wanted: Singing and playing guitar.