Country Newcomer Ryan Kinder Gets Another Go-Round With 'Tonight'

Jason Davis/Getty Images for HGTV
Ryan Kinder performs at the HGTV Lodge during CMA Music Fest on June 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

When the Bigger Picture label lost its financing and folded in May 2014, the obvious focus was on Craig Campbell, whose "Keep Them Kisses Comin'" was at No. 11 on Country Airplay. The single managed to reach No. 9 before it flickered out.

Lost in the shuffle was Ryan Kinder, a singer-songwriter with an intense, urgent vocal style, who had just released the brooding "Kiss Me When I'm Down" the prior month and was atop the New and Active chart as the label imploded. The single squeezed onto Country Airplay for one week in June 2014, just before the CMA Music Festival, where Warner Music Nashville president John Esposito and executive vp/GM Peter Strickland watched Kinder win over a bundle of female fans who were largely unfamiliar with him.

Seventeen months later, Kinder's first WMN single, "Tonight," gives him a second shot at the commercial mainstream. It's not only his second label deal, but also his second recording of "Tonight," which was originally created during his tenure with, as he says sarcastically, "the label that shall not be mentioned." 

Kinder, in fact, started working on the song with co-writer Luke Sheets at the Bigger Picture office in Nashville's Berry Hill neighborhood in anticipation of a recording session with producer Keith Stegall (Zac Brown Band, Alan Jackson), the label's chief creative officer. Stegall was scheduled as the third writer at the appointment, and Sheets was admittedly nervous, so he showed up early to go over a few ideas with Kinder first. Kinder brought along a few snippets he thought might be worth exploring.

"I came in with three separate melodies, thinking it was three separate songs," says Kinder. "They're now the chorus for ‘Tonight.' Luke said, ‘Let's mash them together.' Genius."

The results sounded "angsty," notes Kinder, and he had a personal scenario that fit. He had seen on Facebook that a high-school girlfriend was engaged, and though he no longer carried a torch for her, he was reminded of a period of time when neither was able to completely let go.

"There was a time in college where I was trying to keep that relationship together, and we would keep calling each other late at night and kind of poking at the wound," recalls Kinder. "We both were at fault for each other's pain."

Stegall was held up at a dental appointment and had to cancel, so Kinder and Sheets decided to save their work for another time and adjourned for beers at El Mariachi on Thompson Lane. 

Days later, Sheets was inspired with lyrics for the chorus and emailed them to Kinder, who dashed over. They finished the entire song in about an hour, beginning with a 3 a.m. phone call — much like the guy in Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" — with the man conveying a bit of desperation.

"One of the things that we felt really good about was the music," says Sheets. "The lyrics say he's hurting, but the music is saying he's gonna get through it, and I think the combination of those elements is what's making it work. Whereas if you were to just read the lyrics, you're like, ‘This guy's gotta pull it together.' "

The melody in those verses intentionally begins in a lower part of Kinder's register, allowing him to heighten the energy at the chorus.

"He always wants every chorus to go as high as his voice can humanly go," says Sheets, "and I'm always like, ‘Dude, you're gonna have to sing this at 6 a.m. in Raleigh, North Carolina."

The verses left a big chunk of empty space between phrases, and they filled it with a revolving guitar riff on the work tape. But when they headed into the studio with Stegall a few days later, the producer suggested they make that part a little more prominent, and it turned into a "whoa-oh" section sung in harmony that ultimately became a key part of the song. Stegall also speeded it up a touch to make it more radio-friendly.

The cut was strong enough that when Kinder signed with WMN, the prevailing wisdom was that it was a worthy single. Kinder continued to develop at Fusion Management, the same company that works with Lady A, and when Charles Kelley cut his solo material, Fusion founder Daniel Miller
suggested Kinder consider using the same producer, Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride). Kinder was up for it; Worley had conditions.

"There were two voices that presented themselves to me in his earlier stuff," says Worley. "[One] was kind of soft, and I wasn't interested in it, but all of a sudden, there would be this growling kind of raspy voice that I would compare more to Dave Matthews. My idea was if he was interested in really playing to that voice, that was real interesting to me."

The original version of "Tonight" employed both aspects of Kinder's voice, reaching its tension when he held out the title in the chorus. Worley encouraged Kinder to apply that intensity throughout the song, and they both pushed the label to let them rerecord it at Worley's studio, Shabby Road, using many of the same musicians that played on "Need You Now." They dropped the key a full step, from C to B, which allowed Kinder to hit the growl even harder on the chorus. "But until we finished, I don't think anybody was totally committed to changing versions," Worley says.

Much of the new version, including the bulk of Kinder's vocal, was cut on one of the first takes. Pianist Michael Rojas plays a key, three-note figure that Sheets had applied to "Tonight" from the beginning — "My piano parts are [simple] because that's the only way I can play," says Sheets — and drummer Chad Cromwell muscled up the sound with angular, precise fills. Bass player Jimmie Lee Sloas gave it a more spacious foundation that took the track, according to Kinder, in more of a Tom Petty direction.

"It's like old-school stuff," recalls Kinder. "It feels live, and we're all in the same room looking at each other while we're playing."

Worley eventually overdubbed a slide guitar solo, and Kinder did his own background vocals with Sheets supplementing on some of the lower notes. 

WMN secured initial play on SiriusXM's Highway channel, then released "Tonight" to terrestrial radio via Play MPE on Oct. 13. It's the first song to become a single from about 200 titles that Sheets and Kinder co-wrote. And one that gives Kinder a second chance.

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.