Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand Dream Big

New Album Wreathed in Optimism, Leader Says

“I ultimately am an optimist,” says Ryan Shupe, “and I think you’ll find through this album an optimistic view of the world. But I like to take things with a good grain of salt, and I like to laugh about things.”

That’s a pretty fair assessment of what the Ryan Shupe & the RubberBand have achieved with Dream Big, its first package of songs for Capitol Records. The album recently made its Billboard chart debut at a respectable No. 13, and the rousing title cut has been pumping out positivity on the singles chart for the past 24 weeks.

Threaded through Dream Big, which is primarily an acoustic undertaking, are elements of bluegrass, reggae, jazz, rock and rap. With its virtuosic picking — particularly Craig Miner’s effervescent, parade-leading banjo — the band conjures up memories of the stellar New Grass Revival. “I love all sorts of different musical styles, so I like to switch around,” Shupe stresses. “It makes me be more interested in the music.”

Shupe wrote every song on the album — and without the aid of co-writers. “I tried [co-writing] one time,” he says, “but I don’t really know how you do it. … To me, songwriting is something that comes from me. Writing a song with someone is kind of like writing my journal with someone. It’s like, ’Hey, I started writing my journal today. Why don’t you finish it for me?’ It’s something so personal.”

It’s obvious that, as a lyricist, Shupe’s roots are not embedded in the straightforward rural sensibilities of Music Row. He’s fond of triple rhymes (star, far, car; pay, day, play), pop culture references (Superman, Bruce Lee, Jay Leno) and a decidedly academic vocabulary (appended, astute, neuron).

“That’s pretty funny,” Shupe says when the talk turns to his choice of words. “Actually, my mom was an English teacher. So she always had us reading books, reading different stuff. So I kind of picked up on vocabulary [from that]. I like it when you use different words than you normally find in songs. I think it’s kind of cool.”

Shupe developed his coolness in his native Utah, the band’s home base. He began fiddling and touring professionally when he was still a youngster. Then, like most other ambitious musicians, he started putting his own bands together. When these groups broke up, as they invariably did, Shupe came up with the concept of the RubberBand, a name he would apply to any configuration of players he assembled for different gigs. Ultimately, though, he found four other players who seemed ready for the long haul. In addition to banjoist Miner, they are guitarist Roger Archibald, drummer Bart Olson and bassist Colin Botts.

While he’s not sure of the precise date, Shupe believes his group began playing under its present name in 1996. That’s also the year they recorded their first album, If I Were a Bird. They followed it with four more self-produced collections — Simplify, Live, a Christmas album and, in 2003, Hey, Hey, Hey. It was this last album that the band brought to Capitol for repackaging and which has now been issued as Dream Big. Hey, Hey, Hey contained 13 songs, Shupe says. Dream Big kept 11 of them.

As the band’s reputation grew, so did the impetus to bring its music to Nashville. “But Nashville was just so far away from us,” Shupe notes. “It was really hard to drive there in a van, all the way across the country. But we decided to make a conscious effort to get to Nashville. After that started happening, we started to see some results.”

Shupe credits Billy Block, creator of the Western Beat concert series, with giving them a place to play — and to be seen — when they did visit Nashville. “Whenever we came through, he would just let us come in. And we invited [producer] Jason [Deere] to come see us. That’s when we started working together.” Deere went on to produce Dream Big.

Several major labels showed an interest in the RubberBand’s music, Shupe recalls, but it was Capitol Records that “got it right off the bat.” The band made its first public performance as a Capitol act at the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville in March of this year.

Since then, Shupe explains, the band has been touring “all over the place,” both as a solo act and with other performers. Starting in late September, the band will open a series of shows for Trisha Yearwood. And it is scheduled to do a showcase in New York during the CMA Awards festivities in November.

Shupe is enthusiastic about being involved in the Nashville music community and says he’s already started working on songs for a new album. But he admits the band has no intention of leaving Utah.

“We’ll probably move [to Nashville],” he says, “when they get a ski resort.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.