He’s a survivor

Ryan Judy with Sawgrass at the Trolley Stop

By Katie Christoff

Photo: Ryan Judy will perform with Sawgrass on Dec. 12 at The Trolley Stop

Ryan Judy overcame a lot of physical hardships before becoming the Dayton music scene staple he is today.

Now a cancer survivor, Judy beat lymphoma as a teenager and also endured a broken neck and spinal injury after a skiing accident.

The singer and guitarist channeled all of his pain and hardships into his music, and it paid dividends. Now healthy and regularly performing in Dayton and Springfield, where he grew up, Judy will play at the Trolley Stop on Dec. 12 with his bluegrass trio, Sawgrass. The band features Judy on acoustic guitar and vocals, Ben Cooper on upright bass and Brian Spirk on mandolin.

Judy said Sawgrass plays about 10 times a year, but he performs solo much more frequently, and has since he was 19 years old.

“I always liked singing as a kid,” Judy said. “I played piano when I was real young, but never played another instrument again until I was 19.”

In a strange coincidence, he grew up just down the street from blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar tech, who ended up buying Judy his first guitar.

“I’ve played it every day since,” Judy said. “He watched me practice and encouraged me, and he told me he really liked my sound and the way I sang.”

It was during his teenage years that Judy was also diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, becoming a cancer survivor at age 15. He said music was a great way for him to displace some of that pain.

“It’s tough enough being a musician and trying to make it, but to have the personal battle with illness is certainly exhausting sometimes,” Judy said. “I manage to pick myself up and play shows, and when people show support, it’s the best kind of medicine I could ever take.”

And he certainly receives enough support from his fans. For his most recent birthday, his friends, family and fans threw an impromptu party at the Trolley Stop, which he named as one of his favorite and proudest moments as a musician.

“I’d been feeling under the weather and not getting out too much,” Judy said. “You know how musicians are – we’re recluses. But this gave me so much encouragement. They had cake and so many candles, they almost burnt the place down. I felt a lot of love and that carried me a long way. That’s probably what I’m happiest about.”

Judy’s music spans many genres, including bluegrass, country, rock ‘n’ roll and acoustic covers. Some of his greatest influences include David Grisman, Doc Watson, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“I learn everything by ear, and music was a great thing to work on while I was struggling,” Judy said. “That shaped me into a fairly mechanical player. I play acoustic a lot. I’m pretty raw and natural. A lot of my sound has become bluegrass because I enjoy it so much, and it incorporates how I write. A lot of it is pain-based.”

Judy writes songs and also plays acoustic covers, saying he probably plays 40 percent original music and 60 percent covers. He’s currently sold out of his original material, having sold over 100 copies of his self-titled album.

Judy mostly plays solo, but he also plays with his trio Sawgrass and in a duet with Sawgrass member and mandolin player Brian Spirk. This duet is referred to as “Ryan and Brian,” and produces a more intimate sound. This combination started from Judy’s belief that the combination of acoustic guitar and mandolin are “the match made in heaven.”

Before forming these performing groups and establishing himself in the Dayton music scene, Judy lived and played in both Alaska and Colorado. He played for a while in Alaska with a band from Springfield, and they teamed up with an Alaska-based blues band with whom the musicians became close friends. Judy later moved to Colorado before returning to Dayton.

“I spent a lot of time in Colorado, because I have family there,” Judy said. “I played a lot of music out there too.”

Having moved around a few times, Judy likes to keep traveling for his music. Although he plays a lot of shows in the Dayton area, he also recently traveled to California for a show. When he travels, he usually guest stars in a band or fills in for a band member.

“I get to fly around a little bit to play some music,” Judy said. “I know a million bluegrass songs, so I can orchestrate a band pretty well. It’s a lot of fun.”

When he’s not traveling, Judy performs most of his solo shows at Peach’s in Yellow Springs. Sawgrass plays primarily at The Trolley Stop.

“They give me a lot of love and it’s a very receptive audience,” Judy said. “I get a very warm welcome here. I like that.”

Ryan Judy’s bluegrass trio Sawgrass will perform on Friday, Dec. 12 at The Trolley Stop, 530 E. Fifth St. The show begins at 9:30 p.m. For more information, please visit ryanjudymusic.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Katie Christoff at KatieChristoff@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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