- - Monday, May 25, 2015


Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids is fascinated by videos of the performances ‘60s British folk star Donovan (“Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman”).

When Donovan, the first artist Clive Davis signed to CBS/Epic Records, performed to capacity crowds, teens would sit enraptured by his music, alternately crying and cheering.

“The teenage girls especially loved him,” Mr. Ryan said about the icon who played and sang without any other accompaniment. “Teenage girls today don’t react that way to that type of music.”

Mr. Ryan made his comments when talking about the many who have called The Milk Carton Kids — Mr. Ryan and his musical partner Kenneth Pattengale — “the next big thing” ever since they formed in 2011. Certainly the duo has cut a wide swath in the four years since it formed, winning a coveted Americana Music Award for emerging artist of the year and garnering a second Grammy nomination for the 2013 album “Ash & Clay.” Such fame and kudos are more than Mr. Ryan said he and Mr. Pattengale ever expected.

Judging by the critical reception to the duo’s just-released album, “Monterey,” he could well be wrong. Critics have praised the 11-track album, which takes a long yet hopeful look at the ups and downs of life.

Listening to the way their voices meld into one over exquisite guitar work, one can’t help but liken them to other great duos including the Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel. But The Milk Carton Kids aren’t anyone’s second-best. Their long looks at life, which may seem melancholy to some, always include elements of wonder and excitement in anticipation of the future.

To keep the music pure, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Pattengale wrote and recorded the album while they were on the road. As often as possible, they reserved the small clubs, theaters and other venues in which they were booked for extra hours before the show. Then they would record the songs they had written before the crowds arrived for the performances.

The system worked well, said Mr. Ryan, giving the two the live performance sound and back-to-basics feel that has won them a plethora of fans including the legendary Emmylou Harris, who included them as featured performers at her January tribute at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Although they have since performed at other high-profile events including the Americana Music Association nominations in Nashville, the tribute to Ms. Harris was a true high point in their career, said Mr. Ryan.

Almost as soon as the duo came on stage — greeted by a somewhat-awkward silence — they made jokes comparing themselves to the other major performers on the ticket, including Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson and Mavis Staples. That sort of down-home humor — which puts many fans in mind of the comedy-folk duo The Smothers Brothers — won over the audience as evidenced by the ovation they received at the end of their performance. Although Mr. Ryan and Mr. Pattengale seemed comfortable on stage, Mr. Ryan said that was not the case.

“It was terrifying. Despite her being nice man, you get up there and five cameras are aimed at you, and you feel like you’re staring at a firing squad. I was incredibly nervous. It is inspiring, though, to see people there who are your heroes and still have the fire in them to perform, still care enough to do the highest-quality show possible, to do something meaningful.”

Although Mr. Ryan doesn’t say it, that is the same path he and Mr. Pattengale seemingly travel. Although most top bands and performers have multimedia shows, mix up their performances with artists from other genres (think of the rappers who have teamed with country artists or even Paul McCartney’s collaborations with Kanye West) and otherwise shake up the status quo, The Milk Carton Kids keep the same type of performance, right down to the suits they have had since the beginning. What has changed is the depth and sophistication of their music.

“One of the big reasons we decided to have a record label and much bigger team now is that the two of us and our manager were doing everything. We were doing so much business, we didn’t have time to rehearse or write new songs,” said Mr. Ryan. “Now as soon as our records are finished, we both start looking forward to the next one. We have really just started in the business, and we have a long way to go. Now we have more opportunities to get there.”

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