Bryan Toney has had what he describes as “three very different careers.”
In the 1980s, he started a software development company in Atlanta. Later, he worked in higher education, and served for several years as associate vice chancellor for economic engagement at UNCG. But, he had also played on and off in a garage band for many years, and after leaving UNCG took up music full time.
“In 2017 my job had come to an end. The position was no longer able to be funded,” he said. “And, I’d been playing a lot more music. So, I decided to just jump in. Haven’t looked back twice, or thought about trying to do something in the ‘real world’ again.”
In a recent interview, he spoke about life as a traveling musician, about his previous ventures, and about how playing “Freebird” at one gig paid off.
What got you into music?
When I was about 6 years old, I started taking piano lessons. Took lessons for about six years. When I got tired of the piano, my parents asked, “What else do you want to play?” And, then I began taking guitar lessons. I’ve also been writing songs since I was a teenager. Since then, I’ve played on and off. It’s been a lifelong passion.
Who are some of your inspirations?
A lot from the late ‘60s to mid ‘70s, folk rock music. There’s America, Bread, Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, and of course the Beatles. My mom says I used to walk around the house singing Beatles songs when I was a child.
But, I also listen to a lot of more current music — Jason Isbell, the Raconteurs, Father John Misty, Brandi Carlile.
How would you describe your music?
I’d say folk rock, influenced a lot by 1960s and ‘70s music. But, when I perform, it’s almost all original music, though I occasionally do a cover tune.
What is your creative process like?
I get inspiration from a lot of different sources. It could be a photograph or a conversation I had with someone, or a situation. I might jot down a title for a song, or maybe come up with some lyrics, maybe enough for a verse and a chorus, and just see where that takes me. I’ll usually do that on a guitar, but sometimes I’ll write on the piano.
The creative process usually starts with some trigger, and I might write the song that same day, or I might stash away a note on my phone and come back to it later.
Last week, I wrote a song about a great-grandmother I never met, but I have a very mysterious-looking photo, and I’ve wondered about it for years. The photo was probably taken more than 100 years ago. And finally, I decided to make up a little story about her.
If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?
I would say Nick Lowe (an English producer who is well known for pop and new wave music). I’ve always just admired his songwriting, and he sounds good whether he’s just playing acoustic guitar, or whether he’s playing with a full band.
Do you sing karaoke or sing in the shower, and, if so, what songs do you sing?
I haven’t done karaoke. I don’t sing in the shower. But I do occasionally sing in my car. Oftentimes, if I’m driving by myself, I’ll come up with a melody for a song, or sometimes lyrics. Fortunately, these days you can just dictate to your phone. I’ll ask Siri to take a note, and I’ll just start reeling off lyrics.
Can you tell me a bit about your software development company?
I had about 25 employees. This was in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. We would do custom projects. This was an era when if a company wanted to do something with computers, it wasn’t a matter of just buying a piece of off-the-shelf software, or buying an app. You pretty much had to write it yourself. My clients were CNN, Coca-Cola, Home Depot and some smaller companies.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
Probably a song I wrote called “Charlottesville.” I wrote it two days after the situation in Charlottesville in 2017 (in which white nationalist groups gathered to protest the proposed removal of a Confederate monument, and in which a counter-protester was killed after a white supremacist drove into a group of anti-racist demonstrators with a car). It’s somewhat political, but it’s got a lot of emotional strength, and a lot of people seem to relate to it.
What’s the funniest or weirdest thing that has happened at one of your shows?
I was playing in North Platte, Neb., about a year ago. I had a good show. It was a rainy Tuesday night, and the place was packed. A guy came up to me as I was packing up and asked, “Do you know ‘Freebird’?” I thought maybe he was joking, and I told him that I hadn’t played it in many, many years.
And he says, “My friends over here will give you $100 if you play ‘Freebird’ and let me sing along with you.” I could tell this guy had maybe had one too many, but I pulled up the lyrics on the phone, and thought I’d give it a shot. And we stumbled our way through it, and we had a good time. He went back to his friends at their table, and I kept waiting for the money. So, I finally went up and asked him, “OK, I did what you wanted, so where’s this $100.” And he said, “Oh, my mom was going to pay you for that.”
I looked over his table, his mother was there, and she said she didn’t have $100. To her credit, though, she gave me whatever cash she had, probably $40 to $50.
When you do extensive tours, how do you get around?
I just hop in my car, pack it full of equipment and head out. I generally plan my tour path by places where I’ve got friends or relatives I can stay with for free. I had a friend who went with me one time. He had a new car, and he volunteered to go with me, and we split the gas. He was my driver and roadie for that tour.
I’ve played mostly in the Southeast. I play in Charleston and Greenville, S.C., pretty often, and throughout this state. But, I’ve been in Texas and out west a couple of times.
What’s next for you?
Writing a lot of songs. Most musicians I know are doing a lot of writing, because they have more time to do that now. I’ve probably written dozens (of songs) since March. At one point, I’d like to record another album. I did my last one with Black Rabbit Audio in Greensboro. And, I’d love to get back in the studio and get some of these new songs recorded.
Of course, like a lot of other musicians, I’m just waiting to see what happens, and if we can get back to normal where people can perform in front of an audience and pack a house.
— As told to Robert C. Lopez, email@example.com