Music

Big Drums, AstroTurf and a U-Haul Truck: The Making of Mike Ryan’s ‘Way It Goes’

In 1997, roughly a year after her introductory hit, “Heads Carolina, Tails California,” Jo Dee Messina cemented her feisty brand with a Phil Vassar composition, “Bye Bye,” that found a woman with a “lead foot down on my accelerator” as she sped away from a dead relationship.

Now in 2024, less than a year after an interpolation of “Heads Carolina” won trophies for Cole Swindell, indie act Mike Ryan cements his own edgy Texan brand with another Vassar composition, “Way It Goes,” that finds a woman speeding away in a U-Haul truck with a “foot down, finger up.” An angry departure is a timeless source of inspiration, and Ryan certainly identified with the sentiment.

“There’s sometimes you just got to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he reasons.

Writing with Vassar can be an experience. Songwriter Brett Sheroky recalls one co-writing session when Vassar disappeared for about 40 minutes, only to return on a Segway, doing circles around a couch in the middle of the room and attempting to juggle while they tried to work through a snag in the composition.

“That’s him,” Sheroky says. “He’s just go, go, go, go, go.”

Vassar hosted a writing session with Sheroky and Andrew Peebles on July 17, 2020, in which they concocted “Way It Goes,” though no Segways were used in the process. There wasn’t enough space in the room they were using at the side of the house.

“He’s got a garage that he converted into a studio space,” says Sheroky, “with this green AstroTurf for the floor and rugs everywhere.”

Sheroky brought up a fairly common phrase, “The way it goes,” as a sort of loose idea to write around, and Peebles rummaged through chord progressions on his guitar until he found one with a slight Tom Petty vibe — a little toughness, a little mystery, played with a sense of movement. As that developed, they started hashing through how “the way it goes” could work, and — as Nashville writers tend to do — they began looking for a flip of the phrase or double meaning they could apply. In the process, a subtle breakup image emerged.

“That’s just the way it goes, like, ‘She dumped me, tough luck,’ right? — that’s one meaning,” Peebles says. “And the second meaning, which was the cool part of the turn of that title, was, ‘How is she literally going?’ She’s going with a U-Haul truck, with her foot down and her finger up.”

They tossed that image into the chorus and followed it up with a shot of “Born to Run” playing on the radio — the Bruce Springsteen song, not the 1982 Emmylou Harris country hit.

Despite the firmness of the sound, the lyric essentially captured the singer feeling disconnected as he watches the whole thing play out, surprised that the breakup could be so uneventful. It was, in some ways, like David Nail’s “Red Light,” a fact they chronicled in that chorus. “We referenced that in there,” admits Sheroky. “That line, it says, ‘Anyway on Saturday,’ because [“Sunday”] is part of the ‘Red Light’ song. “I was like, ‘Well, is that too on the nose?’ But it just feels right.”

The verses would underscore that even more. In the opening stanza, the singer reflects on the crises he expected would accompany a final scene. In the second verse, they became particularly descriptive, detailing the tears, spiteful words and broken dishes that were all missing from the moment. In essence, they cleverly injected a load of drama into a song about its absence.

At a later date, a phone call or two helped develop the song’s bridge, with the guy watching the U-Haul taillights disappear into the distance as the woman travels on a figurative “one-way road.” It’s a significant moment, but the guy seems unlikely to do any self-examination over it. “He probably doesn’t think that he’s the problem,” Peebles observes. “He’s just the dude observing the situation, taking it all in.”

Sheroky, expected to release his first album this year, sang lead on the demo, an all-acoustic production that conveyed all the drive inherent in “The Way It Goes.” (The “the” was on the label of the demo, even though it was excised from the title of Ryan’s master).

Sheroky and Peebles would call up the demo and listen to it for personal pleasure, but the rest of Music Row didn’t seem to respond. That is, not until Ryan heard it. He was a longtime fan of Vassar, and Ryan and Sheroky both wrote for Sea Gayle Music, so when someone mentioned the song in 2021, he was open to it. And he responded right away to the “Way It Goes” tale of an underplayed breakup.

“There’s a lot of different ways that these things go down,” says Ryan, “and I just feel like they captured the raw emotion very well.”

The task for Ryan and his producers, Bart Butler (Jon Pardi, Warren Zeiders) and Ryan Gore (Midland, Randall King), was primarily to capture the basic tone of that demo but take it beyond its acoustic format. “This song sounds badass,” Ryan says. “We definitely changed some stuff to kind of make it mine, but it was a really nice road map to follow. It just felt very tasteful front to back and well-written and -crafted already. We just had to kind of put our spin on it.”

Drummer Evan Hutchings injected some snap in the cut when they recorded the instrumental tracks at Backstage on Music Row. And Rob McNelley energized the opening by converting the signature riff into a Southern rock-feeling twin guitar part. “If I can put some big drums in it and drive it with some loud guitars, I’m going to do it,” Butler says. 

But Todd Lombardo also dropped in an almost-stealthy banjo, with Mike Johnson overdubbing an atmospheric steel guitar that added a touch of western sound, supplying a sense of cowboy isolation as the woman heads off to the horizon. Capturing Ryan’s lead vocal at Sound Emporium was a breeze, too.

“He gravitates to songs that he knows are in his wheelhouse,” says Butler. “He’s not one of those guys — ‘Oh, man, that’s going to be a hard note to hit every night. But I’m going to cut it anyway.’ He picks the right songs for his vocals.”

Ryan released it independently to country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 8, and it’s at No. 16 on the Texas Regional Radio Report chart dated Feb. 22. Among the stations playing it are KIKK Houston; WDGG Huntington, W.Va.; KBRX O’Neill, Neb.; and WPPL Blue Ridge, Ga. 

Ryan identified with the details in “Way It Goes,” and he’s confident he’s not alone. “I just feel like music is the most powerful tool maybe known to man,” he says, “as far as connecting giant audiences with singular thoughts or situations they go through.” 

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