Justin Ryan was born in the little town of Paducah, KY. Having a love for music at a very early age, he began to separate himself from his troubled home life. Justin traveled all over the local area singing in churches, with different vocal groups, all before the age of 14.
For Justin, it has been a journey of raw faith, trusting in God, and leading others to Christ. Being able to minister through his experiences of heartache and joy, he has given others the hope that they too, can make it, not just in music, but in life. The biggest blessing in his life is that he knew when to "Surrender" to Christ.
Describe how you entered into the gospel music industry?
I basically grew up surrounded by good gospel music. My family was very involved with the church. I can remember at an early age singing the hymns of the church and hiding their words in my heart. I knew every word to every verse of every hymn I could get my hands on. I grew up watching all the Bill Gaither Homecoming Videos and found comfort in the songs they would sing. I dreamt that someday I would be one of the voices in their homecoming choir. When I was 14, I got the opportunity to sing with the Terry Mike Jeffrey Band. This band was very well known for singing at Elvis Presley functions. I sang on their first Gospel album “Reconciled”. Gospel Music seemed to be a way for me to channel the pain I harbored inside about being different. It was a way to feel accepted. I knew that God loved me at an early age when my childlike faith was at its peak and gospel music was safe for me and reaffirmed that God loved me. I will forever be grateful for the truth’s that I held onto and later clung to when life was at its worst. Even though I will probably never be on a Gaither video, at least not until more things in society or the church change, I have found a community of people and artists who are the real deal and who are making a difference. Being among pioneers like Marsha Stevens-Pino and Rev Delores Berry have helped me see that I am a member of a different homecoming choir that’s changing hearts and lives everywhere.
Please share with us who Justin is as a child of God and what that image looks like?
When I think about being a child of God, I think about having faith like a child, when you were young you were innocent and looked at the world as though nothing would harm you and you knew your parents were there to protect you whenever you were scared or alone. Over the last 13 years I have really depended on God to be a parent and even though there was a time that I didn’t think God could love me because of who I was. I really had to stop and ponder the verse that says “there is Nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God”. Even though my father and family has abandoned me for things in my life he doesn’t approve of I tend to focus now days rather about how God must look at me. God knows where my faults lie, what my insecurities are, and all of the mistakes I have made, yet still chooses to look at the potential and what I have to offer this world and the people around me. I’m sure God smiles and says that is my crazy child that I made just as he is. He is unique and special and there is no one else completely like him. I think God looks at all of us that way, seeking the potential we can have if we will trust with childlike faith knowing that we are confident in ourselves because God loves us exactly as we are because God made us that way.
How have some of the great singers like Porter Wagoner and Dottie Rambo influenced you personally and your music?
All I can say is that I am a very humbled person that God would allow me to have not only worked with these two heroes but also to have called them a friend. I met Porter Wagoner when I first came to Nashville and was working at Sound Control Studio. He would come in to record and I would get him his tea, type up his lyrics, or even make CD copies for him. We would always talk about life and music while waiting for the CD’s to finish copying. One day while he was working on a gospel project with his guitar, he could not seem to remember the lyric to the song. He said, Hey Justin, you sing gospel music don’t you, do you know this song.. come help me with the words. So I sang with him and Porter started to recognize more in me that just the little shy boy from KY who got him his coffee. One day while I was in the studio singing background vocals on one of his album projects he introduced me to one of the musicians as his adopted grandson and that was a special moment to me. He really introduced me to country music, a style with which I was not really fond of and helped me to appreciate the country flair that is apparent in my music today. He was also featured on my Hymn Album Revive Us Again which was an honor for me. I have missed him greatly since he passed away and am lucky to have had the Privilege to have known him. Dottie Rambo was already a hero to me as a songwriter. Dottie Rambo wrote almost any song you flip to in a hymnal these days. It was such an honor to get to know her and to sing on her final album with both she and Porter. She was a person who knew no strangers. Who had been through trials of her own and still survived and accepted everyone with whom she came into contact with. I think that both of these incredible people influenced my life and music a lot. They definitely showed me love and acceptance and for that I will forever be grateful.
What is the most rewarding aspect to the creation of music for you?
The Most rewarding experience for me in creating music is making that emotional connection with the audience. Finding an emotion that is deep within each of us and using the music to connect us in a way that a sermon wouldn’t be able to do. Music is a universal language that comes in many different packages… even though the wrapping of the gift (or style of Music) may appeal on different levels or speak to different people in many ways, the message is ultimately the same. Being able to reach someone through telling your story through music is definitely the most rewarding for me and seeing that people know you are real and can use your God given talents to inspire others.
What is the one message you bring to the world through your music ministry?
One message that I hope to bring out with my ministry is acceptance rather than tolerance. I hope to be a voice for people who have been outcast or feel alone. I have been there myself on so many levels. Being a 17 year old from the Bible belt in rural Western KY and being rejected by my family because of who I am, I can definitely relate to the stories of many people within our community who have experienced rejection. This rejection doesn’t always have to come from friends or family, it can also sometimes come from the church. The message that I hope to bring is that there is a community of support for you. That there are people who accept you just where you are on the journey and more importantly, no matter what anyone says, that God accepts you just as you are because you were made that way. Being tolerant of someone is great I suppose, but my hope is that my music ministry will help put a face on Gay Christians and help us to be accepted by society rather than tolerated. I think we will be able to do that by just being authentic and real. The best way to show someone who you are is to lead by example and even though I’m probably the furthest person from being anywhere near perfect, I hope that people will be able to see the humanity in me and where God has brought me from, with all the heartaches and successes along the way.
Can you please tell us about your “I’ve Been There – Tour” and what it means to you?
The I’ve Been There tour is special and near to my heart simply because I have been there. With LGBT suicide and Bullying at an all time high it is important that we take notice of this issue and help the younger generations know that they are not alone. As I stated earlier I was kicked out by my father at the age of 17. This is a hard time for any young adult to be let loose on the world, let alone starting a new life you know nothing about. So I struggled to find my way as an openly gay man who only wanted a healthy loving relationship. I eventually did find a relationship but it was a physically abusive one and with my age and inexperience I was taken advantage of. I desperately held on because after losing my family it was all that I had left at that young age. I traded off every artistic outlet I had for destructive behavior because the church people had let me know really quick that God couldn’t possibly love me. After I caught my boyfriend cheating I assumed that the church people were right, that this must be my punishment from God for being gay and that if I wasn’t right I needed to change things. So I attempted to take my own life. That would solve the problem since no one really wanted me anyway. I am grateful that I survived through a lot of healing in my life, a lot of life experiences growing up and through meeting a community of accepting Christians I began to get my voice back and have come back full force with a passion to help those who were like me that thought they were forgotten. I’m willing to bet there are more people out there who have been there as well. And I hope through this tour we can all do more to help save some of our Youth who have been “thrown away”.
Please share with us the story behind your song “I’ve Been There”?
The song I’ve Been There is a song written by my adopted Mother Marsha Stevens-Pino. This song talks about meeting people in our lives who have been there and who reach out on a daily basis to others through their pain to let them know that they know what they are going through. The second verse of the song is my favorite because it says:
"So many times I see the tears fill wounded eyes
Someone has thrown them out, the world has told them lies
They feel they are invisible, their hears have grown so hard
Afraid God has abandoned them because of who they are
Jesus how can you reach through such despair
Then I hear you answer, I've Been There"
It has always been a powerful song to me since I released it back in 2006 on my Surrender album. But I don’t think it rings any more powerful than it does today. We all need to band together as a community and share the reality that we have all been there at one time or another. More importantly we serve a Savior who has been there as well and knows the rejection we feel.
What can people expect and take away from a live Justin concert?
People can expect a good time at a Justin Ryan concert. Several different styles of Christian music are covered during the concert. As well as a lot humor and joy. I try to make people laugh with some of the anecdotes from growing up in a southern town. There really were some bizarre things that could have only happened in Paducah. But we also hit on the topic of coming out and finding my way back to the church. And paying tribute to those who have lost their lives too soon through bullying or suicide. At the end of the concert, I always provide a safe place to pray about whatever is on your mind. God is listening and wants nothing more than to love us just as we are. I think a lot of times the church has gotten a bad wrap because of the people who run it. I hope that through this concert series more of our gay youth will find out that there are many churches who provide safe places for them to be who they are and worship the god of their childhood who they were thought couldn’t love them, or maybe they are just discovering God for the first time.
Shout out time. Please give props to anyone and everyone that matters the most to you. Where can people find your music?
Of course I wouldn’t be here without the love of a lot of special people in my life who have continued to be supportive of me and my ministry. I would love to send them a shout out. First of all I would like to thank my fiance, Cody. Without his love and support I wouldn’t be going back on the road again. He truly knows my passion for ministry and I am grateful he puts up with me. I also know that I wouldn’t be where I am without several amazing people in my life. My Adopted Mother Marsha Stevens has taken me under her wing since I was 21 years old and helped bring me back to an audience where my ministry is needed the most. I am truly grateful for her witness and perseverance to keep bringing the good news to, as she says, a community no one else is banging down the doors to get into. Thanks for always being true to who you are. Marsha, I love you. Mark and Donna Moseley are my musical mentors and friends they took me under their wing when I came to Nashville. Mark produces all my albums and Donna has been a great support system for me. I am grateful that God placed them in my life and made them my family of choice. Lastly I’d like to thank my mother Lori Vaughn, she and I have gotten close this last year and I am proud to call her my Mom and am grateful that she is supportive of this important ministry as well. You can get the music (physical CD or digital downloads) on the website www.justinryanonline.com As well as you can purchase the hymn album on Itunes or Amazon. Of course my favorite way for you to purchase the album is at a concert!