“I always gravitate towards heartbreak,” Kinder confesses, and indeed, his work often betrays an old soul. That may be because he’s already been doing this for close to half his life.
Born in Knoxville, TN, Kinder grew up the youngest of three in Birmingham. From childhood, his life revolved around baseball, until he was cut freshman year of high school. Just like that, he’d lost his first love. Guitar quickly rushed in to fill the void. “I had nothing to do,” he remembers, “so I poured it all into guitar. I remember hearing John Mayer’s Room for Squares, and that was the ‘ah-ha’ moment. I learned that whole album, and then jumped into Dave Matthews and Keith Urban.” By 15, Kinder played anywhere he could, be it church, school, or bars, where his father had to chaperone. “I would drive to Auburn, then drive back to go to high school in the morning,” he says. “I had to grow up really quick.”
Upon his high school graduation, Kinder headed for the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he played gigs three to four nights a week to help cover tuition. His sophomore year, a friend of a friend introduced him to award-winning producer Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band). After their first meeting, Stegall invited Kinder to come up to Nashville, a trip he started making once a week.
“I would play gigs Wednesday through Saturday. On Sunday I would drive up to Nashville to write, drive back Monday night, and then school Tuesday through Thursday, over and over,” says Kinder. The schedule was unsustainable, and his grades suffered as a result. The whole story might have come to a predictable end right there, but Kinder was on a collision course with a day that would change his college town – and his life – forever.
On April 27, 2011, an EF4 tornado ripped across Tuscaloosa, killing 64 people, including six of Kinder’s fellow students at the University of Alabama. “Meteorologists knew it was coming for a week,” says Kinder. “They predicted it: On April 27th, it’s gonna happen. Nobody really believed it.” And yet the morning of the storm, the school cancelled all classes; Kinder, a junior, stayed home and played video games, while his neighbors hosted a tornado party out in the street. “I kept looking outside, and one time I looked out and everybody was just scattering,” Kinder remembers. “I looked over my house, and there’s the tornado. I got my roommate and my other roommate’s dog, and we got in the closet because we didn’t have a basement. The power went out, and all of a sudden I could feel the house sucking in. I was sure it was going to hit us, and it was going to be over. But for some reason it passed the other way.”
The storm quieted. Kinder ventured outside and saw chaos. “There was a car in the pool,” he says. “There was a car in a tree, and there was a lady sitting on the curb. I ran up to her and said ‘Ma’am, are you okay? Do you live here?’ She goes, ‘No, I live about three blocks down. That’s my car. I was in it.’ I just started running.” Kinder’s girlfriend, Heather – now his wife – was on campus; between them was an apartment complex that had been leveled. Kinder stayed at the complex for three hours, pulling people from the rubble. When he finally found Heather, he brought her back to his house, which had suffered the least damage of anyone they knew. Kinder and a friend in ROTC went back out to try and help people, but, as he remembers, ”When we got to where we thought we could help, there was nothing to help. There was nothing there.” Two days later, when the roads finally cleared, he packed his bags and headed to Nashville for good.
“Life’s too short,” Kinder says of his decision to leave Alabama and chase his dream. “I didn’t want to be there. Stuff had started moving forward with Keith and we were talking about a record, about signing with a label. I guess [the tornado] was the final heartbreak. That was the last straw that made me go all in.”
He signed his first publishing deal and kept his busy schedule of bar gigs until 2014, when his burgeoning success in Music City forced him to stop. He even signed a record deal, releasing “Kiss Me When I’m Down” to radio before enduring yet another blow when the label folded in the middle of his first radio tour. In the aftermath, Kinder had promised shows to stations who’d already added the song, so he self-financed the rest of the trip. “I promised I was going to come play,” he shrugs. Finances dwindled. With $20 left in his pocket, Kinder began preparing for reality. “I thought I was getting a job driving for Uber,” Kinder says. “I literally cleaned out my car, had the meeting ready to go… and then we played the CMA Fest and [Warner Nashville president] John Esposito came backstage. He said, ‘Hey Ryan, I’m going to sign you in two weeks.’” After everything he’d been through, what was Kinder’s reaction?
“I laughed at him,” he says. But the signing was no joke.
Shortly after, He signed a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell, built relationships, including songwriters like Ross Copperman, Josh Osborne, Tom Douglas and kept a busy touring schedule scoring opening slots with Zac Brown Band, Brett Eldredge, and Tim McGraw.
As Kinder preps his full-length debut with award-winning producer Paul Worley, he has no plans to change the grounded, wise-beyond-his-years subject matter that brought him this far. “I think it’s okay to have a soft side,” says Kinder, and he lets it all out on “Tonight,” a “drunk and heartbroken” anthem that showcases his one-of-a- kind vocals accompanied by a guitar line that both fits and transcends the current Country music landscape. “I’m singing with my guitar as much as I am with my voice,” he explains. “I’ve tried to incorporate a little jazz, some rock, and a lot of blues into country. My voice and the way I play guitar wouldn’t have been acceptable five, ten years ago – but honestly and inherently, country is blues. And being able to tell your story through a song? That’s country to me.”
Most of all, says Kinder, he wants his music to be there for the joy, the heartbreak, and everything in between. “I want people to have memories about when they heard my song for the first time,” he says. “I want to make a soundtrack for people’s lives.”