Greensboro self-taught singer-songwriter adapts in an evolving music scene
By: Terry Rader
In talking with Bryan Toney, you learn real fast how excited, yet humble he is when it comes to his music. Even though he’s written songs and played guitar since he was a teenager, Toney has worked and waited a lifetime to enjoy his recent year-long accomplishment of going full-time as a singer-songwriter after surviving an unexpected second-career change. He’s served as Associate Vice Chancellor for Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and also the former founder of a 25-person Atlanta-based technology company. In 2015, he was honored with the Ed Kitchen Leadership Award for his work to revitalize downtown Greensboro and still supports the Greensboro Project Space and Forge Greensboro. He has even written a song, “Wondering,” which was inspired by the people he met in the area’s impoverished communities.
Toney recalls a recent performance at Leveneleven Brewing in Greensboro, where he was moved by the support of many of his most admired and respected local musicians. He said he really felt validated when he looked up and saw the faces of Dean Driver, Doug Baker, William Nesmith, Bobbie Needham, Jeff Tillman, Tony Low, MC Armstrong, Marvin Veto, Tom Troyer and others. Later that same week, he had a show in South Carolina where he performed original music for three hours. This singer-songwriter is serious when it comes to making music and he loves to hit the road to do it. A North Carolina native with travel in his blood, Toney is booking shows as far and wide as he can.
As a co-founder of Gate City Songwriters, Toney regularly attends the weekly gatherings with fresh material to test out. Whether he receives comments or not, it helps him to decide what to keep and what to file. He told me that these circles inspire him and when he hears what the other singer-songwriters are doing, it makes him want to up his game and write better songs.
Toney’s three things that he loves the most (music, nature and his loved ones) are only named in imagery in a song with this chorus: “I don’t need much, but what I need, I need a lot of.” He’s a true storyteller in his songs. Toney has been told that his music sounds like Bread, R.E.M., Chris Stamey, Elvis Costello, America and others. I think his song, “Wondering” is right in line with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and a little reminiscent of Scott McKenzie singing John Phillip’s “San Francisco.” He continues to be humbled and proud when people tell him his music reminds them of other great artists.
He said his song ideas come from anywhere and he has learned to be ready to jot them down or record them on his phone when the muse arrives. Toney confessed that he occasionally has songs he doesn’t want to sing because they may be too political or they just don’t measure up to his standards. Then there are times when he feels like a part of a song is really good and he’ll salvage pieces of it. He’ll keep either the melody or the chorus and make a new song out of it. He chuckled and said that he didn’t ever want to ignore the muse, so he doesn’t throw any of them out. He added that a song may not mean anything to him today, but it could be a well-crafted song later, due to its elements. For example, he had an old melody that he wrote 15 years ago and just created a new song with it, “Now There Are Stars.” It was inspired by a story he read about the war-torn Middle East. A city was totally destroyed and the people who lived there could see stars where they couldn’t before. When he read that line, it moved him. He wrote it down and wrote a song about it later.
Toney shared a quote that expressed his answer to my question of why he writes and sings songs, by Rick Rubin, “The art you make is always ultimately for you. Make something you love.”
Toney has upcoming shows all across the South this summer. Locally, he’s playing at Leveneleven Brewing in Greensboro on July 11 with Chris Nelson, Stonefield Cellars Winery in Stokesdale on July 15 with Doug Baker, Leah Kauffman and Isabel Taylor and the WiFi Wine Bar & Shoppe in High Point on Aug. 10 accompanied by Eddie McGee, Chris Nelson and Steve Phillips. For shows, see www.bryantoney.com/. Follow Bryan Toney on www.facebook.com/bryantoneymusic. For bookings, email firstname.lastname@example.org.