It’s hard to pass up a good back-from-the-dead story. People naturally revel in the salacious details, measuring their own life, thinking, “what would I have done?” Those who’ve cheated death are heralded, their stories dissected for secrets to emulate, their courage lauded on the nightly news. We’re dazzled by stories of a lightning strike, a flat line, a pullback from the brink. But it’s the quiet life stories, the ones that start small and build, slowly, that often hold the biggest surprises. Sometimes dazzling is disguised in the struggle. Sometimes the hero is the one you least expect.
The story of Christian singer-songwriter, Ryan Stevenson, starts as small as it gets. He grew up in a tiny, Oregon farming community of 250 people, a town that boasted little in the way of breakout success stories. Growing up, he spent most of his time on his best friend’s dairy farm, learning the value of hard work and contributing to something greater than himself. But things changed in the 7th grade when Ryan stopped physically growing. All around him, his friends were growing taller, broader, changing (at least physically) into young men while Ryan remained trapped inside the body of a 12-year-old boy. The taunting started early, never letting up, and Ryan felt crushed under the weight of it. He’d been left behind in every way that mattered.
When he was 15, Ryan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, which she fought valiantly for several years. With his older sister away at college and his dad on the road as a long-haul truck driver, his mother’s care was left to him, a role much too large for such a young boy. “I carried around this heaviness…all the time. I was the brunt of everyone’s jokes and then my mom got cancer,” Ryan shares. “For me, high school was a time of infinite loneliness.”
After high school, Ryan escaped his small town and went to college in Eugene, Oregon. During his freshman year, he grew an astonishing eight inches, finally shedding the small boy that haunted him throughout his teenage years. Ryan also started playing in a band called Front Row Joe. After a few years playing together, as the band was picking up steam in the northwest playing shows around the area and opening for major artists at summer festivals, the lead singer was offered a record deal as a solo artist. The band’s dreams of making it were suddenly erased and Ryan was once again left behind.
At 21, Ryan married his college sweetheart, Kim. The couple moved from Oregon to Boise, Idaho to care for Kim’s ailing grandparents and Ryan went to school to get his paramedic license. He found he enjoyed the work, and with the schedule of 24-hour shifts two days a week, was left with plenty of time to work on his music. Ryan gathered some local guys in Boise and together they played weekend shows, coffee shops and led worship at his church. He still dreamed of making a living through music, but felt he’d missed his chance.
After eight years, the grind of working as a paramedic began taking its toll and he found himself praying, “Lord, I’d love to not do this anymore.” One day, when Ryan was ready to give up and look for something new, an unlikely 9-1-1 call came in. Ryan and his work partner weren’t slotted to take the call, but they were closest to the location and chose to take it. When they arrived on the scene, they found a 40-year-old woman who appeared to be dead. The victim, Lara, was out hiking with her two young sons and her mother when a freak storm blew in. As they were running back to their car, a massive, booming explosion knocked the family to the ground and Lara was struck by a lightning bolt. Ryan, relying on his training and experience, found Lara unresponsive and believed she was dead but, following protocol, they loaded her into the ambulance and began to work to revive her. On the way to the hospital, Lara’s heart began to beat once again. Lara was alive!
Months after the accident, Ryan saw a local news story about Lara and her miraculous recovery. He emailed to tell her he was in the ambulance with her that day, and the two struck up a friendship. The more Lara got to know Ryan and his family, the more questions she would ask about what he wanted out of life. She knew Ryan was a strong believer in Christ, and while she openly didn’t believe in God, she believed in Ryan.
Around the same time, Ryan was invited to participate in a local “Battle of the Bands” contest by a friend, and after initially turning it down, reluctantly agree to play. In the end, Ryan came in first place, winning $1,000 to use toward recording a demo project. Lara, who knew about Ryan’s love for music, learned about Ryan’s desire to record a demo of the songs he’d written. She often asked how she could help him, so he shared with her the story of winning the $1,000 prize. The money would cover recording one song, but he’d need more to record a full demo. Without hearing a note, Lara wrote him a check for $4,000, the amount he needed, and said, “Go make your music!”
Ryan went into the studio and created a five-song album. He sent it to a friend from college who worked at a record label in Seattle. The label loved the demo. After years of trying and failing, the pieces finally seemed to be into falling into place. Ryan had a record deal.
Less than a year later, Ryan’s faith and confidence were shaken to the core. His mother ultimately succumbed to her cancer and his wife miscarried the twins they were anxiously awaiting. Then, while in Houston, TX playing a show, he got a call from the label saying they were dropping him from their artist roster. While nowhere near the importance of his personal losses, losing the record contract was the final straw. Life was rushing past him while he was stuck in a perpetual waiting period, once again left behind. “I was angry, and I had it out with God that day,” Ryan says. “I felt like I’d lost everything. But even in the middle of that pain, I heard Him say, ‘You prayed for me to help you see that I’m your father, now trust me to do it.”’
The day after he was dropped from his label, Ryan had a previously scheduled songwriting appointment in Franklin, TN with a guy named Jamie Moore. Writing a song with someone he’d never met was the last thing he wanted to do but, begrudgingly, he went. While the two were talking out ideas for songs, Ryan shared an idea he’d been working on, a song called “Speak Life.”
After spending the day working on the song together, Ryan went home to Idaho. Feeling like his music career had ended, he went back to what he knew, working as a paramedic. Meanwhile, back in Franklin, TN, TobyMac was busy working on his new album, Eye On It, when his friend Jamie Moore shared what he and Ryan has written thus far on “Speak Life.” Toby liked what he heard and ended up finishing the song with Jamie and recording it for the album. The song went on to be a smash at radio, opening exciting new doors for Ryan as a songwriter. While there was plenty of positive feedback on his songs, no one seemed interested in working with Ryan Stevenson the artist. Virtually every label in town turned him down. “I was actually told that I was damaged goods,” Ryan says. “It was really frustrating.”
Finally, about the same time Ryan was thinking about giving up music altogether, Gotee Records contacted him and offered him a record deal. After releasing a few radio singles together, “Eye of the Storm” debuted, a song that went on to become a No. 1 hit, dominating the Billboard Christian chart for 16 weeks and has gone on to amass over 56 million streams and a quarter of a million digital track sales. Ryan was also the 2017 Dove Award winner for Pop Contemporary Song of the Year.
Without the layered history, it would be easy to label Ryan Stevenson as an overnight success, but Ryan would paint a different picture. “I still tip-toe around Nashville. I don’t feel like I’m a member of the club. My life has sort of conditioned me to expect the carpet to be pulled out from under me.” In the curved thread of his life, uncertainty has been a constant. He’s lost people, lost opportunities, lost income, lost hope…but every loss burrowed him deeper into faith, deeper into a love for Christ. Instead of giving in to grief or pain or cynicism, Ryan pushed himself to echo his life into song. The result is a songwriter whose words ring true with human emotion and wisdom people can grab onto when life’s waves overwhelm. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his classic work, Till We Have Faces, “Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”