Country Next: Ryan And Rory

We are proud to showcase country music’s brightest new stars through our Country Next series. In this installment, we talk with Ryan and Rory.


Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

May 24, 2024


11:17 am

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Ryan and Rory; Photo by Daniel Brown

Critically acclaimed singer/songwriters Ryan Follesé and Rory John Zak have officially been working together as the duo Ryan and Rory for about a year now. The pair of superstar artists both established a strong passion for music at an early age and each enjoyed solo careers before uniting as one act.

For Ryan, music has always been one of the strongest focal points in his life, in fact, it runs in his blood as he is the son of country songwriters Adrienne and Keith Follesé. Keith co-wrote Tim McGraw’s double-platinum No. 1 single “Something Like That,” Faith Hill’s crossover hit “The Way You Love Me,” and Lonestar’s chart-topper “Smile.” Together, the couple co-wrote Martina McBride’s 1999 hit “I Love You,” a five-week No. 1.

The 2X PLATINUM No. 1 hit singer-songwriter and American Music Award winner also spent some time as the frontman of the Nashville-based pop-rock band Hot Chelle Rae, best known for their No. 1 song, 2011’s “Tonight, Tonight,” before returning to his country music roots.

Meanwhile, Rory grew up in Raleigh, N.C. and caught the music bug from his dad, who sang as well as played the guitar and the piano. The desire to fully embrace his talent came at 17 years old when he was invited to be the youngest-ever full-time cast member of the Carolina Opry in Myrtle Beach. Since accepting that offer, he has gone on to perform over 300 shows each year, spent four years performing with the Carolina Opry six nights a week and has as kept up that momentum since embarking on his solo career in 2021.

The pair initially met around six years ago when Ryan was opening for country duo LOCASH in Tennessee. They later reconnected through a family friend and can admit that just five minutes into their lengthy conversation over the phone, the multi-talented singer/songwriters realized “it was an incredible fit.”

Ryan and Rory sign with BBR Music Group, BMG Nashville: Photo ID (L-R): Jordan Keller (KTAG Law), Dustin Kovacic (KTAG Law), John Hamlin (Switched On Management), Jon Loba (BMG), Ryan Follesé, Rory John Zak, Darin Murphy (CAA), Chris Burrus (CAA), Peter Strickland (BMG), Ford Pickert (Switched On Management); not pictured: JoJamie Hahr (BMG) and Katie Kerkhover (BMG)
Ryan and Rory sign with BBR Music Group, BMG Nashville: Photo ID (L-R): Jordan Keller (KTAG Law), Dustin Kovacic (KTAG Law), John Hamlin (Switched On Management), Jon Loba (BMG), Ryan Follesé, Rory John Zak, Darin Murphy (CAA), Chris Burrus (CAA), Peter Strickland (BMG), Ford Pickert (Switched On Management); not pictured: JoJamie Hahr (BMG) and Katie Kerkhover (BMG)

Today, Ryan and Rory dropped their very first piece of work together, a song titled “Pour Decisions,” via BBR Music Group/BMG Nashville. This catchy, post-heartbreak summertime anthem will then appear as the lead track on their self-titled EP dropping on July 26. Ryan is responsible for co-writing each of the EP’s six songs, five of which were penned with his family, while Rory lent his musical ear to the arrangements, thus bringing the captivating performance factor up a notch on each tune. 

They will really kick things into high gear this August when they serve as an opening act for Sam Hunt at Live at the Garden in Memphis, TN on August 23. Seeing as this will be one of their first major performances as a duo, Ryan and Rory are looking forward to showcasing all six new songs off their EP, as well as covers of some of their favorite artists. 

We recently sat down with Ryan and Rory to learn about each of their music backgrounds, their journey of forming a duo, building out their first-ever EP, and more. Read on to find out more about Ryan and Rory in this exclusive Q&A below.

Can you both talk a bit about your musical upbringings and how that has shaped your passions for music today?

Ryan: It was definitely an interesting way to grow up. I thought by the time I got to school, everybody was stepping over steel players in their kitchen on the way to the bus and come to find out as I hit my teenage years, I realized how special it was that both my parents, not only that they were songwriters successfully apart from each other, but they had an incredible marriage and an incredible creative marriage…It’s definitely a different way to grow up, to bounce music business advice off your mom and dad versus having parents that sell insurance or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s weird to be like, ‘Hey, I got this publishing deal. You want to take a look at the deal points?’ It’s definitely a different way to grow up and I’m so, so thankful for it.

Rory: My dad was the guitar and piano and singer of the family and I’m an only child, but he had a garage band back in the day. We always had a piano in the house and guitars and there’s a picture of me I think it’s on my Instagram, I’m like two years old, trying to figure out how to play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ So it kind of just spiraled out of control from there. I figured out early, really in freshman year of high school, I was like I want to take this seriously. So I ended up going to online school and then ended up getting a certificate through Berkeley for songwriting and production. My version of college was a place called the Carolina Opry, which is in Myrtle Beach, and why I moved down to Myrtle. I was singing six nights a week year-round, 300+ nights a week and then I would even go out after the show and play a club, doing my solo thing. I started doing that when I was 17. I definitely got some hours over that and have to credit my mom and dad for supporting me all the way through.

Ryan, what was your experience like branching out of country to join the pop-rock band Hot Chelle Rae, and what has that transition back into the genre been like for you?

Ryan: It’s very weird to grow up so so ingrained in country and sort of find out that there’s other music out there as you get older, which I did not know there really was…You’ve heard the expression, ‘mom, it’s just a phase,’ and for me, the older I got and the more I sat down to try to write a song, I’m such a family person that it got increasingly more difficult over the years to sit and not write about where I’m from, the lessons I learned from my parents and the songs that they wrote and things like that. It’s been a heck of a journey to get here, but at this stage in my career with the wisdom I’ve been able to absorb from my parents and the people around me and my peers and whatnot, nothing has ever felt more correct in my entire life. I finally feel like I did when I was a teenager before I joined a band.

Rory: One of the things I really respect of Ryan is the fact that this is his second or third time around the block with radio. And this is my first ever sort of big event, especially with a label and everything involved. So it’s just really cool for me to be able to lean on Ryan and he kind of guides the way as far as, ‘Hey, do this, don’t do that, do this,’ whatever. So it’s super, super cool.

@ryanandrorymusic Who needs a chair when you’ve got a floor? #countrymusic #countryduo #ryanandrory #pourdecisions ♬ Pour Decisions – Ryan and Rory

Do you both feel as though your visions for this duo have been aligned from the start? What were some of the initial goals you both had?

Ryan: We both have this, call it nostalgic, I don’t know what it is, but we have this really insanely soft spot in our heart for duos in general, just being such fans of Brooks & Dunn growing up and just ‘80s, ‘90s in general, into the 2000s. There just aren’t that many of them left. We got talking on the phone…I think we chatted for a couple hours the first time that we really sat down and were like, ‘okay, if we’re going to do this, let’s put it out all out on the table, what we love, what we don’t, what we want, what we don’t, those different things. I felt like I knew immediately, I was like, this kid is not only incredibly talented, not only comes from a great family and is just a super sweetheart, but we just love the same type of stuff and it’s rare to just have your taste aligned like that.

Rory: When Ryan and I got off the phone, he sent me some of the songs that we’re going to be putting out on our EP in July and my initial thought was, ‘man, I cannot wait for the world to hear this stuff.’ It’s just super cool to have two people that, we met a long time ago, but to get reconnected and then just immediately 12-24 hours later, we kind of both knew without saying it, ‘I think we’re going to start this thing and ignite the fire.’

How did you decide that the song “Pour Decisions” was going to be your first-ever release?

Ryan: I grew up on boats, but not quite like Rory did. Rory’s from Myrtle Beach so boat life is like a real thing, and this song, with summer around the corner, as much as we love every song on this EP that we’re going to have out in July, this song just keeps raising its hand. It’s like jump in the water, make that poor decision, take that extra shot, don’t say no, don’t stay home kind of a thing. We couldn’t imagine releasing it at another time.

Rory: Especially right before Memorial Day weekend too. Like Ryan said, with the boats and growing up, going to the Outer Banks every summer as a kid…we just thought it was the right place, right moment, right time for this. This is a summer anthem to me, so we didn’t plan it that way and it worked out.

YouTube video

Is there a music video in the works for this song?

Ryan: There is a music video that is shot, edited and wrapped and we sort of just backed into it. I mean we were out to shoot a piece of content and it turned into a full blown rager. I think we can blame the song for that, which we’re hoping is a contagious effect. We’re hoping maybe you start with five, six people at a get together and then all of a sudden poor decisions happen and it turns into a music video.

Rory: I don’t think there was any other way we could have shot that video that night.

Ryan had a hand in writing every song on the EP. Did you set out to write tracks specifically for this EP, or is it a combination of songs that have been waiting in the wings for a while?

Ryan: We have like a million songs, as songwriters first, but this collection of songs, I didn’t know what the basis of the project was going to be until really I kind of met Rory. There were these great songs and it was a great start. Obviously, we got together and Rory and I have written a bunch more songs, but it didn’t make sense until we sort of got together in the same room and I was like, ‘Oh, okay’ and he thought the same thing, he heard them and gravitated towards this whole thing. It wasn’t really us engineering us, it felt like it was engineered by God or something and kind of got put together.  

Ryan And Rory- Self Titled EP Cover
Ryan And Rory- Self Titled EP Cover

Since it serves as the introduction to you both as the duo, Ryan and Rory, what do hope fans take away from hearing the songs on this project?

Ryan: I hope that they take away, at least, that the hard work of crafting these songs is the number one thing. It all starts with a song to me. It’s like we’re songwriters in this room, then when we leave and we go out there and we perform them and they’re out in the world, that’s Ryan and Rory. But in here, when it’s the two of us or whoever’s in the room, we’re songwriters and I hope that they take away how much work goes into that. But that’s like picking your favorite movie, trying to pick what the takeaway is from the EP. For us, it’s that we’re here to stay, we’re here to play shows, this is just the beginning…I feel like the second half of the of the music we’ve recorded is just as exciting or more exciting than the front half. It kind of is a collection of heartbreak songs, drinking songs, heartbreak drinking songs, and then maybe some following your dreams material as well. We kind of wanted to get a little piece of the pie for everybody out there.

You’re going to be opening for Sam Hunt in August in Memphis. So how are you feeling about landing this gig and how are you preparing for it?

Rory: Ryan’s toured with him in the past…but I saw Sam for the first time play at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh back when ‘Leave The Night On’ and all the fun, early stuff was coming out. I was like, ‘wow, this is pretty damn cool.’ So I’m a huge fan of Sam and it’s a dream come true for me to be able to share the stage with him coming up in August. 

Ryan: I’m going to be real with you, we’ve played writer’s nights, we’ve performed a ton together, we have played many little shows around town, but as our sort of first couple dates on the books as Ryan and Rory to open for Sam Hunt as direct support, I would be lying if I said that’s not an absolute, out-of-the-box home run for us and I’m a little freaked out about it. As much as I am friends with those guys, I’m totally wigging out a little bit about it.  

Fans can keep up with Ryan and Rory on Instagram.

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Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.