Ryan Weaver, a former Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, and his unique brand of country-rock will serve as a new patriotic voice of the PBR.
NASHVILLE - Ryan Weaver knows he has big shoes -- or make that a big guitar case – to fill.
The former Black Hawk helicopter pilot turned all-American country rocker follows rock icon Steven Tyler and multi-platinum band Warrant as the next voice of the PBR – a league on the cutting edge for mashing up music and sports.
PBR and its fans are unabashedly patriotic. Pro bull riding’s elite circuit, the Built Ford Tough Series, has dedicated the 2017 season as “the Celebrate America Tour” to honor true heroes and bring communities together. PBR is the only professional sports league in which competitors have signed a pledge to always stand for the National Anthem.
Weaver, the son of a Marine, lost his brother and brother-in-law in helicopter crashes in the Middle East. He’s the real deal: an authentic badass American warrior who turns the concepts of service, sacrifice, loss and love of country into patriotic foot-stomping rock ‘n’ roll.
Along the way, the 21-year combat Veteran began singing karaoke in 2000 in Dothan, Alabama, during flight school to pay for groceries.
After returning from Iraq, Ryan cut his teeth in the local Alabama bar scene, soon advancing to larger club venues and festivals in the Southeast and then to opening for major national artists around the nation.
His first music video for his co-written song "Crank It," hit national television in 2014. In 2016 the music video for his co-written single "BURN" hit, which featured Benghazi survivors Kris “Tanto” Paronto, John “Tig” Tiegen and clips from the movie 13 Hours: Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
“You won’t find many artists who truly understand hard work and sacrifice more than Ryan Weaver,” PBR CEO Sean Gleason said. “He has red, white and blue coursing through his veins, and his love for this country comes out in his songs in a way that every PBR fan will connect with.”
Gleason spotted Weaver at the Colorado Freedom Fest, an all-day veterans fundraising event supporting the American Soldier Network – a local charity intent on ending veteran suicide.
“Ryan came on stage like a twister and didn’t stop through the entire performance. It wasn’t a big crowd, but you would have thought he was performing at a sold-out Madison Square Garden,” Gleason said.
Nobody knew any of Weaver’s original songs. Yet everybody was hanging on every word.
The rocking country music with a serious message had the PBR’s CEO engaged. And when Ryan told the audience his poignant story of sacrifice and loss, Gleason says he became a true fan for life.
“Ryan’s personal service in the military was enough to earn the respect of everyone in the house,” Gleason said. “The fact that he lost his brother and brother-in-law in Iraq and Afghanistan while Ryan was on active duty made him a performer you’d never forget.”
As PBR searches for artists to create original music for the league to own and use, Gleason was intent on finding a place for Weaver. At the same time, PBR fans were getting behind Celebrate America. Bringing in his fresh new voice of the patriotism-soaked initiative designed to honor heroes, their families and communities was the logical next step.
“Hitching my wagon to the PBR is bigger than any record deal I could get in Nashville in terms of exposure to millions of passionate sports fans,” Weaver said. “I hope that the fans can learn my story, and I can inspire them in their love for their communities and each other.”
Weaver has opened up for acts as big as Charlie Daniels and George Jones, played with Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam in Tennessee. He also sang at the Grand Ole Opry on September 11th in 2015, and he will sing at this year’s West Point Commencement Day at an amphitheater on the Hudson River.
Still, he’s not a household name like Tyler, Aerosmith’s front man, who sings the bull-riding anthem, “Hold On (Won’t Let Go),” which opens every PBR on CBS telecast, among most PBR fans.
That’s just fine with Gleason and Weaver.
“Steven Tyler and Warrant had built-in fan bases,” Gleason said. “With Ryan, it’s more of a blank canvas, and we’ll be using our PBR assets, resources, programming and events to build his career and tell his story.”
Weaver is now in the studio with country music great Wynn Varble working on an EP for the PBR that will be available for fans this fall. Proceeds will benefit charities that help the families of fallen heroes.
One interesting collaboration already under way through the PBR is with Winn Varble, a country legend who has performed at PBR events including the PBR Built Ford Tough World Finals.
At one time, growing up in Citrus Country in west central Florida, Weaver lived with 11 children under one house.
“There were enough ‘steps’ and ‘halves’ under our roof to field a football team,” Weaver said.
Ryan had one full-blood sibling, Aaron. To say he looked up to his older brother is a grand understatement.
“My brother was an American superhero,” Weaver said. “He was an awesome leader. He was tough as nails. Everyone wanted to follow him and nobody ever had a bad word to say about him.”
Some of Ryan’s finest moments in the military were when Aaron visited his unit in Baghdad. Ryan would be giddy with anticipation waiting for his brother’s aircraft land. When Aaron arrived, he’d beam with pride in parading him around to the other Rangers.
Everyone at the base knew Aaron for his role in Somalia. As a 22-year-old sergeant, Aaron was enmeshed in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu — where 18 U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives. The fight was later chronicled in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.
In Mogadishu, he was one of two men who volunteered to lead a unit toward the downed helicopters, saving one serviceman’s life. The Army Ranger’s vehicle took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade, but he walked away unscathed.
It was like the guy truly was superhuman.
Aaron would survive Mogadishu, and then he’d battle and conquer testicular cancer.
Aaron was so tough and committed to his country, that after the cancer surgeries and nearly dying from an intestinal infection from a botched suture, he convinced doctors to sign a waiver allowing him to serve in Iraq for one more tour. No way his buddies were going back to war without him.
Ryan would periodically get to see his brother in Baghdad for medical tests required to screen Aaron’s blood for cancer every other month.
The cancer was in remission, making for happy and upbeat meetings. But the brothers would also see one another on sadder occasions.
On Jan. 2, 2004, Capt. Kimberly Hampton, an Air Calvary Company commander in the same squadron as Aaron in the 82nd Airborne Division, was shot down by hostile fire south of Fallujah. She was the first female Calvary commander to die in combat.
Ryan flew several military brass to Al Taqaddum Airbase, west of Baghdad, for Capt. Hampton’s memorial service.
The solemn day was brightened somewhat with the prospect of seeing Aaron, who had tears streaming down his cheeks.
“You never saw that. But becoming a father softened my brother,” Ryan said.
Ryan proudly showed Aaron his aircraft. The brother had been piloting a state-of-the-art flying machine that was much more advanced with its sleek glass cockpit and a clean, bright, high-tech display. The throwback cockpit of the antiquated aircraft he was now touring was more an optometrist’s dream with its dizzying array of navigational signals.
Aaron poked his head inside, gave a low whistle and marveled at the labyrinth display of buttons and switches. He commented how his kid brother had to be pretty smart and talented to fly this old bird.
Ryan was standing a little taller in the glow of at the respectful props from his brother. These kind of compliments didn’t come easy. But when you got them, they meant that much more.
As the men got ready to say goodbye, Ryan’s crew chief asked to take a photo of the Weavers.
Ryan was a hugger, and Aaron a shaker. This time, when Ryan went to shake his brother’s hand, Aaron came in for a big, warm bear hug.
Somalia made Aaron hard, yet something powerful softened that tough exterior.
“Being a Dad changed him,” Ryan said. “He was happy and complete.”
The great American superhero strolled down the tarmac. He turned around and smiled at his kid brother.
Two days later US Army Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Weaver was killed in action.
He’d been riding in the back of a medvac helicopter on his way to his routine blood testing when the chopper crashed. Eight other soldiers perished as well.
CWO Aaron Weaver was 32 years old. He left behind a wife, a young daughter and a son. He also left behind a brother intent on honoring him every day along with a family who’d never forget the days they lost their son, brother, nephew and cousin.
The chances of an American family becoming a Gold Star family by losing a member to combat is slim.
Unfortunately for the Weavers, lightning struck twice. On December 17th, 2013, Ryan's brother-in-law, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy Billings, was killed in action in Afghanistan. The Black Hawk he was piloting was taken from the sky by a ground-exploded Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on a remote Afghanistan hillside, killing all but one on board.
Ryan had come to know Randy as his instructor at Warrant Officer Candidate School just before Randy met his sister Ashley.
“Ashley loved, and still loves, Randy with all of her heart," Ryan said. “Most people search their entire lives and never find what they had.”
As part of PBR’s Celebrate America, Ryan Weaver will be dedicating every performance to his departed brothers.
Aaron and Ryan Weaver in their last photo together before Aaron's helicopter was shot down.
He’ll be singing songs like “What You Think of Me” and “Never Forgotten” in tribute to Aaron, who is now enshrined in the Infantry Hall of Fame. The 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg has also named a building at the Combat Aviation Brigade headquarters in Aaron’s honor.
Even while remembering his fallen hero, Ryan will also be chasing his country rock dream, and having a blast doing it.
He’s looking forward to attending Built Ford Tough Series events, getting to know the cowboys of the PBR and performing for them and fans at tour stops including the World Finals in Las Vegas on Nov. 1-5.
Weaver’s performance date on the strip will be announced in the coming weeks.
Weaver will be giving his all to connect with the PBR fan base. Putting his nose to the grindstone is nothing new for a man from a humble background who has achieved so much.
After leaving the military in 2012, Weaver took on two jobs while attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. While working as a bar back at the Wild Horse Saloon, he was also studying his brains out, nailing a 4.0 GPA in in Aeronautics with a minor in management at a place known as “the Harvard in the Sky.”
“Hard work, dedication and putting your heart into something you believe in is the basis of the American dream,” he said.
Now based in Nashville, Weaver is devoted full time to music, pursuing his career through the PBR and its parent company WME | IMG, while telling his unique story and supporting all the families who have dealt with heartache and pain.
A shining light in all the loss, Weaver and his family have witnessed his hometown of Inverness, Florida, and greater Citrus County come together to honor both of his brothers when they died.
“My community cried and honored their sacrifices as if they were their own family,” Ryan recalled. “That's what America means to me, and I'll never forget this show of patriotism and love.”
Weaver is new to the PBR. He’s worked his butt off for this chance. PBR’s innovative music strategy is all unchartered territory and he’s unsurprisingly all-in.
One thing is for sure: In the coming months the former Black Hawk helicopter pilot turned country rocker will be experiencing unimaginable patriotism and love all over this great land.