Ryan Ahlwardt’s first performance with Straight No Chaser was the same week as his high school senior prom.
April 28, 1999 was the exact date, Ahlwardt recalls without hesitation. He was standing behind the seniors during their last performance on campus as they took their last bow to the song, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by Boyz II Men. Little did Ahlwardt know at the time that before he even started college, his love of music he considered a hobby was going to transform into a dream-like career.
“To have been a fan of those guys for at least two years, and then to be on stage with them carrying the torch as [the seniors] graduated was unbelievable,” Ahlwardt said. “As they took that final bow, myself and four other guys that were newer members were standing behind them, and it was just a really cool moment to be a part of.”
In 1996, music school student Dan Ponce, who had wanted to start an a capella group for years, handpicked nine other students who then banded together to become Straight No Chaser. The original group grew in popularity on campus by performing at sorority functions and the dance marathon and experienced a taste of national notoriety when they competed for the first time and placed second at a national collegiate a capella competition.
Ahlwardt would land a spot in the group a few years later.
What started as a way to share fond memories with the group years after everyone had graduated quickly became the group’s ticket to international fame. In 2006, original member Randy Stine uploaded a video of the 1998 group performing their own take on “The 12 Days of Christmas” to YouTube. Soon thereafter, the CEO of Atlantic Records, Craig Kallman, reached out to Stine to ask if the group would consider getting back together to record an album.
Multiple collaborations with renowned artists like Paul McCartney and Elton John, seven albums, eleven years of worldwide tours and millions of albums sold later, Straight No Chaser doesn’t see an end in sight. Last November, the group released an album entitled “One Shot” which tells the history of and celebrates the diversity of music tastes within the group.
Their legacy will continue to live on through the group Another Round which features IU students.
Ahlwardt left the group in 2012; however, music remains a full-time gig. He graduated with a marketing degree, but his profession still revolves around his voice though ministry, songwriting and voice acting. He also co-hosts a radio show for WZPL in Indianapolis entitled Radio Theology. His work can be found on Spotify and Apple Music, or on his website.
Growing up in a Navy family, Ahlwardt was constantly moving around — he was conditioned with starting over in different places. By leaving the group, he was able to start a family and give his own kids the childhood he never had. He said it means a lot knowing he is able to provide for his family and grow a small business out of something that helped him become who he is today.
“Straight No Chaser is 100% part of that story, but it’s not the only part of that story,” Ahlwardt said. “It really trained me to step confidently to what I think is my life calling, and that’s to bring joy to people through creativity and through art.”
This year, Ahlwardt performed with Straight No Chaser once again at the Bicentennial Ceremony Sept. 28. He was one of four former members tasked with coming up with a new song that IU would be able to use as a new school anthem that celebrated not just Bloomington, but all IU campuses. After writing the song in his basement and submitting it to the Bicentennial Committee for review, he received the news that his song “Indiana, We’re All For You” was the winner. Ahlwardt was then invited to perform the song at the ceremony.
Ahlwardt knows what he loves about IU-Bloomington, but he had to consider commonalities between all students and alumni. He also had to encapsulate everything that IU stood for within a three-minute song. Ahlwardt only lives a short drive away from campus in Indianapolis, but he intended for the song to bring home those who had moved far away after college.
With the lyrics, “it was 1820 when she was born, and raised up in the cool shades of those old Sycamores,” Ahlwardt explains how everyone who has come to campus has walked underneath the trees and experienced the immense beauty they have to offer.
“For this song to enter the canon of songs that are so near and dear to people’s hearts at IU, it’s truly a privilege and an honor to be a part of,” Ahlwardt said.
The group gave Ahlwardt lifelong friends, a passion for music and his wife, who he met through a capella at IU. Before the movie "Pitch Perfect" was even created, Straight No Chaser was one of the first groups to make waves in the a capella world.
“All we were were just college kids singing around a piano in the music school not that long ago,” Ahlwardt said. “And then, we were being thrusted out on to those national and international stages. If someone told us in college ‘hey, this is going to be a way that you support your family, make a living and bring joy to people all over the world,’ it probably would’ve been too big for us to imagine at that point.”
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