Though I grew up about a stone’s throw south of the Mason Dixon line, I’ve never been to the real, capital “S” South before. Florida doesn’t count; I know that well enough from having suggesting as much to honest-to-goodness Southerners. But even these conversations with folks of the Dixieland have been few and far between, maybe due in part to their own preference for home field.
So hearing William Tyler’s hat-in-hand, Mississippi-borne and Tennessee-raised drawl was a novel thing for me. Not only for all the moments astray in translation — I was “Bill” throughout the interview and the transcription was often a practice in “sounds like” — but because unlike his work with Lambchop and the now-defunct Silver Jews, his solo project is all instrumental, no singing. Ancillary instruments aside, both LPs are essentially enchanting, technically minded guitar albums in the vein of a Michael Hedges or John Fahey — though Tyler himself would disagree.
“I want to be something a little more than just a solo guitar player,” says Tyler, who plays Boulder’s Fox Theatre on Tuesday. “My albums aren’t just an execution of riffs and technique — I want there to be a little bit more behind it.” Speaking about his new album, “Impossible Truth,” Tyler gives examples of its complexity, citing a range of influences including ’70s film scores, the esoteric experimental rock group Sun City Girls, traveling to Syria and what he calls “the limits of urbanism and modernity.” It’d be enough of an undertaking to distill all of the above into a full-fledged singer-songwriter album, but to do so without uttering a word seems…well, impossible.
It’s also something of a shame. Listening to Tyler talk about “Impossible Truth,” two things become clear: first, that there’s an interesting and intelligent design to the album, one that’d be hard to get at by just listening to it. As he tells it, “Impossible Truth” is loosely conceptual, an “end-of-the-world apocalyptic album” concerned with eschatology and the decline of America; there’s also a love story wedged in there somewhere.
Second, despite the taciturn nature of his albums, he’s eloquent. Aside from casually dropping words like “eschatology,” it’s apparent that between interviewing, rumination and reading, he’s chiseled out definite ideas about what he wants to say with his music, why he wants to say it and so on. One only need hear his voiceover for the album teaser for “Impossible Truth” to get the idea that if he wanted, Tyler could make for a capable lyricist. So what gives?
“First of all, I’m not crazy about my voice,” he concedes. “Second of all, I just feel bludgeoned by lyrics sometimes. Maybe part of that is from living in a city that’s so singer-songwriter centric. I just felt like it’s such a rebellious act to live in Nashville and be a solo artist and not be a singer-songwriter.” Still, Tyler admits he has written words to go along with his music before — he just hasn’t found the right way to combine them. “The album trailer was an example of that,” Tyler explains, “a companion piece. I want [my writing] to be personal but a bit separate as well.”
It’s a task for his next album, one which he hopes to write not in the Middle East, but the South—Mississippi, specifically, a home he’s had a love-hate relationship with. The two areas may seem diametrically opposed in their convictions, but they have a lot in common in Tyler’s eyes. “I’ve tried to reconcile a lot of things about growing up [in the South] that I’m proud of and things that I find pretty repulsive. So when I go to places that have had troubled histories as well, but there’s a real vibe to the music and the culture — places like Lebanon and Cambodia — I see a lot of parallels to the deep South. And I self-identify pretty heavily as a southerner,” he maintains.
Talking to Tyler, you wouldn’t mistake him for anything else. But give one of his albums a spin — or better yet, see him live — close your eyes, and try to guess where he’s coming from. In Tyler’s hands, guitar is a language unto itself, packed with metaphor and evocative as any mother tongue. You only need to be open to its interpretation.
William Tyler plays Boulder’s Fox Theatre July 23rd. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 day of show. For more information, check out the Fox’s website here.
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s indie and bluegrass blogger. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.