More than a picker

Behold his spirit: Working with the power players of Lambchop and Silver Jews pushed William Tyler to be creative in carving his own space. Photo by Will Holland
Behold his spirit: Working with the power players of Lambchop and Silver Jews pushed William Tyler to be creative in carving his own space. Photo by Will Holland

William Tyler is a guitarist. He’s a guitarist so skilled and adaptable that his mastery of the instrument can’t help but define him. The evidence of the 34-year-old’s talent abounds in records released during his long history as a tasteful but distinctive sideman — check out his perfectly elegant fills on Lambchop’s Live at XX Merge or the incendiary solo that transforms the country stomp of Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Red Rose Nantahala” into something simultaneously menacing and beautiful. Not to mention his work with the beloved Silver Jews. 

His recent solo LPs — 2010’s Behold the Spirit and this year’s Impossible Truth — confirm his capability as a solitary player. It’s hard not to marvel at the smoothly rolling notes and intricate picking patterns of the latter album’s “We Can’t Go Home Again.” But that song is one of few moments on either record that finds Tyler playing without an arrangement of other sounds — which he himself composes — or a wash of enthralling effects. Yes, William Tyler is a guitarist, but he’s also an innately ambitious musical mind, one that refuses to be limited by his renowned proficiency for one particular instrument.

“It’s not important to me to be viewed as a guitar player or a solo guitar player or whatever,” he explains over the phone, his soft Southern drawl coloring even his boldest declarations with an inescapable politeness.

He grew up in Nashville, the son of a lawyer, Dan Tyler, who became a prominent Music Row songwriter. The younger Tyler played in punk bands during his adolescence, keying on the simple but effective patterns of the Ramones and the infectious urgency of early Elvis Costello. At 19, he joined Lambchop, where the wealth of guitar players forced Tyler to be creative in carving his own space, and the insightful songwriting of Kurt Wagner required him to mature quickly as an accompanist. That he “grew up” in Lambchop and then had the opportunity to work with another wonderfully gifted songwriter in the Silver Jews’ David Berman pushed Tyler away from lyrics and into instrumental expression.

“I felt like those two guys are two of the best,” he says. “I don’t know if it was being intimidated by supporting all these other singer-songwriter guys who were older and were a lot more developed, but I think that definitely shaped me wanting to have something that stood apart.”

Tyler gave up his active role in Lambchop about four years ago to focus on his own compositions, beginning with Behold the Spirit. While it includes graceful garnishes of standup bass and pedal steel, the album isn’t that far removed from the intricate blues and folk permutations favored by many of Tyler’s solo-guitar peers, artists that are too often defined by reductive comparisons to the legendary John Fahey.

Invisible Truth
is partially a bid to escape such restrictive interpretations. “Geography of Nowhere” proceeds in hypnotic loops like many of Fahey’s best creations, but it isolates haunting progressions outside of its persistent picking pattern and simmers with distortion that enhances its intimidating drone. “Cadillac Desert” surges forward with bold cello lines that accentuate Tyler’s spiraling momentum, while melancholy pedal steel heightens the powerful emotions that resound during the song’s quieter moments.

“If you pick up a guitar and start up a band with a few other people, I don’t think you automatically get compared to the best guitar player that ever was,” Tyler says. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, it’s a three-piece band, they are obviously channeling The Jimi Hendrix Experience.’ It’s almost like when you try to play solo guitar music, the bar is already like, ‘OK, you’re trying to be Fahey,’ or if you’re not trying to be Fahey, you’re trying to be this or that.”

Still, Impossible Truth isn’t just a reaction against current trends. The names of the songs mentioned above refer to a pair of non-fiction books: the first an exploration of Los Angeles’ unchecked urban sprawl, the second an analysis of dwindling water resources in the western half of the United States. Tyler was reading these volumes concurrently with Hotel California, which documents the decadent rise and subsequent fall of L.A.’s iconic ‘70s music scene, a movement that boasted such chart toppers as The Eagles and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He saw a link between this unsustainable rock ‘n’ roll excess and the ecological woes illuminated in his other readings. Impossible Truth expresses that connection, as airy sprawls that channel the legends of Laurel Canyon collapse into darker passages, some quiet, some loudly distorted.

“I do think that there’s an overabundance of nostalgia for that particular era right now, and I’m not necessarily celebrating it so much as questioning it,” Tyler says. It’s this aspiration that motivates Invisible Truth’s probing sound and complex orchestrations — and ultimately proves that this Nashvillian is much more than just a guitarist.

— Jordan Lawrence can be reached at soupedfox@gmail.com.

who: William Tyler, with Kovacs and the Polar Bear
where: Double Crown, 375 Haywood Road
when: Wednesday, April 10 (9 p.m. $8. facebook.com/events/141451459351254)

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