Depending on your perspective, living in America in 2016 can feel like an exciting time of upheaval, a portent that the end of the world is nigh, or all of the above and more. It certainly seems that way to instrumental guitar poet William Tyler, one of our most gifted contemporary fingerpickers and a storyteller who manages to speak volumes of truth through his music without uttering a single word. A Nashville native with an impressive resumé of collaborators (Lambchop, Silver Jews, Hiss Golden Messenger, Charlie Louvin) and an even more impressive solo discography, Tyler has carried the torch of guitar music into the 21st century without letting his sense of tradition interfere with his knack for pushing the conversation forward.
On the heels of his second magnificent album for Merge Records, Modern Country, Tyler chatted with TMT about our heated political climate, the state of country music, and where he’s tried to seat himself in this whole mess. I had spoken to Tyler several years prior in an interview for his previous album and was pleasantly surprised that not only did he remember me, but he hadn’t lost his touch for allegorical, down-to-earth observations about our cultural history and (perhaps) future.
In the video you released before this album came out, you spoke about how recently we seem to losing a certain something in this country, particularly in regard to our values. It’s a statement that anyone can kind of read into what they will, but can you elaborate on what it is specifically that you think we’ve lost?
Well, I started thinking about this really hardcore probably right around the last time I talked to you. I was on that Western tour, which was the first time I’d ever really done a tour of the whole West by myself, and I had a lot of weird stops in between. So I got to see a lot of back country parts of the West, you know, Marfa (small, art-centric town in West Texas), Humboldt County, California, Denver, Salt Lake City, places in between. And at the time I was reading this book called “The Unwinding” — which is where I got the title for the last song on the album, “The Great Unwind” — by this journalist named George Packer, and it’s kind of an anecdotal history of the new America, alternating between profiles of people like celebrities, and also average people living in small, industrial towns.
And I think what he’s trying to get at by saying ‘the unwinding’ is, this fabric of post-World War II American society, with a social network that sort of took care of its citizens in a certain way, that’s just been unravelling ever since the 80s — which is basically my whole lifetime. I feel like my parents grew up with a kind of America that was obviously more divisive in a lot of ways socially, but there were jobs, and there was more manufacturing, and there was more of a social welfare system, and college wasn’t as expensive. And it’s this thing that obviously is being tapped into by extremities on both sides of the political spectrum this year, and I’m not really trying to tap into that necessarily, but I saw it as a parallel between that kind of America that was vanishing, financially and socially, and the analog I sort of found to that was driving on backroads through small towns that the interstate had forgotten, and listening to A.M. radio and feeling like it was all connected somehow.
You definitely seem to have a lot of reservations about where we’re going as a culture.
Well I mean, to be honest, I’m a socialist. When I think about how I feel, it’s like, wealth should be distributed. And it’s just so jarring in our country that you can be… like I was just in Southern California, and driving through Salton Sea, where it’s just like, really, really jarring poverty and desert, and then an hour later, you’re in Palm Springs. I don’t feel like there’s even much of an understanding outside of this country, or even within this country, of how that kind of poverty, that kind of disposition of wealth is just so striking. And there’s just so much space too, I mean we live within this continent where we have so little in common, besides this idea of ‘America,’ which I think is very different to a lot of different people. It’s become even more ephemeral I think as things break apart. And I think that’s something else I was trying to tie into, cause when you’re traveling, the way I do, touring through the country, you see the fabric of America change in slow fades rather than jarring transitions, because you’re not flying from one city to the other, you’re driving the length. You see the Midwest turn into plains, turn into desert, turn back into the sea, you know? And most people don’t get that experience. What I’ve always gotten from travel in any situation, whether it was over here or overseas, is it’s such a humbling experience that connects you to the common humanity of everybody. And I think if more Americans were able to take the so-called ‘great American road trip’ they would see what actually differentiates us and keeps us together at the same time.
It’s funny that you mention Southern California, because I moved to L.A. two years ago, and the juxtaposition out here between these titans of industry and then these whole towns of people without homes is just crazy.
It’s weird, and it’s like, I grew up in the deep South, all of my family’s from Mississippi, and most of my family had money, so I was used to a certain kind of upper middle-class neighborhood, and then in Mississippi and Tennessee, you have really, really striking poverty. And it’s weird because I don’t personally think about that when I go to states like California or New York, cause you just think they’re so defined by the major metropolitan areas, and then you realize once you get out into the countryside, America’s kind of the same [laughs]. It’s poor, it’s forgotten about, it’s cut off, and it’s just weird. I guess that’s the thing that I keep coming back to.
Do you see any upside to these uncertain times we’re living in right now?
I do, because I think that there’s a transformational nature that I think politically… like, my parents are always saying when they watch the news, “Gosh, it feels so much like 1968!” And I always say “Yeah, except the music sucks!” [laughs]. But I do think we have a window here. You know in 1968, I think we could’ve gone with Robert Kennedy, and obviously he was killed, and King was killed, and then we went with Nixon. And it’s like, I don’t think that Hillary Clinton is necessarily a transformational political figure, but she could be. She certainly would be as the first woman president.
And then on the opposite end you obviously have this really terrifying rumbling that I don’t even really think fits as ‘right-wing’ anymore, it’s just sort of populism infused with racism. And I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I would say that the hopeful part of me thinks that we have people in power that understand the discontent of poor people, but also understand the immediate need for transforming our society both environmentally and militarily. We have to start living in harmony with the world, and the planet, and we don’t do that as a country. We invade countries whenever we want to, we use resources like we’re never running out of them, and I think average people are starting to realize that that’s kind of a fucked way of running a society. The leaders on different sides of the spectrum kind of have different answers for it, but I do think the hopeful thing I’m seeing is that people are sick of the establishment, and that’s a good thing. But the dangerous part is, of course, where that goes from there.
Bringing it back to the music, how do you think that guitar and country music fit into this increasingly accelerationist landscape of musical styles and sub-genres that we find ourselves in today?
Well, I personally welcome any conversation about my music that has… I want it to fit in any kind of parameter. If it’s new age music, that’s great. If it’s experimental, that’s great. If it’s country music, that’s great. If it’s folk music, that’s fine too. Whatever tag you want to put on it, I’m down with, because I do feel like instrumental music of a certain kind can bridge a lot of gaps, and we’re just not predisposed to embrace it the same way as pop music with words, because that’s not what I think we’re meant to respond to. It’s more deliberate, and more cerebral, perhaps. But I think it fits in just because guitar is the instrument I grew up with, and also grew up around the most, it’s just so emblematic of country music and Nashville. And I do feel like in a way I’m trying to bridge the world of somebody like Chet Atkins with the world of Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, or something.
In your interview with Aquarium Drunkard you suggested that country music gets better with age, and it made me wonder: How exactly would you define what country music even is? There’s a lot of room for overlap with other guitar-based genres.
I think country music by and large represents a certain element of lower-income white people throughout the United States, as its target audience. It’s this whole thing we always get to in America, when we talk politically about rural versus urban, and it’s rural music, you know? It’s not necessarily city music. That doesn’t mean it’s all white people making it, of course. I think that it’s always been this industry targeted at a certain group of people, I should say that. But I also think personally it could be a lot more inclusive, in terms of its audience and its demographic and everything. It’s hard to say, I’ve always felt like it was pretty conservative honestly. Like, I like the fact that people like me are being talked about as country artists, because I would never say that [laughs], because like I said, I always associated country music with a certain demographic and a certain type of political ideology and everything.
But you know, at its core, it is a certain kind of populist music. It’s also been the most conservative form of pop music over the years, the least willing to change with innovation. It’s always fought it. But that’s probably some of what kept it musically connected, you know? Like I say, it gets better with age, it’s like, it’s usually pretty corny in the present. And you kind of look back on it and it’s like, I don’t think anybody thought Merle Haggard was cool in the 60s and 70s, and now you’re kinda like, ‘Merle Haggard’s cool!’ [laughs]
I feel like the eternal question plaguing solo instrumental guitarists is, how do you tackle this traditional form of music in a way that still feels personal and new? But you’ve done an outstanding job in your solo work of evolving your sound from album to album. Was the idea of having a really fleshed out band central to the concept of Modern Country?
Yes, definitely it was. It was something that we talked about going into it, like, let’s try to rearrange the reference points, let’s not be talking about Robbie Basho and Sandy Bull, let’s be talking about Ry Cooder, or Bill Frisell, Tangerine Dream, let’s try to do something new with this genre. And I think central to that is having a core ensemble of musicians, and I think the ironic thing is that compositionally a lot of the songs on Modern Country are some of the simplest songs I’ve ever written, for a chord structure. But they sound the most complex, because there’s so much music, so many other parts going on.
The track that most embodies the sound and feel of this album in my mind is the second one, “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me).” I always really enjoy hearing the stories that inspired your songs, is there anything in particular that one represents to you?
Yeah, well first, it’s a good driving song, and when I started touring Impossible Truth I was thinking about, I had just turned 33, 34, and I was kind of at that point where I realized, ‘oh yeah, I’m not really a kid anymore. I have to kind of embrace that.’ And I just thought about this whole mortality, and falling back on that excuse of like, ‘Oh, I’m gettin’ old!’ And then I just thought, well, refuting that would be some funny statement like that. So that’s the serious inspiration behind it, and then I also wanted to do one of those parenthetical joke kind of titles that used to be really popular in country music.
I think that especially with instrumental music, it’s fun to kind of trace an artist’s trajectory, like with jazz or American Primitive or anything, because it’s really all about these subtle changes more than anything. Now that you’ve got a pretty legit discography under your own name going, how do you think Modern Country stands in your oeuvre compared to your first two albums?
Well, I think that Behold The Spirit was your classic thing of putting an album out, not sure if anyone was gonna like it or take you seriously. And then Impossible Truth was, ‘OK, well, I want to make another guitar record, and I have a bunch of songs, but I want to present them a different way.’ So I played more electric, I did more arranging, I just tried to frame it differently. And this record was like, ‘OK, I really don’t want to be talked about as a solo guitar player anymore. I just want to be a guitar player and a composer.’ And that means you have to make a different kind of record. And I don’t necessarily think that it just means every record is gonna get more complex structurally, I just want to change the conversation each time.