How Nashville Songwriter Cale Tyson Left Honky-Tonk Behind on New Album

"I was like, 'I'm having an identity crisis,'" says the high-lonesome vocalist, who does a singer-songwriter about-face on LP 'Careless Soul'

Cale Tyson embraces horns and a singer-songwriter approach on his debut full-length 'Careless Soul.' Credit: Shervin Lainez

There is a very good torta here, at Tacos Y Mariscos Lopez 2 on Murfreesboro Pike in Nashville, a small Mexican restaurant that will probably never attract one of modern-day Music City's ubiquitous bachelorette parties. With lovely food and terrible parking, it is where Cale Tyson comes for his favorite version of the giant sandwich, sometimes when he's on lunch break from his number-crunching side job down the road, like today.

"You can't go wrong with tacos, but I like the torta," Tyson says, settling into a booth in a faded black T-shirt. "I had one on the Fourth of July by myself. I'd been out swimming all day, and I just came here alone and ate a torta. It was nice, actually."

Tyson, one of Nashville's most promising young Americana voices, isn't necessarily lonely, per se. But he does have the distinction of having only just released his debut full-length album, Careless Soul, while some of his peers are on records two or three. It's no fault of his own – Careless Soul, recorded several years ago at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producer Michael Rinne, has been trying to find a home for that long, juggled between label prospects that came and went. And Tyson, after originally putting the collection out to success in Europe, just got sick of waiting. So on July 14th, he did it himself. "I was like, 'Fuck it,'" he says. "Let's just do it and get it out of the way."

"Get it out of the way" is usually language reserved for, say, having a cavity filled, but Careless Soul is more about what Tyson will create in the future than a document of his past. For all the positive outcomes that have resulted from the attention on Nashville's left-of-center offerings – the dominance of Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson and all things metaphorically East Side – it's been a blessing and curse for artists like Tyson, who often finds himself a part of the "traditional country revival" quota, of which there can only be so many such artists at one time on record labels and festival rosters.

It's a limiting, if not inaccurate, tag for him these days. But even though Tyson got his start building a catalog of steel-guitar-laced weepers about broken hearts and bitter tears, that's no longer where his head or heart lies. The Texas-born songwriter, like Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Nikki Lane, Price and Simpson, is part of a generation expanding wildly after coming of age via old-school twang. Because of voices like theirs, one of the most exciting things about the traditional country revival is what its purveyors will do after it.

"I'm telling a little more of an honest story instead of, 'Here is a country hook!'"

Careless Soul, with horns, strings and, yes, a good heap of soul, is one step to where Tyson is going, but he's already looking ahead to something more singer-songwriter, more reminiscent of the stark folk records he grew up listening to than Ray Price. Which could be part of the problem when it came to securing a label deal.

"The record didn't have a specific style people could go out and market," says Tyson. "It's hard to find someone to put out this super country-ish, Americana record, and then your next release is going to be an indie-rock record. That was a hard connect to make." Indeed, musical evolution is more difficult to market than one individual trend.

What makes Careless Soul work so well, with its horn arrangements from Jordan Lehning and vocals from Caitlin Rose, is how it approaches the palette of traditional country without trying to adhere to a traditionalist code. Tyson sounds more like someone interested in pivoting off the jazzy swing of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" than going "outlaw." And part of the humor of it all lies in just how non-soulful, by a textbook definition, Tyson's voice is – it still yodels and breaks, not hollers or growls. Unveiling something that feels less honky-tonk and more organic to Tyson is sure to be met with questions by country purists, but he's fully aware of what a paradoxical exercise it is to sacrifice one's own honesty in favor of someone else's rulebook.

For all the talk of "authenticity" when it comes to traditional and "outlaw" country, there's often a limiting, if not counter-intuitive, pressure to walk a thin and narrow line: to be authentic, one must possess pedal steel, fiddle and the catch-all "twang," regardless of whether or not these sounds are actually authentic to the person playing them. The edict to maintain the genre's purity often eschews evolution in favor of keeping things "real," but that's not what attracted Tyson, who moved to Nashville while he was still in college from Fort Worth, Texas, to songwriting.

When Tyson started making the rounds at local clubs five or six years ago, traditional country wasn't even the most prevalent non-Music Row force. It was actually Nashville's "garage" sound (a somewhat amusing tag, since no one playing it could really afford houses with garages), driven by acts like Jeff the Brotherhood, who had just signed to a major label deal. Tyson and some of his comrades, like Kelsey Waldon, Joshua Hedley and Combs, were bringing a lonesome howl back to music and soaking up every last inch of classic culture – which sometimes included a cowboy hat and bolo tie and, for Tyson, a set of EPs that had those purists drooling as he yodeled his way through songs like "Honky Tonk Moan" that could have been Hank Sr. outtakes. Tyson didn't live on the East Side, but he embodied that whole East Nashville trad-country mythology so well that geographical location meant nothing next to a metaphorical one.

"I went into it head first," says Tyson. "[Traditional country] wasn't quite a hip thing yet. I was so immersed in country music culture that I wanted to take it all in, and I did. I don't regret that at all. It helped me out with my musicality so much. But then I wanted to listen to other things and figure out what else is going on in music culture. And then I was like, 'I'm having an identity crisis.'"

These days, what Tyson is most excited about is a collection of songs, to be released in the future, that favors a more confessional approach, which he's been honing by writing in a diary. He talks often about his early love for Bright Eyes, an influence still very much intact, but Conor Oberst singing with Emmylou Harris on "Landlocked Blues" is probably more of a gateway drug to country and Americana than any Hank Williams record for musicians of his generation.

"I'm telling a little more of an honest story instead of, 'Here is a country hook!' And how many more times can I say the word 'blue?'" Tyson says. "I look at Robert Ellis and Andrew Combs, all those people who I have admired through their whole journey and who continue to show me a new record that sounds like a departure from their last, whether that be songwriting-wise or style-wise. And I don't want to be someone who puts out the same record twice. That's what I was scared to death to do, and that's why we did [Careless Soul]." He jokes that a shoegaze record, someday, isn't out of the question.

It's getting to be the end of lunch hour at Tacos Y Mariscos Lopez 2, and Tyson has to head back to work. He came here a lot more often when he used to live in this part of town – now home is East Nashville, for the first time since moving to Tennessee. He's well aware that he's now embodying part of the cliché he was hoping to leave behind, but at least it's all good for a laugh. "I always joke now," he says, "that at least my press is finally going to be correct."