William Tyler's Roots Grow Eight Miles High

Ex-Lambchop guitarist builds a bridge between Americana and the avant-garde

William Tyler performs
Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
William Tyler performs in Groningen, Netherlands.
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WHO: William Tyler may be a born-and-bred Nashvillian, but his cosmic guitar stylings extend way beyond the Grand Ole Opry. Whether as a sideman or solo artist, 34-year-old Tyler remains impossible to categorize . He's probably the only musician to have played alongside both country legend Charlie Louvin and avant-garde composer Rhys Chatham, or for that matter both indie iconoclasts Silver Jews and Will Oldham and classic soul singer Candi Staton. Tyler got his six-string start at age 19 when he joined the idiosyncratic Americana outfit Lambchop, spending nearly a decade with that band before striking out solo. Tyler's debut album under his own name, 2010's Behold the Spirit, and its 2013 follow-up Impossible Truth, were straight guitar-instrumental records, but that didn't limit Tyler's breadth: His incandescent, resonant finger picking might evoke a modal Indian raga one moment, an Appalachian folk drone the next, or even celestial Eno-esque ambience – all within one song. "What I do exists in this in-between sphere of experimental avant-garde and pop music," Tyler explains. "I used to sing and write songs with words, but I didn't like what was coming out of my head. I had to reinvent what I did with music – and this is what came out."

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FACING THE STRANGE: Despite growing up in the country-music capital, Tyler gravitated toward music from outside Nashville's borders. Vanderbilt University's college radio station initially introduced him to punk and post-punk like Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd. "The guitar tone of [PiL guitarist] Keith Levene is ridiculously underrated," Tyler says. He gradually moved on to even more "out" sounds, such as the eccentric guitar style of artists like Papa M and Six Organs of Admittance. Tyler was particularly inspired, however, by the output of iconoclastic indie labels Silt Breeze and Drag City, whose often lo-fi recording techniques encouraged him to finally go it alone. "I was in the middle of my stint as a sideperson in Lambchop," Tyler says. "But I got a four-track cassette recorder and decided I was going to make my own music."

FAMILY TRADITION: "I grew up around music," Tyler recalls; indeed, his father Dan Tyler is a successful songwriter, having written hits for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Oak Ridge Boys, Eddie Rabbitt and LeAnn Rimes. But that didn't mean that young Tyler was necessarily encouraged to follow in his dad's footsteps. "He was a little apprehensive about me dedicating myself to the creative lifestyle," Tyler admits. "He'd often say, 'Music is like joining the mafia – you can't ever leave.' One day when I was 16, I asked him to show me some chords. He took the guitar, threw it across the room, and said, 'This shit will ruin your life!' Then he took me to see Trainspotting."

FOLK ROCK TO KRAUTROCK: "The Byrds might be my favorite band of all time," Tyler raves. "What they did with 12-string was so far out. They tapped into this combination of free avant-rock and country that nobody's ever figured out effectively since." Tyler's rootsier influences went even deeper into the mystic on his recent EP, Lost Colony. It showcases a "Whole New Dude," as the opening track is titled: that epic 13-minute-plus song features Tyler actually playing in a band format, stretching out over kinetic motorik rhythms with elastic psychedelic leads. "I usually never play guitar solos," Tyler explains. "The context isn't there playing just by myself. I want to get into that more, though, and push beyond obvious reference points." The key to Lost Colony's stylistic breakthrough comes in Tyler's chiming cover of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother's composition, "Karussell." "I wanted to do something more dynamic and call-and-response – finding a middle ground between krautrock and, say, Booker T and the MGs, or Waylon Jennings," Tyler notes. "Waylon could have done a record with Neu! He's got these static yet soulful grooves that never elevate, and start and stop in a hypnotic place. It's perfect driving music."