It’s just shy of noon on a Friday, and Aaron Lee Tasjan is at a bar on the east side of Nashville, showing off his weed socks. Well, technically, it’s a barbeque joint – but, for the purposes of this particular day’s festivities, we’re calling it a bar. Packed with tourists carrying trays of pulled pork and jalapeno cornbread, it’s the fifth stop on what Tasjan has called his “12 Bar Blues,” an event inspired by a track on his second album, Silver Tears. The stunt has the Ohio-born singer hopping from watering hole to watering hole to celebrate Silver Tears‘ release day. A blue, 25-seater Grayline bus is parked outside, serving as everyone’s ride for the day – including label folk, some fans and friends – with its driver, Buddy, now taking a break inside for a basket of fries.
The socks in question – black, with fluorescent marijuana leaves – are a small bit of flair in Tasjan’s unusually subdued ensemble. Today, it’s a leather jacket, jeans and hat, though Tasjan doesn’t shy away from the gaudy: on the cover of Silver Tears, he’s sporting a gleaming suit with quarter-sized sequins and a polka-dot shirt, and he’s been known to go equally glitzy for his stage performances.
Because Tasjan, who used to play guitar in Manhattanite glam bands Semi Precious Weapons and New York Dolls, is not afraid of mixing subversion, satire and a little bit of spunk into his look. He’s certainly not afraid to mix it into his songwriting either, which, on his debut LP In the Blazes, established him as a left-of-center scribe in the Americana culture, one more interested in tickling the intellect than stabbing at the heart. Silver Tears, his first release with new label New West, shows how he can bend his point of view to be both poignant and punching: sweeping arrangements or rambling drinking songs, like “12 Bar Blues,” share space with a Harry Nilsson-esque ode to getting high that’s as sticky as the bud he sings about, with nary a cheap-shot sentimental love tune. And in a musical climate where a man’s machismo is often hung at the bottom of a very earnestly grown beard, this point of view is not always easy to digest. But, if you ask Tasjan, that’s the point.
“We were just playing in St. Louis and they had posters from the album cover up in the bathroom,” Tasjan tells Rolling Stone Country a few days later, calling from a tour stop in Columbus. “I had gone to use the bathroom and I was washing my hands, and below where there is the picture of me in the sequin suit someone had written, ‘Really dude?’. It was so awesome. So I took my Sharpie out and drew a little heart around it. That’s great, and that’s how it should be. I think effective art does draw some lines and challenges people to feel some way about it. And it may not always be the warm fuzzy reaction you hope for. But that’s OK.”
Americana music does tend to rely quite often on the “warm and fuzzy” – intense, suspender-sporting banjo players are certainly not in short supply these days – but that sort of old-timey pastiche is exactly what Tasjan isn’t. His boots aren’t precisely scuffed oxfords: they’re gold-flecked sparklers with a bit of a heel (with, lest we forget, some suitably flamboyant socks). The music’s like that too. Instead of leaning on modern folk conventions and dreary tales scraped along the concrete by a weepy fiddle, Tasjan favors quirk, narrative detail and a stilted humor, often all in one song. It’s what keeps his fingerprint so strong (even through influences like Nilsson, Roy Orbison, John Prine and Tom Petty) across Silver Tears.
“There is a lot of precedence put on earnestness,” Tasjan says of Americana. “And some of our flag-bearing artists are more stoic performers, if you will. Which is interesting to me because a lot of them are very funny in real life. And they take what they do very seriously. It’s not to say I don’t take what I am doing very seriously, but I think there is room for subversive art in Americana music.”
When Tasjan arrived in East Nashville in 2013, the most recent folk revival was chugging to full tilt. His side of the river was just starting to capture the national spotlight, and many musicians that roamed its streets were more intent on making their audience members cry than laugh. As a commentary, he wrote the song “E.N.S.A.A.T” – “East Nashville Song About a Train” – which effectively psychoanalyzed an entire subculture without rousing any actual ill will. Perhaps because it was so incredibly self-aware.
The track ended up on In the Blazes, which he released on his own in 2015, and soon after began the material that would become Silver Tears – a good bulk of it while “micro-dosing” on LSD, a way of getting high that has the user taking small hits throughout the day so as to never get fully inebriated but never really sober, either.
“It’s a little like walking over to the edge of the cliff and peering down and maybe kind of hanging your feet over the edge, but you never quite fall off,” he says. “I wrote ‘Ready to Die,’ ‘Little Movies,’ ‘Dime’ and ‘Where the Road Begins and Ends’ one day doing that. It was the turning point.”
Tasjan, who has opened for Ray Wylie Hubbard and John Moreland, recorded the songs in Los Angeles and signed with New West to release it – a label which he chose partly for their tolerance for his out-of-the-box ideas, such as this “12 Bar Blues” event. It wasn’t the first (and won’t be the last) creative presentation of his music. Just this past fall, Tasjan was flanked by two drag queens at his Americana Music Festival set – and his outfit, for the record, was probably the flashiest of the three.
Two stops before the barbeque joint, the big blue bus pulled up outside of Fanny’s House of Music, a local instrument shop in the heart of East Nashville. Buddy, after parking, jammed on a guitar inside (he used to play piano at the Grand Old Opry), and someone grabbed Tasjan a most perfect gift from the shelves – a copy of AC/DC for Ukulele, a metaphor so appropriate it almost seems planted (it wasn’t).
Soon, Tasjan headed outside to the steps and started playing “Dime,” a song from Silver Tears that sounds like a train chugging towards the cosmic corral, with the Wilburys traveling inside and Brian Wilson at the wheel. But here, stripped of all the production, it’s anchored only by his ace fingerwork and closed-eye smile. Dressed down, without all the glitter and gloss, it still shined.
“Everybody has a costume,” Tasjan says. “Whether they realize it or not.”