When the going gets tough, aging rockers go country. New doc Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb chronicles the singer’s high-profile move to Nashville to record his 2016 solo debut We’re All Somebody From Somewhere after 40 years fronting one of America’s biggest hard rock bands. Directed by Casey Tebo, the doc frames Tyler’s move as a huge risk, but even the members of his backing band the Loving Mary say in the film that the transition – musically, personally – was pretty seamless. (“He’s kind of a redneck, wild-eyed … with that Indian shit hanging from his hair,” says one musician.) The difficult aspect of the move, for Tyler, was being onstage without his better half, the person with whom he’s had his longest relationship, Joe Perry.
Through behind-the-scenes and live footage, and interviews with rockers who know something about torturous collaborations like Slash and Stone Temple Pilots’ Robert DeLeo, Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb – now available to stream on demand – suggests that Tyler’s solo detour wasn’t so much of a risk as it was an unorthodox way of salvaging Aerosmith (who are heading out on tour next year). In addition to providing Tyler a fresh outlet, being in a band of younger, lesser-known musicians gave the rocker a chance to play the supportive role of mentor rather than that of an old peer.
Here are five things we learned from the doc about Tyler’s Southern sojourn.
1. Tyler’s manager ultimately convinced the singer to go country.
Rebecca Warfield hadn’t known her client for very long when she saw Tyler perform back-to-back shows with the Loving Mary Band and Aerosmith. Immediately, she witnessed a palpable difference. With the country group, Warfield saw an authenticity that wasn’t there in Tyler’s rock set. Tyler was initially on the fence about doing a solo record with the Loving Mary Band, he said. Warfield’s conviction, and cheerleading from Big Machine chief Scott Borchetta, tipped the scales. Within weeks, “country Tyler” bought a house in Music City and was happily poking around its hallowed establishments like the Ernest Tubb Record Shop – the first place Patsy Cline ever performed.
2. Tyler shaped Nashville long before Nashville shaped Tyler.
Tyler may have felt like his country detour was a risk, but as songwriter and guitarist Marti Frederiksen points out, the rocker was dipping into a community that he himself had influenced. Frederiksen notes that crossover artists with big voices and lots of grit (think Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood) regularly borrowed from the Nineties and 2000s Aero-ballad playbook. Frederiksen was partly responsible for this. He co-wrote the band’s Grammy-winning single “Jaded” in 2001 with Tyler and in the doc, says that song inspired his work on Underwood’s 2009 breakout hit “Undo It,” among others. Underwood would return the favor with the country-tinged duet “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” on Aerosmith’s most recent record. “[Steven Tyler] affected Nashville,” Frederiksen says.
3. Slash claims Tyler isn’t the exhibitionist he’s painted out to be.
“[Steven Tyler] is a humble guy,” said Slash. “He’s not in your face all the time.” The Guns N’ Roses guitarist recalls a moment backstage with Tyler when the singer refused to even touch certain instruments (like a harp) out of deference to Stevie Wonder, who was also in the room. Slash says Tyler approached the country-music community in Nashville with the same sense of veneration.
4. Before “country Tyler,” Aerosmith was falling apart.
“I wish [Tyler] was having fun in Aerosmith,” says Frederiksen, sitting in the pews of the Ryman Auditorium. “It was hard to be with [Aerosmith] sometimes and I think [Tyler] would agree.” The songwriter says that, for Tyler, touring with Aerosmith was tantamount to “40 years of [putting up with] bullshit.” Slash, speaking from experience, calls Tyler’s solo work a “great outlet” that, in a way, “helped Aerosmith stay together, instead of [Tyler] feeling like he was being pigeonholed.” The Loving Mary Band became the surrogate musical family Tyler was searching for. “Three guys, three girls – these kids are going to give him that ‘gang’ feel he wasn’t getting with Aerosmith,” says Barlowe. “Aerosmith left such an indelible mark on the world – sometimes being in a band [for 40 years] you need to do that,” says Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo.
5. Steven Tyler solo songs could’ve been Aerosmith hits
Out of the many rockers who have “gone country” – from the Rolling Stones to Neil Young, Robert Plant, Bon Jovi, Kid Rock, Cyndi Lauper and Lionel Richie – Steven Tyler is the one of the few to maintain that the shift was a return to form. It’s a controversial line to feed Aerosmith’s hard rock purists, but it’s an accurate one. In the documentary, Tyler brings up the same chief influences he’s had all along (from the Everly Brothers to Janis Joplin) and performs early Aerosmith songs, like the covers of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rattlesnake Shake” and R&B classic “Train Kept a-Rollin,'” which underline the similarities of his two bands’ styles more than the differences. Tyler and the Loving Mary Band mostly perform Aero-hits, everything from random cuts like “I’m Down” to “Dream On.” The smattering of solo songs they pplay sound like latter-day Aerosmith: “Only Heaven” could be the sequel to “Angel,” while “We’re All Somebody From Somewhere” sounds like a caricature of “Hangman Jury.”
Save for the errant violin solo and Tyler spouting Southern-isms like “I don’t care what your mama told you ’bout me” into the bridge of “What It Takes,” Nashville Tyler is just Boston Tyler without the other four guys. As guitarist Nathan Barlowe points out in the documentary, Tyler’s solo songs would fit snugly in the ‘smith catalog, because they were all co-written and performed by a bunch of Nashville musicians and songwriters who grew up studying Aerosmith. “We’re all huge fans,” Barlowe says with a smile. In that sense, going country was, in a circuitous way, just another expression of Tyler’s long, fervent obsession with his own band.