It’s difficult to garner unique praise as a solo folk guitarist in this day and age. Not only is there the ever-present challenge of delivering fresh, compelling wordless narratives over the course of an album, but also there are the endless inevitable—and sometimes particularly lazy—comparisons attached to even the most accomplished and distinctive work. The unfathomably robust shadow cast by guitarist demigod John Fahey still looms large over the contemporary folk community. The revival of American primitivism in the post-Fahey landscape over the last 10 years, beginning with luminaries such as the late, great Jack Rose, has continued with a new class of remarkably gifted and prolific solo performers like James Blackshaw and Daniel Bachman. For these artists, shedding the oft-used label of “Fahey disciple” will always prove difficult. Nashville’s William Tyler is one such artist, a musician who would readily acknowledge the inescapable influence of Fahey but insist that he has his own unique story to tell with his guitar and his profuse imagination.
Tyler is a relative newcomer to the folk scene as a solo artist. After nearly 10 years playing as a multi-instrumentalist alongside country-tinged indie mainstays such as the Silver Jews, Wooden Wand, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and, most prominently, Lambchop, Tyler decided to spread his wings, and has spent the last five years establishing himself as a leading light of the most recent crop of folk revivalists. Tyler’s career had an early start. At the tender age of 19, he joined Lambchop, playing first as an organist and eventually moving to guitar. Although he quickly made a name for himself in musician circles, it took him several years to develop his distinctive method of fingerstyle guitar playing. Tyler views his early success as a collaborator as something of a double-edged sword. Though he was playing in several critically adored bands as a twenty-something, he felt that his own creativity had been stifled as the result of being a sideman. Suddenly, about 10 years into his career, Tyler had an epiphany. “If I was ever going to ‘go for it’ on my own,” Tyler says, “I had to jump into the water and swim for my life without giving it too much reflection.”
William Tyler’s first solo record, Behold the Spirit, was released in 2010 on Tompkins Square, the exuberant New York City-based boutique label that specializes in reissues of lost folk classics and ambitious compilations of old time Americana (for a surreal trip into the past, seek out People Take Warning: Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913 – 38). Tompkins Square provided the perfect platform for Tyler to introduce himself as a solo artist. His assured, fearless style of playing feels perfectly at home alongside releases from folk legends like Michael Chapman and Robbie Basho. There is, however, a sense of wonder, adventurousness, and mysticism in Tyler’s work that recalls influences outside of the realm of the usual suspects. Tyler lists the albums Torch of the Mystics by Sun City Girls and Black Woman by Sonny Sharrock as two of the touchstone albums in his life. It is no surprise that oftentimes the mood in Behold the Spirit feels untethered and otherworldly, with Tyler frequently using pedal steel guitar and violin to create free-form ambience and chimerical visions that sculpt his lush landscapes. The arrangements throughout Behold the Spirit are expertly crafted and perhaps reflect the influence of Tyler’s experience in bands renowned for exemplary songwriting.
Tyler released his second album, Impossible Truth, in 2013 on indie-powerhouse label Merge Records. It is a beautifully produced piece of work that incorporates more of a Nashville sensibility than his first effort without abandoning any of the weirdness. The first track, “Country of Illusion,” starts and ends almost like a raga, but builds in the middle to a buoyantly layered mixture of fingerstyle playing and pedal steel. The album’s centerpiece, “A Portrait of Sarah,” is one of the more straightforward folk numbers, but, like many of the great folk melodies, features an exhilarating, hold-your-breath conclusion. Though Tyler misses playing with other people, he hopes to continue releasing his own records. Impossible Truth is the kind of record that will ensure that his playing is in demand. Of his work, Tyler says, “I am trying to do something different with guitar music; I am not sure what this is yet, but everyday I am just trying to be a better player and stay pretty humble and humorous about all of it.”
CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.