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Guitarist William Tyler on Randy Travis, Cadillac Deserts and the Power of Nostalgia

23 Jul 2013

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William Tyler
with $3.33
8pm | August 6, 2013
Highland Annex, Marfa, Texas
$5 at the door

Listen to Marfa Public Radio’s Talk at Ten radio interview with William Tyler on Tuesday, August 6, at 10 am on KRTS 93.5 FM or via their online stream.

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In the early ‘60s a number of Western musicians began turning on to the mesmerizing sound of Indian ragas. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin are the most widely-known of these dilettantes, while composers like Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Simone Forti and Catherine Christer Hennix went all in, bringing transcendent drone concepts to the West as disciples of the luminous Hindustani singer and teacher Pandit Pran Nath. Likewise, sitarist Ravi Shankar found a new constituency among Western hippies, while Brij Bhushan Kabra started playing traditional ragas on guitar for Indian classical audiences.

We find Henry Flynt — self-described “cognitive nihilist,” visual artist and polymathic agent of cultural disruption — in between these two pop and avant-garde camps of early adapters. Flynt had the instinct to blend Hindu and hillbilly aesthetics, flawlessly merging the holy music of India with Western religious music, Southern blues traditions and porchfront finger-picking from Appalachian hollers. The result was the genesis of a new transnational folk music as the hypnotic structures of Indian devotional jams began a 40-year transmutation through guitars, banjos, fiddles, ouds, effects pedals and home-wired electronics by Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho, Peter Walker, John Fahey, Bert Jansch, Daniel Higgs, Jack Rose, Ben Chasny and their cohort.

Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler is a practitioner of such mystical music, and proof that these sounds are still a living, evolving tradition. Tyler’s reputation is well-known outside of his own music: his playing can be heard on records from Will Oldham, Lambchop, The Silver Jews and Charlie Louvin. But it’s on the albums under his own name where he stakes his claim as a member of the illustrious traditions outlined above.

His 2013 album, Impossible Truth, exists as part of this lineage, but avoids the trap of static revival by adding dimensions to the sound that are all his own. In particular he attributes the album’s origin to readings about Southern California, its relationship to apocalypse and ecological disaster as illustrated in Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear, and the self-involved social dynamics of the Laurel Canyon scene explored in Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California. He desribes the resulting LP as his “’70s singer-songwriter record; it just doesn’t have any words.”

Marfa-based musician Celia Hollander will be opening for Tyler in her $3:33 guise. Hollander makes electronic compositions that range from meditative pieces for keyboard and treated voice to collaged battle raps from underground YouTube MCs. Her music shares a similar openness to aesthetic cross-breeding, a sound born as much from the ominous heavy-lidded hip-hop of Three Six Mafia as the pastoral digital abstractions of Asa Chang & Junray.

We talked with Tyler earlier this month about his impending visit to Marfa, the visual art that inspires his music and the “Randy Travis Rule” for analyzing the unfolding sense of nostalgia in relation to popular music.

Why did you choose to come to Marfa?

I have been fascinated with Marfa for a while. I used to have a record label that focused on reissues called Sebastian Speaks and one of the artists I worked with was Collie Ryan. She is an incredible painter and singer who self-released some albums in the ‘70s, very astral sounding folk in the Baez/Buffy Sainte-Marie orbit. Collie lives near Terlingua and that got me interested in the region and its history. And then finding out more about the nature of the arts community that resides there and its very remoteness, it all just seemed like an amazing anomaly that I can’t wait to visit for the first time.