It clicked for me in Stockholm.
I had arrived early for the Wilco gig and standing on my own with an hour to kill I thought i would take in the support act. I had listened to his album a couple of times but it hadn’t really engaged me.
William Tyler was on stage, alone except for a few guitars, most notably a Telecaster, what looked like a Martin and a few effect pedals. He launched into the brilliantly titled “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If It Kills Me)” and the twanging circular riff immediately lodged in my mind and stretched out.
Tyler’s “Modern Country” album has been on constant rotation since then. It opens calmly with “Highway Anxiety” and immediately we are stretching out across wide American plains, layer upon layer of guitar building until a drums and keyboards join in and fade out. It doesn’t matter if it is the Holloway Road – I’ve tried it and this is perfect music to drive to.
Tyler wrote the music whilst touring around the USA and whilst it is completely instrumental, it captures the sense of loss of values that he intended to. He identified the poverty gap, especially in the south west of America, where the desert makes for a hard life in Southern California, only to arrive in nearby wealthy Palm Springs. He yearns for an America where things got made and that was a way to improve one’s lot in society.
This resonates for me – the loss of a manufacturing base in the UK and a reliance on financial services isn’t sustainable. It also feels like a missed opportunity. Not every sixteen year old kid is suited to University or working in an office or call centre. Give them something fulfilling to do with their hands and make them happier people. There’s no shame in it. The problem is exacerbated by housing crisis. Back in the fifties and sixties in the UK, working in manufacturing offered an opportunity to start your own family life in social rented accommodation and then when you had something saved, your feet on the ground, you could afford to buy somewhere off your own. The sale of council properties by the Thatcher government in the eighties without a replenishment of the housing stock and a reliance on the private sector to fill the void has failed to help the people it should do.
“Kingdom of Jones” is a gentle guitar rag is followed by the mellow slide guitar of “Albion Moonlight” and feels like a stop off by a campfire. “Gone Clear” is the closest Tyler gets to the American Primitive school of guitar playing, the initial open tuned steel strung sound of Leo Kottke and John Fahey setting the tone, before Wilco’s Glenn Kotche comes in with bells and chimes. Immediately the modern classical influence of John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass is evident.
I read a recent interview with Tyler on the Tiny Mix Tape website before the US election where he was hoping that America would make the kind of braver choice that they failed to make in 1968 after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, when they turned to Richard Nixon. Well, the lesson doesn’t appear to have been learned as we wait for President Elect Trump to take the Oval Office.
He expands on his thinking behind the LP in this trailer for it here:
The closing two tracks feel like we are back on the road again. “Sunken Feeling” is a soft early morning kind of song, pulling out of the motel and hitting the highway after a cup of coffee and breakfast.
“The Great Unwind” closes the record brilliantly. Starting with the kind of Scottish Highland melody that Richard Thompson so regularly uses, most recently on “She Never Could Resist A Winding Road”, a bagpipe like distortion (a little of the Big Country) accompanies the original melody before everything stops, pastoral bird song and the Motorik beat of Neu, Can or Kraftwerk emerges.
We are driving off into the sunset before leaving us with just Tyler’s guitar again. This isn’t the first time Tyler has brought in the Krautrock influences. He has covered tracks by Neu’s Michael Rother before on his “Lost Colony” EP, which features “Karrussel” from Rother’s first solo LP in 1977, “Flamende Herzen”.
Tyler is an interesting character. He is in late 30s and started originally playing with Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop. He has made a handful of solo albums so far but this one is the most fleshed out. He is taking the vision of those American Primitive guitarists, picking up the work of Ry Cooder and Bill Frissell and adding external influences like German 70s music to it. There are a number of American guitarists who are working alongside Frissell and Cooder to explore where the guitar can take us – people like Steve Gunn and Wilco’s own Nels Cline.
I’ve written about how I’ve listened to more instrumental music in 2016 and Tyler helps nail how I feel:
Whatever tag you want to put on it, I’m down with, because I do feel like instrumental music of a certain kind can bridge a lot of gaps, and we’re just not predisposed to embrace it the same way as pop music with words, because that’s not what I think we’re meant to respond to. It’s more deliberate, and more cerebral, perhaps. But I think it fits in just because guitar is the instrument I grew up with, and also grew up around the most, it’s just so emblematic of country music and Nashville. And I do feel like in a way I’m trying to bridge the world of somebody like Chet Atkins with the world of Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, or something.
“Modern Country” successfully does this from the title onwards. It takes a hopeful vision of a better future based on older values and moves it along.
Let’s hope that optimism is still valid in 2017, because if we don’t have hope, what do we have?