William Tyler takes the stage at the Trumpet Blossom Café, a vegan restaurant and bar in Iowa City. Surrounded by effects pedals for his guitar, he wears jeans and black cowboy boots, and his fingernails are about an inch long.
"I'm glad that we already had an amazing singer tonight, because I will not be singing at all," he tells the crowd.
Tyler is a young guitarist who, like the late Jack Rose, has come from the world of rock to the old sound of finger-picked acoustic guitar that's been dubbed "American Primitive." In doing so, Tyler has managed to come up with his own sound blending the two. He's in the midst of a tour supporting his second record, Impossible Truth.
While his songs lack lyrics, they're not short on backstory. He'll set them up with discourses on dead languages, lost books and traveling the world alone. And that's how Tyler prefers it — he says he'd rather talk about his music than sing it.
"I'd rather write an artist statement about the music than try to write words to it," he says. "Maybe that's just truly pretentious, but that just seems to speak true to me. And maybe what I'm trying to get across works better in this context."
But it took Tyler a long time to feel confident creating music on his own. He's from Nashville, Tenn. His father, Dan, is a songwriter on Music Row who wrote hits for Eddie Rabbitt and The Oak Ridge Boys. As a teen, William Tyler played in bands but always wanted to be a history professor. That changed when he was 19 and got recruited to play in the Nashville band Lambchop. Lambchop's lead singer and driving force, Kurt Wagner, says Tyler eventually became the architect of the band's sound.
"His contributions became more and more significant; it was almost like he was a cabin boy or something in a ship full of pirates," Wagner says. "As time would go on, he would sort of rise in the ranks to ensign, and on to commanding his own ship."
Tyler was 20 years younger than the other Lambchop guys. He says he figured he'd missed his opportunity to make his own music, so he stopped writing and fell into the role of sideman, backing up The Silver Jews, Charlie Louvin and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. It was during this time that he fell in love with the language of the solo guitar and started creating music privately. Eventually, he got up the courage to record some of it.
"I paid for it myself and did it in a studio after-hours, when we could book time without anybody knowing that we were there," Tyler says. "I just decided, 'OK, let's see. Let's see if somebody wants to put this out.' "
Somebody did. His first album, Behold the Spirit, was released in 2010 on the folk-centric label Tompkins Square and received glowing reviews. Lambchop's Wagner says Tyler deserves it.
"I used to go to every show he'd do — just any little house show or whatever," Wagner says. "I've certainly seen it grow, as far as recordings go, and to become much more ambitious and fuller."
Tyler says he knows he'll never get rich playing this kind of music. He follows a long line of impoverished instrumentalists stretching back to the legendary John Fahey. He just hopes people will make the effort to listen to what he has to say through his guitar.
At the Iowa City show, fans Katie Ferring and Garret Hohmann did.
"Sometimes, you go to see a solo performer and you think you're going to be bored," Ferring says. "But he has something that pulls you into him."
"Yeah, his guitar playing is engaging consistently — there's not a whole lot of dull moments in it," Hohmann adds. "And the times that he does slow down, you feel like you're paying more attention to the slower moments."
That's what William Tyler is after.
"I'm trying to say, 'Hey, people, that's where all our trouble and anxiety are,' " Tyler says. "If we focused on what was going on right this second, life would be much more rich and rewarding."
He reminds himself of that every day as he travels the world, out on his own, with his three guitars.