Aug 7, 2015

A Seasoned Jonathan Tyler Scores Big With Holy Smokes

Jonathan Tyler in a recent pic from his Instagram
By Kevin Broughton 

“We were playing a show in New Braunfels, at Gruene Hall.”

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Jonathan Tyler, 30, is explaining how he came to co-write a song with the legendary Ray Wylie Hubbard, in casual, oh-by-the-way fashion.

“He initiated it.”

Happens all the time. Songwriting institutions like Hubbard regularly reach out to collaborate with young bucks less than half their age...

Make no mistake, it’s a big deal to Tyler. It just doesn’t come out that
way. A music career’s worth of highs and lows crammed into five years have given him a level of perspective that’s rare -- if not unheard of -- in an artist his age.

Atlantic records signed him and his band (formerly The Northern Lights) in 2010, and the ensuing album, Pardon Me, enjoyed modest commercial success. Enough, sadly, to raise the antennae of the Nashville suits. As Tyler toured (alongside acts like the Black Crowes, ZZ Top, JJ Grey and Kid Rock) to build an audience, he was writing prolifically and sending demos to the label three or four at a time. Then, Nashville did what Nashville does.

“Politically, I guess, there was a lot of pressure when Atlantic got involved,” Tyler says. Even after the success of Pardon Me, “there still wasn’t a record that really showed who I am. I didn’t want the edges sawed off my songs.” The inevitable separation followed, and five years removed from signing with a major label, Thirty Tigers releases Holy Smokes today.

Tyler produced it himself – with engineering help from Matt Pence, formally of Centromatic – and his break from The Man appears to be a clean one. “Hallelujah [I’ve been Saved]” opens the album and plants the flag of artistic freedom and integrity on a record filled with spiritual themes.

“Like a lot of people from the South, I grew up in the church,” says the Centerpoint, Alabama native. “My grandmother played organ in a Pentecostal congregation. Music is spiritual to me because I feel connected to a higher power when I play, or even listen to certain things.”

There are several impressive aspects to the album, not least of which is the overall production value, all the more impressive since Tyler did it himself. (He self-produced his independent debut, Hot Trottin’, in 2007; “I had no idea what I was doing.”) The arrangements are tight and versatile.

But Tyler’s vocal versatility stands out the most. He wails like Chris Robinson on the opening cut. “Disappear” is reminiscent of Faces-era Rod Stewart. He can be melodic like Gram Parsons or Ryan Adams on one song, or as rough-edged as Ryan Bingham or Ben Nichols on the next.

“Think about the Stones’ Let it Bleed,” Tyler says. “They open with ‘Gimme Shelter’ then slide into ‘Love in Vain.’ Then ‘Country Honk.’ You’ve got all kinds of different songs in one album.” His wide-ranging vocal arrangements were deliberate – on a purposeful album.

“Making this record was really organic,” he says. “As a band, we figured out what we liked. The next time, whoever produces us will have a real baseline to work from.” As Tyler and his band mates gear up for a regional tour (Texas and the South, to start out), he’s eager to see the response from the loyal base of fans he’s cultivated, but also encouraged by industry current events.

The conversation takes place the very week Jason Isbell defies gravity and scores the #1 Billboard Country album. “Oh, yeah,” Tyler says, “I know all about it, I promise. I tried to tell the folks at Atlantic, ‘Times are changing. In the next few years, the good stuff is gonna be really good.’” Oddly enough, his advice fell on deaf ears at Atlantic …you know, the guys who wanted him to go see Jason Aldean’s producer.

Buoyed as he is by the success of a kindred spirit like Isbell, Tyler tries to temper expectations. His even-keeled demeanor is all the more impressive when you tick off some things he accomplished before turning 30. Played on Jimmy Kimmel Live? Check. Have a song featured on NBC’s Friday Night Lights? Been there, done that. What about HBO?

Yes, a Jonathan Tyler song found its way into an episode of Boardwalk Empire. Here, the artist briefly allows some self-indulgence – in his own laconic way. “It did feel good having Martin Scorsese pick it up. I like that guy.” Ho-hum.

Which brings us back to that run-of-the-mill encounter with Ray Wylie FREAKING Hubbard in New Braunfels. “So,” Tyler says, “I went over to his house after a show. I had a riff I’d been working on, and we kinda worked out the first verse.”

Only when Hubbard followed up did things start to sink in with the prodigy. “About a week later, he sent me four more verses,” he says. “I said, ‘Fuck, I can’t change these!’” The finished product is “My Time Ain’t Long,” a psychedelic/gospel number that’s one of two true gems on an album without a mediocre cut.

Lane with Tyler
The other, coincidentally, is also a collaboration. “To Love is To Fly,” a duet with Nikki Lane, is a delicious, dangerous ode to toxic love and dysfunctional relationships. “I had these ideas and some lyrics, and I was thinking, ‘who could sing this?’ Nikki is friends with my bassist’s wife, so we reached out,” he says. “She has the perfect personality for it.” Indeed, who but the “Queen of Outlaw Country” could harmonize, “I’ll wreck your car, throw your keys in the river. I’ll break your heart, but I’ll love you forever?” It burns, like Tyler’s understated passion for what he does.

“I’m a huge music fan. It needs to mean something. I want it to mean something,” he says. “And even with all our success, the band is still working day jobs. It costs a lot to do this, but we’re gonna do it. We hope we can build an audience in the process.”

Touring will be different without a big label behind him, to be sure. “I’m not worried,” he says. “My mind may tell me to worry, but I’ve learned to ignore it.”

Sound self-analysis, from a thoughtful, serious, passionate young man who just made one of the best albums of the year.


Holy Smokes is available on Tyler's website, iTunes, Amazon, and all other usual venues, including Spotify.

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