It may come as a surprise to many of you that, for all the prattling I do about lyrics, the music I listen to most (percentage wise, anyway) is instrumental. Since I spend a good portion of my day writing, I’ve always found that having a worded tune playing while doing so was somewhat akin to attempting to read the paper with books-on-tape piped into your headphones: way too much a battle of headspace. It is not uncommon to find me laying belly-down on the floor, away from my computer screen, jotting down notes on whatever my subject is while I pipe it through the radio. The most multitasking I can handle then would probably be eating a stick of string cheese, and even so, I’d probably do it recklessly and without separating the actual strings. (This is a crime, I hear, particularly if you ask a pre-schooler).
That is not to say I find instrumental music to be background or elevator worthy – that couldn’t be further from the truth. I find it enriching and stimulating in ways that songs with lyrics sometimes never touch, pushing my brain in some odd way to be more productive, creative. A song that says something without words can have the utmost power.
In college, I blasted Sex Mob, John Zorn and Medeski, Martin and Wood rather regularly (to my roommate’s disgust, mind you: she liked Lou Vega) as an accompaniment to my papers on Adorno or Marx or Kerouac (or, sigh, sets of political theory equations). Since then, all those records with the addition of other modern jazz greats like Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran and Ken Vandermark are likely my most-spun LP’s (though I like the old guard too: as I compose this paragraph, “I Mean You” by Thelonious Monk plays loud).
One of my favorite nights out in Old New York was to go to Tonic, a small club on the Lower East Side known for experimental (often instrumental) music as well as faulty plumbing. It’s since closed and become – what else – part of a luxury mid-rise condo building, but I saw some of my favorite performances there, hands-down. You realize quickly that lyrics are powerful, but they are not always a necessary condition to excellent songs – and this is not limited to jazz or classical by any means (“Watermelon in Easter Hay” by Frank Zappa, “5-4=Unity” by Pavement or “Bonzo’s Montreux” by Led Zepplin, for example, though I was never one for Explosions in the Sky).
It had been ages since I’d added an instrumental record to my collection (by someone not long-dead anyhow), until I heard William Tyler – specifically his latest offering, Impossible Truth, which is so lyrical without words that I’ve had to stop playing it while I work (as you likely know, Tyler is also co-owner of The Stone Fox). While it does inspire me creatively, I often just end up dipping my head back to rest on the arches of my shoulders and listening, letting tracks like “The Geography of Nowhere” transport me. It makes me want to paint again rather than write, to explore other ways of expression without my daily confines of prose. I suppose my mailman might be rather shocked one day when he sees me sprawled out on the dining room floor with a set of watercolors, piddling about. He won’t know it, but Tyler’s LP would be the soundtrack. (Damn East Nashville houses and their glass doors. You make it so hard to indulge myself).
What holds together the record are the places he is able to go with the 6 and 12 string – so for his Nashville Five, we had Tyler count down, in no particular order, some of his favorite local guitar heroes.
By William Tyler
As someone who has spent the better part of my adult life so far as a guitar player, I have to keep a sense of humor and humility about the whole thing. Nashville is truly “guitar town” and I would argue that there are a higher concentration of great guitarists here than any other place in the world. Living here as a guitar player keeps you humble, honest, and totally inspired. I feel unbelievably lucky to have carved out even a miniscule patch of real estate as a picker, but what I truly love most about this town musically is the opportunity to see and hang out with some of the best and most imaginative players anywhere. Here are a few of my favorites.
1. Kenny Vaughan: I have witnessed some pretty staggering guitar players in my life: Richard Thompson, Sir Richard Bishop, Nels Cline….but Kenny might be the best guitar player I have ever seen. When I was 16, my parents would sneak me into places like 12th and Porter to see Kenny play with RB Morris, John Keaney, and a good number of other local singer songwriters. But no offense to anyone, I went to see Kenny play guitar. He forces you to reimagine the possibilities of the instrument, and not because he’s playing it in a completely original way like Bill Orcutt, but because his technique and his taste are just that great. He finds notes that are unexpected without being dissonant, he ‘shreds’ enough to dazzle but like any refined Nashville picker, he knows when to hold back and follow the melody of the song. I have never seen anyone who can be Chet Atkins, Richard Thompson, and Steve Cropper, all in the case of one guitar solo. Lately Kenny has been an integral part of Marty Stuart’s band but he plays regular gigs all around Nashville with aces dudes like Derek Hoke, Chris Scruggs, and his own trio. Going to see Kenny play guitar at a club should rank up there with ‘drunkenly eating hot chicken’ as a must-do while visiting this city.
2. George Bradfute: I became aware of George’s playing as a teenager when he was part of Webb Wilder’s band. Later, I got to play with George in Paul Burch’s group from time to time. He was the first ‘older’ musician I started hanging out with once I graduated high school. He had a home studio in East Nashville and successfully booked my high school band Lifeboy at one of our first gigs at the sadly long gone Radio Café. Later, he recorded and co-produced our album. George is a sonic wizard, not just as a guitar player, but as an engineer, instrument maker, all around guru. He turned me on to Cliff Bars, Gentle Giant, Polvo, and Spade Cooley, all in the course of one afternoon when I was 18 hanging at his house. As a guitarist, I have seen him tackle blues, rockabilly, hillbilly, Hendrix style psych, Jim Hall jazz, pretty much anything. I would LOVE to see him in a guitar duel with Kenny. Actually, that’s probably happened at some point.
3. Joe Pisapia: Joe is another guitarist that I got to be friends with right out of high school and he has remained a huge mentor and influence. We used to go see his band Joe, Marc’s Brother any chance we got, and there were always so many ‘wow’ guitar moments with Joe, people would be talking about them days later. His style is almost unclassifiable because it is so original. Some of his solos would almost be like NRBQ’s Al Anderson morphing into Dave Gilmour and then Ira Kaplan at his most visceral. He was the first dude I saw playing ‘lead’ guitar that I really wanted to emulate. I mean, he wasn’t just copying Hendrix, Allman, and Van Halen moves. He was inventing his own style, sometimes on the spot. In recent years, Joe has been doing a lot more producing and sideman work, notably with KD Lang. He is one of Nashville’s true great spirits and an insanely gifted musician.
4. Buddy Miller: I don’t know Buddy super well but I am huge fan, both of his playing, and his aesthetic. It’s not hard to see why he has been so called on by an increasing number of luminaries to be ‘their’ guitar player or producer. His style is pure class, sometimes coming out of the swamp, sometimes shimmering in the ether, always rooted in melody and sympathetic to the arrangement. He’s got the kind of guitar hero moves a dude like me wants to strive for.
5. Sean Thompson: One of the things I love about living in Nashville is watching younger musicians come up and keep the torch raised so to speak. I met Sean when he was probably barely out of high school, and shredding his brains out with Pujol. It was like going to see the Yardbirds, never having heard that Jeff Beck was in the band, and then being like…’woah that dude can play.’ I have loved watching Sean grow and evolve as a player, especially now in the context of his band Promised Land Sound (who I have had some involvement with, to be totally fair). The dude knows his moves, his Clarence White moves, his Fogerty moves, his Ron Wood moves. He makes me wish I could go back in time and practice a lot more when I was his age. Anyway, no worries, the future is safe with guys like him leading the way.