Guitar virtuoso, composer, and producer William Tyler and his band, The Impossible Truth, recently played to a packed house at DC’s Songbyrd Music House. Their music, wholly instrumental, was some of the most beautiful I’ve heard at a live show in some time, as well as some of the most unique.
A second-generation musician born and raised in Nashville, William is the son of Dan Tyler, a noted songwriter whose compositions were recorded by LeAnn Rimes, The Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, The Oak Ridge Boys, and others. Before setting out on his own, Tyler established his reputation as an ace player, working with a variety of artists ranging from traditional country artist Charlie Louvin to alt-country luminaries like the Silver Jews, Wooden Wand, and Lambchop to R&B stalwart Candi Staton. He also released two albums as a member of the band The Paper Hats, Come and See, in 2004, and Desert Canyon, in 2008.
After graduating from the University School of Nashvile in 1998, Tyler’s career took off when he was approached by Kurt Wagner (the musician, not the purple teleporting mutant who was a longtime member of the X-Men) to play organ in Wagner’s band, Lambchop. As Tyler tells it, he ended up playing guitar, because he “couldn’t really play” the organ. His first recorded solo work, the track “Between Radnor and Sunrise,” appeared in 2010 on the Tompkins Square compilation Imaginational Anthems, vol. 4. Later that year, he released his debut solo album, Behold The Spirit, and was well-received. His sophomore LP, The Impossible Truth, came out in 2013. He began a working relationship the Americana-oriented jam band Hiss Golden Messenger, opening for them and playing on their albums Haw and Lateness of Dancers. In 2015, he produced the debut album of likeminded folk artist and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell.
Stream Secret Stratosphere by William Tyler & The Impossible Truth on Spotify:
In 2016, the appropriately titled Moden Country was released to widespread acclaim. Tyler relocated to Los Angeles to make his next album, 2019’s Goes West, on which he played only acoustic guitar. He moved into film, scoring First Cow, a spare effort with just William playing guitar, banjo, dulcimer and other instruments. Music From First Cow appeared in March of 2020, but Tyler wasn’t done for the year: He later released an album of solo electric guitar, New Vanitas. A collection of duets with fellow guitar innovator Marisa Anderson, Lost Futures, came out the following year. Tyler released his most recent album, the live record Secret Stratosphere, a document of a May 2021 performance in Hunstville, Alabama, last year.
Tyler’s music has roots in his background in folk and country, but is far more expansive and experimental. In addition to mainstream sounds in those genres, he also draws from the American Primitve tradition of guitarists like John Fahey, the world music fusion of Robbie Basho, and the blues fingerpicking style of Mississippi John Hurt and Jorma Kaukonnen. Tyler’s music even stretches to include influences from across the Atlantic in British acoustic guitar giants like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch, and Jon Renbourn. When it comes to his electric guitar work, there are traces of players like Richard Thompson and even Jimmy Page, albeit with much less bombasticity.
At Songbyrd Music House on Jan. 30, William’s guitar playing was the clear highlight of this show, but his backing band did excellent work to support him. Tyler didn’t say much, except to mention that this was his first trip back to DC since the pandemic. He expressed his love for the city, and not in a “Paul Stanley way” which involves putting over DC while running down Philadelphia. “I fall asleep to C-SPAN every night,” he told the audience. (On Twitter, I asked him if he watches Book TV, many of the episodes of which are recorded at the Library of Congress’s annual National Book Festival, always one of the highlights hts of my year. “Religiously,” he replied.)
Before Tyler and his band took the stage, local rockers Miss Monster played an opening set. They were an interesting choice, as they play a different sort of music from William — an updated take on classic rock — but it also felt like a natural complement. They played “Wrong Kind,” wihch they mentioned will be on Spotify in a couple months, and “Holocene,” which is “about relationships [and] global warming.” After their set, I asked them about their favorite monsters. One member of the band pointed to the T-rex on their t-shirt, while their lead singer said her favorite monster is mermaids, specificying the “siren kind,” who eat people.
This was a different show from most of what I see and review, and it was a welcome change. It’s really exciting to see how Tyler is pushing forward the possibilities in the guitar.