William Tyler writes 'story songs' without words

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 3:55 PM

One of the main ingredients in almost all music is the conveying of emotion. William Tyler's music is no different. He simply expresses himself in a less conventional manner than most.

Tyler doesn't use words, or even his voice. He doesn't use dramatic volume swells or symphonic surges. With just a few exceptions, he uses only his fingers and an acoustic guitar. And on his recent album, "Behold the Spirit," those most basic elements create stirring, vivid and, yes, emotionally hefty songs that need no accoutrements.

"I would say it's intensely personal music, as personal as anything with words," says the 31-year-old Nashville resident. "All of the songs I've written are about people and places. And some of them are love songs. And some are about death. To me they're all story songs and are all really personal."

Current popular music is so tied to words - when was the last time you heard a song without vocals on the radio? - that it's hard to imagine instrumental music like Tyler's gaining more than a niche following anytime soon. Music is still a diversion for most - a few MP3s to listen to while jogging, cleaning, driving - and Tyler's music demands attention. "Behold the Spirit" is best enjoyed in full, as an extended meditation. His compositions are leisurely unfolding tapestries of clinical fingerpicking, from slow to speedy, with the occasional effect added for ambiance. But the songs always offer a nice return on their investment.

Tyler himself makes a compelling case for why solo acoustic music might appeal to casual listeners, not just the genre's devotees.

"Since there are no lyrics, there would be enough room for people to have their own experiences that they can take from the songs," he says. "It's universal. You don't have to get lost in the lyrics."

Tyler thinks back to an early job waiting tables at a restaurant that hosted open-mike nights and being relieved whenever someone played a wordless song. "At least this is allowing me time to have an emotion about what's happening here without somebody's words and voice dictating where the direction of the mood goes," he recalls thinking.

From a strictly technical standpoint, Tyler's talent is undeniable. He would surely stop short of calling himself a virtuoso, but it takes amazing dexterity and precision to play the way he plays, something even the most untrained ears would appreciate. It's a style he developed a decade ago, mainly influenced by such bands as Sun City Girls and Tower Recordings, which bridged the gap between more experimental approaches and the folk idiom favored by noted fingerpicker John Fahey. While honing those skills Tyler also became one of Nashville's most sought-after guitarists. He joined indie-country outcasts Lambchop, teamed up with indie-rock icons Silver Jews and even laid down tracks with country legend Charlie Louvin.

"Being in a band like Lambchop and doing session work with other musicians in the context of pretty straight-ahead country music forced me as a guitar player to evolve, because there's just so much competition," Tyler says. "You have to find your own vocabulary with the instrument, especially if you're not as technically proficient as other people."

Tyler's use of the word "vocabulary" may be accidental, but it does get back to a larger theme. Although there are no words on "Behold the Spirit," it's clear that he is saying plenty throughout. And the beauty of the experience is that each listener gets to decide what it all means.

William Tyler

Appearing with Yo La Tengo on Friday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. Doors open at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $20. 202-265-0930. www.930.com.

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