On the Beat

William Tyler’s gorgeous ‘Modern Country’ album started with fear

William Tyler’s new album “Modern Country” grew out of his backroads travels through the forgotten, off-the-interstate quadrants of America.
William Tyler’s new album “Modern Country” grew out of his backroads travels through the forgotten, off-the-interstate quadrants of America.

Guitarist William Tyler’s new album, “Modern Country” (Merge Records), is a collection of instrumental music with no lyrics. But if you ask him about inspirations for it, Tyler cites some unusually wordy reference points – most notably books like “The Unwinding,” George Packer’s 2013 account of American decline; William Least Heat-Moon’s 1999 back-road travelogue “Blue Highways”; and “The Journals of Albion Moonlight,” poet Kenneth Patchen’s post-World War II portrait of disaffection.

But perhaps the most influential element of all was what “Modern Country” started with: fear.

Three years ago, Tyler had just started touring for his 2013 album “Impossible Truth,” when he suddenly developed a phobia of traveling by interstate highway. So he started avoiding interstates in favor of back roads, driving through forgotten and dying small towns bypassed by the interstates. Between the scenery and Tyler’s reading list, an idea began to take hold.

“Touring like that was acquiescing to anxiety, which is not a good thing,” Tyler said by phone from his home in Nashville. “But it became like a game or a goal, and I realized some things. In some ways, the way we live now is great for a traveler. If you need coffee, well, you can find a Starbucks anywhere. But things are falling apart everywhere. There’s this crumbling infrastructure of America from the pre-Eisenhower interstate era, and it’s like a living museum that’s still there.

“I think there’s a general level of disaffected disgust with the establishment, which has been very clear this election cycle,” he added. “Everybody seems to be nostalgic, but for wildly different things. Everyone wants to ‘Make America Great Again,’ but Donald Trump has a very different idea of what that means than I do.”

“Modern Country” is the result of all this rumination, seven gorgeous instrumentals of Tyler’s finger-picked guitar powered by percolating rhythms from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Working with co-producer Brad Cook (from Megafaun and Hiss Golden Messenger), Tyler envelopes his guitar twang in Eurocentric rhythms to evoke, in his words, “both universes, hillbilly truckers and synth-soaked Teutons.”

“‘Kraut rock’ is good driving music, and those guys knew it when they were making it,” Tyler said. “Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ is very literal.”

The opening track, “Highway Anxiety,” came from Tyler’s initial vertiginous feelings about interstates. “Albion Moonlight” is an attempt to transpose the feelings of Patchen’s narrative poem from verse to music. “The Great Unwind” tries to do the same with Packer’s book. And other songs have hints of what guitarists like Ry Cooder, John Fahey or Richard Thompson might sound like with more of an electronic European pulse.

“Richard Thompson is like Prince,” Tyler said. “I’ll never be THAT, but I do what I can. The word ‘virtuoso’ gets thrown around way too much. It used to mean something – Jerry Garcia, Prince, Stevie Wonder. And Richard Thompson sets the bar about as high as anyone can set it.”

As always, Tyler’s compositional process involved a lot of solitary time with a guitar in his hands, fishing for tunes.

“I have to start playing aimlessly, and something will come,” he said. “It’s rare for me to hear a melody in my head that becomes a composition. Most of the time, it comes from me playing around in alternate tunings, where the voicings can give birth to different ideas. When I can hear it, it’s like visualizing a shot you want to make, and I might have to play that lick for an hour to get it down. Finger-style guitar is like drums, doing different patterns with your thumb and fingers, and repetition is key. I record pretty much everything, 90 percent of which I’d never want anyone else to hear. Nobody is dying to hear my basement tapes, believe me!”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi


Who: William Tyler, Jake Xerxes Fussell

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Duke University, 420 Anderson St., Durham

Cost: $10 ($5 Duke students and employees, 12 and under free)

Info: 919-684-4444 or dukeperformances.duke.edu