Songs We Love: Cale Tyson, 'Somebody Save Me'
We don't tend to give much thought to how aesthetic choices shape the sounds and self-presentations of artists working in the country tradition. Countrified musicians strike us as guileless and natural, as though they're simply living out their cultural and musical birthrights. It's easier to wrap our heads around the flaunted elasticity of pop performers, who always seem to be fashioning and refashioning themselves into timely, new incarnations.
None of those notions really applies to Cale Tyson, a singer-songwriter who's made a mark on Nashville's youthful indie country scene over the last half-decade. Despite growing up in Fort Worth, Texas — home to a honky-tonk that bills itself as — Tyson nursed an adolescent distaste for country music and played in screamo bands, only beginning to change his mind about the aesthetic appeal of twang when he, like countless other indie kids, fell under the spell of Bright Eyes' steel-guitar-laced, bohemian emotionalism.
After transferring to a college in Nashville, Tyson took up vintage, tear-in-your-beer honky-tonk records as a template for his first couple of solo projects, posing with a cowboy hat perched on his head or lying on the table next to him in the cover photos. It was compelling, melancholy stuff, but he didn't necessarily feel that it captured his core artistic identity. His forthcoming, Muscle Shoals-recorded album Careless Soul, which features the horn-accented, hangdog country-soul ballad "Somebody Save Me," points toward new stylistic and songwriting possibilities, and he tells NPR that his muse is already beginning to lead him down other paths.
I read that you grew up playing in punk and metal bands in Fort Worth, then turned to acoustic music in college. And over the last several years, you've been immersed in the indie country singer-songwriter scene; that's where you've found band members, collaborators and gigs. How have the aesthetic values of that scene shaped you?
Like you said, at the start of high school, I was doing the metal bands, punk bands. It was, like, emo/screamo. Then I think what pushed me into acoustic more was I started listening to Bright Eyes. I got so into Conor Oberst's songwriting, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I was like, "I wanna try writing songs." I moved here with no intention of playing country at all.
That's worth pointing out, given that people probably assume you came up on country in Texas.
Yeah. Honestly the only time I listened to country music when I was a kid was when I was in the car with my parents. Even then I was like, "This sucks. I'm never gonna listen to this." Of course, I was rebelling against anything my dad would tell me was good.
Anyway, I moved here and an emo band came in from Boston and played a house show at my house, and they had a pedal steel player [Brett Resnick]. I got to talking to the guy and he was like, "Yeah man, I'm planning on moving to Nashville next month, so if you ever wanna play music together, lemme know."
Didn't you place a Craigslist ad for a steel player?
Whenever he moved to town, he hit me up on Craigslist and didn't realize it was me. It's funny because his introduction to the pedal steel was the old Bright Eyes recordings with Mike Mogis playing steel. We had the same background. He started playing with me and he was like, "Dude, what you're doing is country music, and this stuff is good." I remember he burned me a CD that had a bunch of Ray Price songs on it, and Merle Haggard. I was like, "Man, these are actually really good songs."
At the time, I was going through my first bad breakup, so the songs were really hitting me hard. That's when I decided, "I'm gonna try to replicate this sound." It was purely emulation. If you listen to that first EP [Cheater's Wine], it's basically just, "How close can I get to those old sounds?"
Who were you doing impressions of?
I think it was very much a Ray Price sound. I went after that pretty hard. And Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, stuff like that. At the time I was dating this girl named Kelsey Waldon. I'm sure you know about her. She's big in the scene. She was super into country music, so as I was dating her, I was going deeper and deeper into country, filling my brain with all the knowledge I could.
Learning from her record collection?
Oh, absolutely. So we formed this community. I don't know if the first Sturgill Simpson album [High Top Mountain] was out yet, but if it was, we hadn't heard it. And it felt like we were doing something unique. You could go down on Broadway to the bars and see people doing classic country, but there weren't a lot of people that were our age [doing it]. I was 19, 20 years old.
There hadn't been a young scene like that since bands like the WPA Ballclub and BR549 showed up in Nashville in the early '90s.
Yeah. I was good friends with the guy named Carter Brollier who worked at [the dive bar] Santa's Pub. He was like, "Hey, man I want to get this thing going every Sunday night where we do classic country cover songs." And I seriously knew maybe four covers.
I was fronting the band every Sunday there, and we were playing for absolutely nobody. When we first started doing it, we played for two hours and we played the same set twice, just because that's how many songs I knew. Then it evolved into this huge notebook of traditional songs that we learned. Now I'll go play at Acme Feed and Seed for three hours straight and have that much material.
Covers aren't your bread and butter. One way that artists sometimes try to reinvent themselves is by making a pilgrimage to an iconic recording site. You did your first EPs here in Nashville, which is definitely known for its recording history, then you trekked to Muscle Shoals, another storied recording site, to make your new country-soul album. What'd you think that being in that space, surrounded by that mythology, would do for you?
I didn't want to make another classic country record, based on just emulating that same sound. So I got a producer on board named Michael Rinne, and he was like, "What kind of sound do you want to make? What are you listening to?" And I was listening to a lot of late '70s country stuff. It was country, but it also had strings and horns. We were trying to figure out where we were going to do it, and he was like, "Let's just go to FAME and do it there." I was like, "Yeah, right. Like we're going to be able to do that." But it's actually pretty inexpensive. We went down there and spent five days and took a bunch of people from Nashville. The only person that wasn't from Nashville was [legendary Swampers bassist] David Hood. It was awesome. The room was incredible. It was a great experience.
In the notes you wrote to accompany the songs, you specify which are autobiographical and which aren't. That wasn't something I thought about at all when I listened to the album. What struck me was the untrustworthy characters you're inhabiting in the songs. "Somebody Save Me" is a good example. The guy in that song is the epitome of the weak-willed cad, insisting that he can't help himself when he's faced with temptation.
I'd written all these songs in the past that were about how heartbroken my character was. The funny thing about that song was that in previous relationships in my life, I'd been the most insecure, jealous person of all time. So writing that song was like, "What if I was on the other side of this, and I wasn't the jealous one but the one in the hot seat?"
You sing it like you don't think you're smooth enough to get away with it. How does that play into putting those characters across?
Definitely it was method acting. But also, I don't try to hide my insecurity at all. I'm a very insecure person. So sometimes when I'm singing, I can definitely bring that out.
Also, this record was the first time I actually sang in my vocal register. Everything I've done before was like, "I'll write in this key so that when I play it live I can just yell it the whole time." "Somebody Save Me" was one of the first songs I'd ever written that was like, "Oh, this is where my voice sits. I'm a baritone."
I've heard you talk about being influenced by Mel Street. He was definitely known for cheating songs. He elevated them to an almost reverential level.
He and Gary Stewart, I think, were the ultimate cheating songwriters of all time. You could listen to it and hear the pain in their voice.
Pain and pleasure, too. That's the thing.
Well, we're talking about banking on the pain. Brett, my pedal steel player, played me Mel Street for the first time — I don't even remember how I heard about Gary Stewart, but the first song of his I heard was "She's Acting Single, I'm Drinking Double." That song is incredible.
It's really weird because now I'm talking about this record, and it's almost two years old now. My EPs were this traditional country emulation, and then this Muscle Shoals thing was, "All right, we're gonna try to take it in a different direction and put a little more modern spin on it." And now what I'm finding is that I'm actually kinda going back to the indie-folk stuff that I grew up on, that I truly connected with first.
That's what you're writing now?
That's what I'm writing now. When we play shows, we're doing primarily songs from Careless Soul, but my live band right now, not one of them is a country musician. With this band, we're able to put a spin on the songs so that they sound a little bit more modern, a little bit more like what I'm writing now. I'm not touring with a pedal steel player anymore, and I'm not touring with a hotshot guitarist.
So you're essentially doing indie-folk interpretations of your own material.
Exactly. I want to evolve and I don't want to stay in the pigeonhole of "This is Cale Tyson, outlaw country artist." Because I'm not an outlaw country artist at all. I love country music. I have a deep appreciation for it. But sometimes it's hilarious to me when I meet fans who are like "Yeah man, you're bringing it back! Tell me about the ranch you grew up on and the truck you drive."
It makes sense for a musician your age with your tastes to look at Bright Eyes as a touchstone. That music hit you in the right way at the right time.
Right. I'm just terrified of putting out [an album] and everyone being like, "What the hell are you doing?" It's definitely been a little bit of an internal struggle of, "Do I need to do something that's gonna be right for my career or do I need to do something that feels right to me?" Obviously to do what you want is the whole reason to play music. If I wanted to do something for someone else, I would've become a lawyer like my dad told me to.
I think the hat is retired. In no way am I going away from wearing a hat or going away from this whole country movement because I have spite or anything like that. To me, it was just kinda like I know who I am and I know what I want to do and I want to continue to go in a direction that feels natural to me. I'm in my 20s. I feel like every year I change a lot, you know?
Careless Soul comes out July 14 via At Last Records.
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