Once again, this year’s Nashville Meets London brought together a wide range of country styles. Perhaps the most eclectic was Sunday’s headliner (Dan) Tyminski, much of whose set came from his recently released album, Southern Gothic. From the record’s start to finish Tyminski wends his way through a ghost ride of songs that go eerily from dark to very dark. There seems no limit to the musical genres he uses to travel these supernatural paths. As would be expected country and his trademark bluegrass feature widely but so do pop and R&B. The effect is stunning.
Dan Tyminski is best known for his 25 years with Alison Krauss + Union Station. Bluegrass has been his passion since getting a banjo for his 13th birthday. Tyminski may have grown up in Vermont but the music he loved came from much further south; Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley. The die was cast; he formed the Lost River Band in 1988 then four years later joined Alison Krauss.
When not working with Krauss Tyminski had his own band, again bluegrass. He wrote for many artists including Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney, Leann Rimes, Aaron Lewis and Rob Thomas. He also took bluegrass to a much wider audience when he sang on the George Clooney film, ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Though?’
However, it wasn’t all bluegrass and perhaps this was the very beginning of Southern Gothic. Five years ago, he branched out into “EDM”, electronic dance music (as his daughter had to explain), when he sang on Avicii’s hit, ‘Hey Brother’. But in a period of downtime for Union Station, the person who most galvanised this self- confessed “ultimate team player” was his co-writer and producer, Jerry Frasure, who’d written for Thomas Rhett, Rascal Flatts and Florida Georgia Line among others. As Tyminski put it, “Jerry has no fear, he will try anything to create a mood or a feeling”. It was this partnership that unlocked the door to a completely new level of creativity.
Before hearing a single note, the cover of Southern Gothic sets the scene with its sepia tints and cigar smoke wafting around Tyminski’s shadowy profile. Who is this person? What is he saying? And that’s a reasonable question too because as Tyminski explains, the listener can either just “ride along” with the music, go down a level to seek the message or dig deeper still to reveal the double meanings behind those messages. That seems a very gothic introduction to an album.
The title track opens with a ghostly “woohoohoo”, a beat that speeds up the heart rate and Tyminski’s haunting voice, “Baptized in southern gothic/In the garden of good and evil” is a thumbnail note for the album. Tyminski muses a lot about opposites but not so much coming down on one side or the other but why they need each other to exist.
‘Breathing Fire’ has a big atmospheric sound but then it is about torching false prophets. Tyminski sounds like he is breaking away from his past yet the jangling banjo that never goes away reminds him he cannot abandon his roots. It’s a huge song that, played at anything beyond a modest volume, is truly scary.
‘Gone’ starts with a more R&B feel that highlights Tyminski’s voice before building up into a crescendo of loss for a departed love. The influences evolve again on ‘Temporary Love’ as Tyminski deals with the consequences of addiction to an almost doo-wop beat. The dobro in ‘Perfect Poison’ may be a link with Union Station but the lyrics and tension are far removed.
Eerie is the only way to describe ‘Devil is Downtown’. The song casts shadows at every corner, perhaps aptly, as the lyrics explore highs and lows,”But if you’re hurtin’ and you need to kill the pain/The devil is downtown”.
The darkness continues with a bleak description of how lost and empty it feels to be a victim in ‘Hollow Hallelujah’. The multi-layered backing singers seem to evoke better times but tantalisingly out of reach.
‘Good For Your Soul’ comes as a respite from all this darkness. Its cheerier beat and hopeful lyrics are magnified by a catchy riff behind the chorus. Then it’s back to the suspense with ‘Wailing Wall’. Tyminski’s imagery is a constant presence. From ‘Haunted Heart’ comes, ‘the story of a ghost of a man torn apart/he’s a bad dream in the day and a nightmare after dark”.
‘Wanted’ is perhaps the most ‘country’ song of all, Again the banjo is in the background but the work Tyminski and Frasure have done with so many big Nashville names does come out here. For a final track ‘Numb’ is well named. As well as describing the feeling of isolation, its abrupt end might also describe the listener who dug deep into the meaning of all 13 songs. But it is really a very rewarding feeling, reflecting the intensity of the whole album.
Tyminski should definitely have the last word. “I’ve always said there’s lots of room for all kinds of music out there. It’s a big world, and it’s interesting to have found a little spot in a different area.”