William Tyler spends some time amongst the ghosts of the Deep South.
Nearly two hundred years ago, a bunch of disaffected and dishonoured guys from Tennessee like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett went west to Texas to reinvent themselves and create new myths. Some of them were in marital or financial trouble. Some got kicked out of congress. A few of them died at the Alamo. Either way, there is something grandiose and self-mythologizing inherent in the mentality of the Lone Star State. Maybe it’s the outlaws and miscreants that founded the place. Maybe it’s just the nature of the land. The long unforgiving plains, the skies that mock with blistering sun or comfort with a canopy of stars. Everything in Texas is outsized, from the oil wealth to the sprawling interstates. And nothing is more outsized than the music festival held annually in Austin known as South By Southwest.
I don’t feel like I need to indulge the doubtfully unaware with the context for South By Southwest. Suffice to say it’s a grand holiday for people in the music business, and something approaching boot camp for the actual bands that provide the ‘art’. It’s a sensory overload of ten different drum sets and fifteen guitar amps echoing against the pavement at once, two thousand people drinking beer in the street, 4000 tortilla chips being simultaneously crunched into, and six thousand musicians simultaneously delirious from fatigue and still partying. And that’s pretty much happening all across the city for days.
As someone whose general idea of an ‘overpowering crowd’ is usually something like a dinner party with more than ten people, I had not been eager to go back into the belly of the beast but was gently persuaded this time around by my label and the prospect of playing a round of shows on the way to Texas with my dear friends (and label mates) Mount Moriah. It offered me a chance to revisit some old ghosts along the way, snaking my way with a car full of guitars through the back roads of the Deep South, a land I have always had a skewed relationship with.
Both sides of my family are from Mississippi, and though I was born and raised in Nashville, a multitude of my formative memories are of returning to Mississippi for various family reunions and holidays. It’s not the specific occasions I remember the most now; it’s the ephemera of sounds and smells. The way the pine needles and Bermuda grass smelled in the heavy summer air, the way the rhythm of the roads would segue into a steady series of bumps the minute one crossed over the border from Tennessee into Mississippi, the way the heat would bake the roads and peel the paint and make everything and everyone move at a languid, measured pace. There’s a reason that the blues came out of Mississippi, just like there’s a reason the acid revolution began on the west coast. Something sad, soulful, wicked, and humbly beautiful is in the soil down there. It haunted me as a kid but as an adult it pulls me back with a spectral, welcoming familiarity.
Our tour took us through places like Orlando, Florida, where Walt Disney’s fantasy kingdom acts as a sort of Hadrian’s Wall for where the Deep South ends and something strange and artificial begins. Orlando is the weird heart of central Florida, and below it there are pockets of transplants and retirees, all hemmed in by forest and swampland. Florida is a mindset as much as a locale. Anyone can turn into a redneck down there. Even if you’re from New Jersey.
We moved west through towns like Mobile, Alabama and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The corridor of land that creeps along the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and all the way to New Orleans – the old heart of French Colonialism. You see the traces of it still everywhere, from the faded yet still regal architecture of the homes to the wealth of French surnames and catholic churches. The Gulf Coast is the deepest part of the South, yet also one of the oldest. There’s a real sense of history here, as well as lot of ghosts. The ghosts seem to sway in the breeze with the Spanish moss.
I recall a day driving by myself through south Alabama, about to cross over into Mississippi and on the way to Baton Rouge. The sun was starting to trail away and its deep orange gaze was still settled on the two-lane highway. I was passing a van with New York license plates and thought to myself, “they have to be a band on the way to Austin.” Sure enough, I spied a duo of lanky, bespectacled rock dudes in the front of the van, gazing ahead at the road and I felt like I knew what they were thinking. “Who lives down here?”
It may feel like alien territory to bands passing through but I felt something vital reconnect with the land and me on this trip. I went out of my way to revisit my dad’s hometown in South Mississippi, McComb. It’s also Bo Diddley’s hometown, and for a few years in my early child hood we lived there. My dad was going through a period, some might call it a requisite mid life crisis, where he had to escape Nashville and he decided to move his young family back to the town he grew up in. Only the town was already a shell of itself in the late eighties. The rail road had gone away, the jobs were going too. We only lasted two years before moving back to Nashville.
I had not been back to McComb in over twenty years but there was something calming about driving down the streets of this weary, sad little town. It had been such a difficult sojourn for me as young boy, isolated, insular and unsure of myself and feeling the suffocating restraints of a small town baked by the summer and haunted by its ghosts. And yet now it seemed like there was solace in myself as I was able to retrace my way all the way past our old family house and the school I attended.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing and it’s something I’ve been exploring a lot lately, both in my music and in my writings. We let the past hold a power over us, but it can be murky and misleading. I did have a real vital sense of place and home those few days driving through the South out to Austin. Home isn’t where you live necessarily, but it’s the place you understand, the place that knows you. The dialogue with the land is all in a sideways gaze; no other words are necessary. Remembering how much Mississippi feels like home was one of the unexpected rewards of my trip to Texas. I feel like I will be revisiting this old friend again soon.
We highly recommend William Tyler’s latest LP, The Impossible Truth, which was released yesterday on Merge Records. Listen to the track ‘Cadillac Desert’ here. Buy a copy from Rough Trade shops here.. He begins a tour of the UK on 3 May. All dates can be found here.