On any given evening in Lawrence, when the weather is warm, you’ll hear what we’ve all come to know as a comforting sound howling from Downtown. From as far as two entire blocks away, if the wind carries it just right, vocals belonging to the most beloved busker in the city will bellow through the alleys, around the corner, and straight into your very soul. It’s an invitation to halt, take a moment (a break, even) and have a sit-down with the legendary Tyler Gregory.
The very first sound you hear on Tyler’s new album, Roots Below, is the sustained vibrato of Paul Coleman’s fiddle starting off “Where the Vines Meet the Trees,” luring you down those Downtown alleyways, inviting you to have yet another sit-down with the man himself… this time by way of a magnificent album.
Off the bat, there is a stark and noticeable detail that jumps right out at you. Generally, we’re used to seeing Tyler alone on the streets of Downtown Lawrence, on the Jazzhaus stage, and the Replay patio. Emphasis on alone. This is a wanderer that roams free, plays as often as he wants, and can’t be tied down (yet we’re fairly certain he has more friends than the average fella). So it’s a bit of a pleasant surprise that he’s joined by a host of musicians on the album, rather than going at it alone. In addition to Coleman, Tyler is surrounded by the sounds of Chris Maddox (bass) and one of Lawrence’s recently-rising stars, Nicholas St. James (electric guitar).
That’s not to say that he still doesn’t perform some songs, like “Back Side of Feeling Blue” and “Roots Below” solo. In these cases, the guitar is so crisp and clear, it paves the way for his vocals to just cry out clear as a bell. By the time we’ve arrived at “Western Colorado (1896),” his crew has joined back in and we’ve essentially forgotten what era we live in. If you’ve ever seen Tyler perform, you’ll know why. The folk legend may have straight up stepped out of a long-forgotten prairie, his silhouette strikingly recognizable at live shows. Tyler is a statuesque figure, outlined only by his beard, his hat, a feather protruding from it, and his banjo (an instrument he relies heavily on in “Hands of Sin”). He is, in a word, uncommon… and a little bit intimidating.
But about halfway through the album we get to hear from Tyler’s softer side. Roots Below is the album that places one of his biggest hits, “Kansas Girl,” prominently in the middle. It’s a lusty and romantic little number that’s quite favored across the whole state. The song is just as much a love song about a Kansas girl as it is his love of music in Kansas. It’s no secret Tyler hits the road and flies south for the winter to tour nonstop until the Spring (this is addressed in “Solace Lying in the Open Road”), but he always comes back home to Kansas. No wonder he keeps repeating the line “Bound for glory wherever I may find, still I’ll have the Kansas girl in mind” throughout the song.
“Day by Day” is hands down one of the biggest treats on the album. This is the song he performs strictly a cappella at his live shows, a distinct and attention-catching moment in his sets. If you hear him bellowing through the alleys of Lawrence, it’s probably because of this song. What’s delightful is that, on the track, you can hear him stomping on the box underneath his suitcase, slamming his tambourine against his thigh. Little details like that are a treat for your senses and immediately transport you to that Downtown street corner.
Just like his live performances, Tyler ends the album on the powerful “Black Coal,” a barn burner that gets everybody up and cutting a rug, be it on the street corner or the Replay patio. On this track, you can hear a rhythmic pounding guiding you through the eerie and foreshadowing number. It comes to a halt when he showcases his a cappella capabilities halfway through the song. Then, it’s time to party. All the musicians join in and GET DOWN. If you’re familiar with the live shows, this is where everybody leaps up to dance. The fiddle goes a little wild, relentlessly tearing through to the chorus once again.
The song’s grand finish should be enough to leave you cheering and satisfied, but Tyler included (spoiler alert) a hidden track on the album because he knew you’d be wanting more.
If you live in Lawrence and don’t know who Tyler Gregory is, you haven’t been paying attention. The weathered musician is tenacious, using every waking breath to play his music live. When he doesn’t have a gig scheduled, he rushes to the streets to start busking atop his suitcase. His kind, smiling eyes invite Lawrencians young and old to join him in celebrating his exasperating love of music. The fact that he found time to cut an album amongst all the live performances is no small feat, and will not go unnoticed. When Tyler hits the road for the winter months, we’ll be jamming this album until the weather gets warm again. It’s not Spring in Lawrence until you hear the unmistakeable sound of Tyler Gregory bellowing on the streets of Downtown Lawrence, through the alleys, and straight into your soul…
Words and photos by Fally Afani
You can join Tyler Gregory for his album release show at the Lawrence Arts Center on Saturday, October 25th. He’ll be joined by Nicholas St. James for the performance.