AT JUST 33 years old, William Tyler is perhaps the most promising figure in the world of solo instrumental guitar. He's a dazzling player, a celebrated composer, and a veteran sideman in bands like Lambchop and Silver Jews. He's also a soldier in Merge Records' army; the label released his sophomore album Impossible Truth to widespread acclaim in March. So it's hard to believe that not long ago, after a handful of labels passed on releasing his 2010 debut Behold the Spirit, Tyler was mulling an end to his solo career.
"I honestly thought about just putting it away and giving it up because I was so afraid that I wasn't in some sort of club of avant people that were legitimate or whatever," Tyler says. "I [didn't] want people to hate it. I'd rather people just not hear it."
But they did hear it, after respected roots-music excavator Tompkins Square Records released it. And they didn't hate it—quite the opposite: "Arguably the most vital, energized album by an American solo guitarist in a decade or more," read Pitchfork's review.
If Behold the Spirit was that, Impossible Truth sounds like a potential path to crossover success for a genre—known as American primitivism—that lives in the shadow of John Fahey and is thriving thanks to six-stringed savants like Glenn Jones, Chuck Johnson, and Steve Gunn. Truth is an earth-toned landscape of reverberant guitar and crafty melodies that blossom across repeated listenings. And it's not technically a solo guitar record; pedal and lap steel guitars swoop in and out of these songs, while trombone swells color the album's gorgeous bookend tracks.
The result is lush and warm, ambitious and forward thinking, though inspired in part by the '70s Laurel Canyon scene. (Tyler believes a "collective unconscious archetypal hiccup" is attracting his generation to that decade's music.) And if it's a path out of the shadows, Tyler is not afraid of following it.
"I'm trying to be one of the guys that makes [solo guitar music] less marginal, I guess," he says. "I don't see why it can't be—not necessarily pop music—but why it can't cross over to some degree. There's a way. There are guides for how to do it and remain alive and financially stable. Leo Kottke's one."
Tyler laughs. "He's about the only one, I guess."