Dan Tyminski On Mixing Electronic Dance And 'Southern Gothic'

Oct 19, 2017

Dan Tyminski might have one of the most recognizable voices in acoustic music. He grew up in southern Vermont, fixated on traditional bluegrass and old country. While his friends were buying Def Leppard and AC/DC records, he was playing banjo.

"I love rock and roll," he says. "I love heavy percussion, big music. But for whatever reason, everything that I did growing up was just tunnel-vision acoustic. When I had a banjo, that was it. I couldn't think about anything else."

He switched to the mandolin when he moved to Virginia to join the traditional bluegrass group Lonesome River Band. Then he was hired to play guitar for Alison Krauss and Union Station. The band's music was a sleek and sophisticated flavor of bluegrass, but Krauss made a point to feature Tyminski's down-home singing.

The music of Krauss and Union Station crossed over to a broad audience. But millions more were introduced to Tyminski when he served as the singing voice of George Clooney's character in the Oscar-nominated Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? — which, Tyminski says, he doesn't mind being known for.

"Max Baer forevermore was Jethro Bodine after he played that part on The Beverly Hillbillies," he says, "and I will forevermore in some people's eyes be seen as the Man of Constant Sorrow. I embrace it."

Then, earlier this decade, Tyminski got a glimpse into a different musical world: electronic dance music. His newest record, Southern Gothic, out Oct. 20, orients itself around electro-pop, though it doesn't stray too far from his bluegrass and Americana roots.

"My assistant, I remember, called me and asked if I was interested in doing an EDM song for this guy Avicii. And to be honest, I had to ask what EDM was," he says. "She kinda explained, 'It's electronic dance. It has that oontz, ooontz sound.' My immediate reaction was, 'Let's say thanks but no thanks. That's a little too crazy for what I do.'"

But Tyminski texted his daughter for a second opinion, and she insisted it was too big an opportunity to pass up. Besides, when he actually heard the song, "Hey Brother," it wasn't such a stretch.

The experience opened his mind a bit. His next move was signing a publishing deal and trying to write pop-country hits for other artists. Then, he decided to start keeping songs for himself. Southern Gothic's title track took shape around a programmed beat and a dobro sample that Jesse Frasure, Tyminski's co-writer and producer, found in a royalty-free audio library.

"We kind of had a sample, almost like you would in a hip-hop track, of this dobro lick," Frasure says. "I just thought the sound was cool. and matched up with pretty low-end 808 drums. That kind of grungy hip-hop vibe mixed with his voice was sort of a cool new direction."

As far as marketing that new direction to fans who've known Tyminski for something else, he says he left all that to the business types.

"You know, my tombstone will not read, 'Here lies the man that had the plan.' That's just never been me," Tyminski says. "I don't know that it ever will be me."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now with Dan Tyminski. He spent 25 years with Alison Krauss & Union Station. He sang on the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He's got one of the most recognizable voices in acoustic music. But instead of making another acoustic album with his favorite pickers, he turned to a man with a computer full of electronic beats. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN spoke with him about his new album, "Southern Gothic."

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Dan Tyminski grew up in southern Vermont fixated on traditional bluegrass and old country while some of his friends were buying Def Leppard and AC/DC records.

DAN TYMINSKI: I love rock 'n' roll. I mean, I love the heavy percussion, big music. But I just - for whatever reason, everything that I did growing up was just tunnel vision acoustic. You know, I just became - when I had a banjo, that was it. I couldn't think about anything else.

HIGHT: Tyminski switched to mandolin when he moved to Virginia to join the traditional bluegrass group Lonesome River Band. Then he was hired to play guitar for Alison Krauss & Union Station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALISON KRAUSS AND UNION STATION SONG, "THE BOY WHO WOULDN'T HOE CORN")

HIGHT: Their music was a sleek and sophisticated flavor of bluegrass, but Krauss made a point to feature Tyminski's down-home singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOY WHO WOULDN'T HOE CORN")

TYMINSKI: (Singing) Tell you a little story and it won't take long about a lazy farmer who wouldn't hoe his corn.

HIGHT: The music of Krauss & Union Station crossed over to a broad audience, but millions more were introduced to Tyminski when he served as the singing voice of George Clooney's character in the Oscar-nominated Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW")

TYMINSKI: (Singing) I am a man of constant sorrow. I've seen trouble all my days.

HIGHT: Tyminski doesn't mind being known for that.

TYMINSKI: Max Baer forevermore was Jethro Bodine, you know, after he played that part on "The Beverly Hillbillies." And I will forevermore in some people's eyes be seen as the man of constant sorrow. I mean, and I embrace it. I think it's awesome to have something that's been that successful where people kind of envision you as that type of thing.

HIGHT: Tyminski got a glimpse of a different musical world earlier this decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TYMINSKI: My assistant, I remember, called me and asked if I was interested in doing an EDM song for this guy Avicii. And to be honest, I had to ask what EDM was. I wasn't aware. And she kind of explained, you know, it's electronic dance. It has that (imitating beat) that sound. And my immediate reaction was, let's say thanks, but no thanks. You know, that's a little too crazy for kind of what I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVICII SONG, "HEY BROTHER")

HIGHT: But Tyminski texted his daughter for a second opinion, and she insisted it was too big an opportunity to pass up. Besides, when he actually heard the song, it wasn't such a stretch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY BROTHER")

AVICII: (Singing) Hey, brother, there's an endless road to rediscover...

HIGHT: The experience opened his mind a bit. His next move was signing a publishing deal and trying to write pop country hits for other artists. Then he decided to start keeping songs for himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUTHERN GOTHIC")

TYMINSKI: (Singing) Blackbird on the old church steeple, Spanish moss hanging in the setting sun. Every house has got a Bible and a loaded gun.

HIGHT: The title track of Tyminski's album is one that took shape around a programmed beat.

JESSE FRASURE: May 10, 2016, is when we wrote this.

HIGHT: Seated at a studio computer, his co-writer and producer, Jesse Frasure, demonstrates.

FRASURE: Let's just pull this up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRASURE: So that was me just starting to build a track. But obviously the groove was in there. That's interesting.

HIGHT: Tyminski is used to laying down grooves with fellow bluegrass virtuosos, but he left it to Frasure to decide which parts needed live musicians and which didn't.

FRASURE: We had a kind of a sample, almost like you would in a hip-hop track, over this dobro lick.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HIGHT: Played by anyone you know?

FRASURE: Who knows? I just know it was a royalty-free sample library, kind of like from Delta Blues sounds. And I just thought the sound was cool and matched up with pretty low-end 808 drums. And that kind of grungy hip-hop vibe mixed with his voice was sort of a cool new direction, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERFECT POISON")

TYMINSKI: (Singing) Draw you in with every breath 'cause you're my favorite sin. One more kiss could be my death, and here we go again. You're no good for me like a methamphetamine. I sold my soul and everything I own to hold you close and keep me stoned.

HIGHT: As far as marketing that new direction to listeners who've known Tyminski for something else, he says he left all that to the business types.

TYMINSKI: You know, my tombstone will not read, here lies the man that had the plan. I mean, that's just never been me. I don't know that it ever will be me.

HIGHT: How's this for an epitaph - here lies a musician who followed his instincts wherever they might lead. Not that Dan Tyminski will need it any time soon. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAUNTED HEART")

TYMINSKI: (Singing) Love songs playing backwards, whiskey pours itself. Standing all alone, but you're never by yourself. You can hear the train rolling, rolling, rolling. There's nothing on those tracks. You can feel the wind blowing, blowing when the full moon fades to black. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.