Even though it would later earn him a Grammy nomination, bluegrass musician Dan Tyminski recalls the creative process behind the 2008 release of “Wheels,” his third studio album, as one filled with frustration.
Realizing that he only had three songs ready to go a day before entering the recording studio, Mr. Tyminski had no choice but to focus his energy on something that the 14-time Grammy winner now admits he struggled with at times during an otherwise successful musical career: songwriting.
“The song ‘How Many Times’ is literally a song about my inability to finish a song,” the Nashville resident explained. “If you take out the references to a woman, it all makes sense.
“It was a frustrating situation as I didn’t have a song, and I couldn’t finish a song,” he continued, “so I wrote a song about not being able to write a song.”
It was not until after he finished that album tour and had some free time again that Mr. Tyminski dedicated himself to improving his writing game, explaining that he approached it as a way to grow as a musician while also challenging himself. He recalled attending a celebrity charity golf tournament and overhearing another musician perform a country song that ended up being a hit, deciding then and there to shoot for the same achievement.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to write a country radio song.’ So I sat down and wrote what I thought was a successful song … and it was fun,” he said. “And that wasn’t weird. So, I started to write a few more songs.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but Mr. Tyminski was laying the groundwork for his fourth studio album, “Southern Gothic,” a 13-track collection that he released late last year and intends to pull from frequently when he headlines the Sag Harbor American Musical Festival at the Old Whalers’ Church on Friday, September 28.
Fans familiar with his earlier work—he remains a member of the band Alison Krauss and Union Station—will notice a distinct difference in his newest offering, one that digs deep into his darker and less explored side, a result of his new attention to writing complex lyrics with more meaning than he’s accustomed to. The result was 13 songs, all of which he co-wrote with the assistance of collaborators Sarah Buxton, Josh Kear, Amy Wadge and others, with titles that include “Breathing Fire,” “Hollow Hallelujah,” “Haunted Heart” and “Numb.”
While he declined to pick a favorite song on “Southern Gothic”—“If you have 13 kids, I want you to tell me who your favorite one is. They all mean so much to me.”—Mr. Tyminski said he enjoyed the creative process, even if it inadvertently led him down roads he did not necessarily expect.
“I discovered what a dark person I was,” he explained. “I thought I was a lot happier than that. I think a few of them should have been written from a psychiatrist’s couch.”
He stressed that there wasn’t one particular incident that inspired “Southern Gothic,” explaining that his newfound freedom in writing complex and multi-layered lyrics had much to do with his maturity, both as a musician and as an individual. “You get to the point where you’re old enough that you’re less concerned about what people think.”
He later added: “I’m at the point now when I wake up in the morning with ideas, and I write them down. There are songwriters, and people who write songs. And I’ve always put myself in the latter category. But now I’m a songwriter.”
It was that new outlook that inspired him to venture into even more previously uncharted territory when he teamed up in 2013 with the most unlikely of partners, a brilliant Swedish deejay named Avicii—who committed suicide earlier this year—and in the most unusual of genres for a bluegrass musician: electronic dance music, or EDM.
The result was the wildly popular international hit “Hey Brother,” which would top the charts in nearly 20 countries. Not too shabby considering that Mr. Tyminski originally intended to turn down the opportunity—that is, until he received some encouragement from his then 19-year-old daughter.
“I was awestruck by what happened with Avicii,” he said, noting that he first told his assistant to politely decline the offer to use his voice for the song. “I didn’t even know who Avicii was, and I didn’t even know what EDM stood for.”
But before formally declining, Mr. Tyminski texted his daughter to ask if she ever heard of Avicii, explaining that he had the chance to collaborate with him, and her single-word response still remains ingrained in his brain.
“She texted back, ‘Bullshit,’” Mr. Tyminski said. “She asked, ‘Are you messing with me? Are you aware that he is my favorite artist. Why does he want you?’”
“As you can tell, she was adamant about me doing this,” he continued. “She said, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m out.’ I’m not even sure what that means coming from your daughter.”
He recorded his vocals in Nashville and emailed them to representatives of Avicii. The rest, as they say, is music history.
“All of the music was done after the fact,” Mr. Tyminski said. “It blew my mind. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it would have a kick drum, but I had no idea what the music would be.”
Perhaps even more shocking to the artist was the realization that his voice sounded like it belonged in a genre that thrives far from his bluegrass roots. “It was so far outside the box, yet we found a fit,” he said. “It gave me the courage to step outside of the box … and that’s how ‘Southern Gothic’ ended up as different as it is.”
As for his upcoming Sag Harbor show, Mr. Tyminski said attendees can expect a huge dose of “Southern Gothic,” though he’ll be sure to sprinkle in some popular favorites as well, including “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a classic folk rock song that he remade for the Coen brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Mr. Tyminski auditioned in front of Joel and Ethan Coen, never thinking he had a chance to be the musical voice of George Clooney. “But they called the next day and said, ‘When we see George Clooney, we hear your voice,’” he said. “I didn’t see it but OK.”
While he couldn’t recall the last time he performed on Long Island—Mr. Tyminski correctly noted that the East End is not a “hotbed” for bluegrass music—the Vermont native is looking forward to his upcoming performance.
“It’s going to be the new record, with a little touch of the old,” he said. “We’ll try to connect the dots a bit. We’ll play ‘O, Brother’ and Avicii. We’ll try to give them a full meal, but the emphasis is going to be on the new music.
“We’ll see how much we can confuse people,” he added. “It’s going to be an interesting show.”
The eighth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival kicks off with a concert celebration of Sly and the Family Stone on Thursday, September 27, at 8 p.m. at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $30.
Dan Tyminski will headline on Friday, September 28, at 8 p.m. at the Old Whalers’ Church, located on Union Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $30.
Full days of free music will be offered on Saturday, September 29, from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m., and on Sunday, September 30, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at various locations around the village. Visit sagharbormusic.org for more information.
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