Tyler Bryant

A chance meet­ing in a mu­sic shop as an 11-yearold sealed Tyler Bryant‘s fate, and led to him learn­ing about the blues and a whole lot more. Now a shit-hot gui­tarist with his own band, he shares stages with some of rock’s big­gest names.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Dave Ever­ley Pho­tos: Tina Korho­nen

How a chance meet­ing as an 11-year-old lead to him be­com­ing a shit-hot gui­tarist and play­ing with some of rock’s su­per­stars.

Ev­ery town be­low the Ma­sonDixon line has a Roo­sevelt Twitty. He’s the kind of old dude you find in mu­sic shops or bars, or maybe out on the street, play­ing the blues like Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Wa­ters or Robert John­son. In another life he might have been as fa­mous as those guys, but in this one the world passed him by a long time ago. Still, as long as he has a guitar and life in his fin­gers, all those missed op­por­tu­ni­ties don’t mean a thing.

Tyler Bryant met Roo­sevelt Twitty a decade and a half ago in a guitar shop in Paris, Texas. Bryant’s par­ents had bought young Tyler, an 11-year-old ob­sessed with Elvis, a pawn shop acous­tic guitar that needed string­ing.

“Sit­ting in a cor­ner of the guitar shop was this old black gen­tle­man, play­ing a Light­nin’ Hop­kins-style blues song,” Bryant re­mem­bers. “I was im­me­di­ately moved by it. I’d never heard any­thing like it.

So I sat down and lis­tened. He said: ‘Do you like the blues?’ I said: ‘I don’t know what the blues is.’ He said: ‘I’ll teach you.’”

Roo­sevelt Twitty did just that, shap­ing and mould­ing this skinny kid. Bryant learned the blues from Roo­sevelt Twitty, but he picked up so much more too: ded­i­ca­tion, de­cency, hard work. Fif­teen years on, those lessons are start­ing to pay off.

Tyler Bryant isn’t re­ally a blues­man any longer, but its fire still burns in his soul. With his band, Tyler Bryant & The Shake­down, he’s man­ning the rock’n’roll bar­ri­cades, fight­ing against the mu­si­cal dreck that threat­ens to swamp mod­ern cul­ture.

He’s still a killer gui­tarist, of course, but the Shake­down are all about the songs first and fore­most, and the ones on their self-ti­tled sec­ond al­bum (their third if you count the one they recorded a cou­ple of years ago and has been sit­ting on a shelf in some record com­pany vault ever since) crackle with en­ergy. Epic tours open­ing for AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses have taught them the value of reach­ing right out to the back rows.

With his jet-black hair, ivory skin and AC/DC T-shirt, the 26-year-old Bryant looks like a cross be­tween Keith Richards and Neil Gaiman’s Sand­man. In per­son he’s all south­ern charm – one part self-dep­re­ca­tion, two parts self-be­lief.

Bryant is Texan through and through. He was born in 1991 in Honey Grove (pop­u­la­tion 1,668), which neigh­bours Paris, where Bryant met the man who would be­come the big­gest sin­gle in­flu­ence on his life: Roo­sevelt Twitty.

“I knew a cou­ple of chords, but that was all,” Bryant says of that fate­ful guitar shop meet­ing. “Mis­ter Twitty told my mom that if I wanted to learn how to play, he would teach me for free.”

What did a 60-some­thing blues mu­si­cian see in a pasty 11-year-old white kid?

“My plan is to build up the Shake­down and start a rev­o­lu­tion.”

“I don’t know,” he says thought­fully. “Maybe he could sense that I was gen­uinely in­ter­ested, and he was moved. You can tell when what you’re do­ing is hit­ting some­one in the heart, and what he was do­ing was get­ting me right there [taps his chest]. I un­der­stood it, even though I couldn’t play it.”

The Bryants didn’t jump at Twitty’s of­fer. They were sus­pi­cious of why any­one would seem­ingly of­fer some­thing for noth­ing, let alone an el­derly black man in small-town Texas.

“The town I’m from, es­pe­cially back then, there was more of a racial ten­sion,” he says. “It’s so weird to think about it now, but it was al­most… not seg­re­gated, but peo­ple would hang out in their own world. There had never been a black man come up and of­fer to do some­thing so nice for me or my fam­ily.”

But the young Tyler was adamant, and his fam­ily buck­led. His mum be­gan tak­ing her son to Twitty’s house. The older man played his young pro­tégé clas­sic John Lee Hooker and BB King songs, teach­ing him how to play the blues. “He was my best friend,” Bryant says with a smile.

This mis­matched cou­ple made the per­fect team. They put a band to­gether, the Blues Bud­dies. When Bryant was 15, the Blues Bud­dies opened up for Paul Si­mon; Bryant got kicked out of his high­school march­ing band for miss­ing that day’s prac­tice. “I didn’t give a shit,” he says with a grin.

The way Bryant tells it, their friend­ship be­came about more than just mu­sic. “The kind­ness and com­pas­sion he showed me, and the way he shared mu­sic with me, it com­pletely changed things, to where I watched it kill racism in my friends and my fam­ily.”

Roo­sevelt Twitty died in 2013 af­ter a fall. “Six­teenth of May,” Bryant says in­stantly.

He has the older man’s sig­na­ture tat­tooed on his arm. “I had him write it be­fore he passed. I told him I was gonna have it with me at ev­ery show. When we played Madi­son Square Gar­den [sup­port­ing AC/DC, in 2016], I was like, ‘This is gonna be fun, Mis­ter Twitty.’ He was right there with me.”

Bryant left Honey Grove, and Texas, a few years be­fore the man who was his men­tor passed away. At 17 he quit school and moved to Nashville to play mu­sic, get no­ticed and be­come fa­mous. He was an out­sider there, a bat­tered denim jacket amid the rhine­stone shirts and nudie suits of Mu­sic City.

“I was a rock’n’roll kid in a coun­try town,” he says. “I would wear my mom’s flare pants cos it was the clos­est I could get to bell-bot­toms.

He hus­tled his way into the lo­cal mu­sic scene. He set up a fake email ad­dress and pre­tended to be a man­ager tout­ing a shit-hot new gui­tarist. “I’d just toot my own horn as this fake per­son to get my­self gigs,” he says. “I’d call lo­cal box of­fices over and over: ‘I rep­re­sent Tyler Bryant, and this kid is hot.’” Why not phone them as Tyler Bryant?

“That didn’t seem pro­fes­sional.”

Whereas ly­ing that you had a man­ager… He laughs. “Well, it worked.”

These days, when­ever he meets young kids, would-be mu­si­cians, he gives them the same ad­vice: “Man, you’ve got to sell your­self. You’ve got to go out and hus­tle and make things hap­pen.”

He’s got a knack for mak­ing things hap­pen. In 2011 he was in­vited to open for Jeff Beck on his Emo­tion & Com­mo­tion tour. Beck had spot­ted a video of this teenage guitar prodigy on YouTube and liked what he saw.

“He was look­ing for an acous­tic opener and thought I’d fit the bill,” Bryant says. “I was throw­ing up ner­vous, be­cause he’s my favourite gui­tarist. He would just nod when we passed each other. We didn’t re­ally talk, so I didn’t think he liked me at all. I thought: ‘This is not good.’”

One night, Beck’s drum­mer told Bryant his boss wanted to talk to him. Bryant thought he’d gone over the top on stage and was about to get kicked off the tour.

“He [Beck] was like: ‘You’re do­ing a good job. Do you want to come play with us to­mor­row night?’” Bryant says, his eyes widen­ing. “And I was play­ing it cool, while on the in­side I’m freak­ing out.”

Bryant spent the night binge-learn­ing the songs on Beck’s set-list. In the end they played Sly And The Fam­ily Stone’s Higher. “It wasn’t even in the set-list,” Bryant says, laugh­ing. “I prob­a­bly ended up jam­ming with him forty or fifty times.”

Bryant put to­gether the Shake­down be­fore he hit the road with Beck. In true hus­tling style, he’d hang out in restau­rants and ask if any­one knew any drum­mers. Fi­nally he met Caleb Crosby. “We jammed to­gether once, played our first show a week later, and we haven’t stopped since.”

To­day the Shake­down are com­pleted by bassist Noah Den­ney and gui­tarist Gra­ham Whit­ford. The lat­ter is the son of Aero­smith gui­tarist Brad Whit­ford, a con­nec­tion that doubt­less helped them bag a slot sup­port­ing the Aero­smith ear­lier this year. Sure, a lit­tle nepo­tism never hurt any­body, although that doesn’t ex­plain how the Shake­down have ended up open­ing for Guns N’ Roses and AC/DC. And ZZ Top. And BB King. And Lynyrd Skynyrd, REO Speed­wagon and Vince Gill. But there’s a catch: de­spite all the help, the Shake­down are still wait­ing for their big break­through. Fair to say?

“To­tally fair to say. It’s in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing.” Bryant frowns, then smiles his Texas smile.

“Hey, we’re work­ing on it.”

That’s not even the most frus­trat­ing thing that has hap­pened to the Shake­down, he says. In 2015 they had a whole new record in the can and ready to go. The only prob­lem was that their US record la­bel at the time, Re­pub­lic, wouldn’t put it out.

“You start dat­ing some­one, your date’s gonna put on their best face first,” he says. “Then they tell

“I would wear my mom’s flare pants cos it was the clos­est I could get to bell-bot­toms.”

you: ‘Oh, ac­tu­ally I’m bipo­lar, and by the way, I don’t take my med­i­ca­tion.’ When we signed with Re­pub­lic, they said:, ‘We see this band rep­re­sent­ing coun­ter­cul­ture rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll’s com­ing back, we’re gonna change the mould with you guys,’ all those things you want to hear. Then they said: ‘You guys don’t have a ra­dio sin­gle, we’re not go­ing to do any­thing, it costs too much money to put out a record.’”

He sounds ex­as­per­ated. “I could up­load a record for fourteen dol­lars for the whole world to hear. I could put it on Sound­Cloud for jack shit.’”

Six of the songs ap­peared on the Shake­down’s 2015 EP The Way­side. Another seven are sit­ting in a vault some­where, gath­er­ing dust. “We’re not even al­lowed to re-record them,” says Bryant.

He sug­gests that one day soon the Shake­down will be­come so big that Re­pub­lic will have no choice but to re­lease the mu­sic. He’s only half jok­ing. “My plan is to build up the Shake­down and start a rev­o­lu­tion,” he says. “I want to get enough peo­ple to­gether, go­ing: ‘We de­mand this mu­sic!’”

This big talk isn’t as ridicu­lous as it sounds. The Shake­down’s new al­bum – ob­vi­ously not re­leased on Re­pub­lic – shows there’s plenty of life left in rock’n’roll yet. The road miles the band have put in, play­ing to huge au­di­ences, is pay­ing off. Tyler Bryant might not be a su­per­star just yet, but he’s work­ing on it all day, ev­ery day. Some­where, Roo­sevelt Twitty is look­ing on proudly.

Tyler Bryant & The Shake­down: (l to r) Noah Den­ney, Bryant, Gra­ham Whit­ford, Caleb Crosby.

All shook up: Tyler Bryant as an Elvis Pres­ley­ob­sessed pre-teen.

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