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One of Asheville, N.C.’s premiere songwriters has seen his career take off in ways he probably never imagined. Certainly back when he was a record store clerk at the now-defunct Almost Blue on Patton Avenue he may well have been spinning records, daydreaming of traveling to exotic locales, playing his songs to thousands of fans in prestigious venues without hope it would come to fruition.
Yet, it’s amazing how dreams find a way of coming true. Earlier this year Ramsey, who is now a full-time member of the internationally successful indie-rock group Band of Horses, was able to find time to write, record, and release his third solo album, the rustic classic, “The Valley Wind.” Filled with stark imagery and simplistic arrangements swirling around his intricate guitar work, “The Valley Wind” is the perfect backdrop to a serene snowy day in the Appalachian Mountains that Tyler Ramsey calls home.
Tyler’s been on the Asheville music scene for many years, playing in multiple bands, helping friends write and record, but always continuing the pursuit of his own collection of songs. His first album, the self-titled debut in 2004, was a humble yet melancholy record that garnered him notoriety among his hometown friends and fans. It wasn’t, however, until his second release, “A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea,” which was recorded at the highly praised Echo Mountain Studios in 2008, that his career began taking the path he might have been dreaming of in his youth.
Everyone from NPR, Stereogum, WNYC’s Soundcheck, Popmatters and a host of other critics raved about his skills as a songwriter and guitar player. Labeled as an “Artist to Watch,” Ramsey continued to put on mesmerizing solo shows across the Southeast and beyond. One of his most anticipated shows each year is the annual holiday/homecoming show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville. It was around 2007 when friend and current bandmate Bill Reynolds, an Asheville alum and bass player for Band of Horses, asked Tyler to meet Ben Bridwell, the band’s lead singer. Ramsey subsequently was asked to join the band prior to the release of their second album, “Cease to Begin.” From there, Ramsey has had the great fortune of playing on multiple continents in some of the world’s most impressive music halls and stadiums, but he seems to be taking it all in stride.
“I can get way more nervous about a Grey Eagle show because I only get a chance to do those maybe once a year, and I am playing to my family and my friends and neighbors,” Ramsey admits.
It is remarkable that the “The Valley Wind” tracks were laid down in less than a week. Over a snowy six days, holed up in a modest recording studio in Nashville, Ramsey and friend Seth Kauffman (of Floating Action) with Reynolds producing and adding bass created an album that’s reminiscent of Tyler’s last album, only a more stripped down version of what could have been. The songs—written on and off the road over the course of a year—were originally intended to be arranged with a full band sound, but Ramsey elected to give his third album a different vibe than his previous efforts.
“This time I wanted to go through the process more quickly and not allow there to be any over thinking,” Ramsey said. “The songs were all written, but any thoughts on what we were doing with them were kind of left up in the air. Plus I wanted the whole thing to be sparse—just to leave room for the songs.”
The album is both cavernous in tone, drenched in warm reverb, and expressively sung with that Neil Young tenor he’s well known for. Standout cuts on the album are plentiful: “1000 Black Birds” clearly exemplifies his outstanding guitar licks and use of heavenly reverb; “Angel Band” with its touching waltz-like sway; and the fuller sound of “Stay Gone” that shows some influence from his time with Band of Horses.
Tyler Ramsey is a unique player, his style both on and off the stage is less rock star and more folk singer with exceptional guitar and songwriting skills. He tours as a solo artist when has the opportunity, but for now his duties with Band of Horses continue to take him across the world. It’s clear he still loves Asheville and Western North Carolina, and hopefully he’ll continue to call it home no matter where his musical journey may take him.
Q&A with Tyler Ramsey
SML: Your guitar style is incredibly unique. When did you switch from piano to guitar? Who were your musical influences growing up?
Tyler Ramsey: I had been playing piano for about four years when I picked up the guitar. I still play piano as much as I can because I find it helps me write, and I get a lot of ideas that I try to take back to the guitar. My first piano hero was Oscar Peterson, that’s the first record I bought.
SML: Does songwriting become a forced activity while on the road or is it more of an escape from the daily routine of touring?
Ramsey: I think it is really more of an escape. The challenge for me is getting to the right place in my head when I am sitting in a hotel room or somewhere.
SML: As Band of Horses takes you farther away from home, what you do you miss most about Asheville? What’s the first place you visit when you get off the road?
Ramsey: Right now the thing I miss the most is spending time in front of my woodstove! I don't really go out a whole lot when I am home!
SML: Does WNC become less influential the more you travel? What are three reasons why you still call North Carolina home?
Ramsey: Maybe home becomes even more of an influence the more I am away. I think people start to forget how special a place is after they have been there for a while. It’s good to miss something and someplace and someone. You can remember why you were drawn there to begin with.
SML: I’ve seen you play in Madison Square Garden, the Lincoln Theater (Raleigh), and the Grey Eagle (Asheville). How does the experience change, for you, when going from huge arenas to smaller clubs/listening rooms?
Ramsey: It is strange to me that it doesn't feel that different one from the other. I mean, I can get way more nervous about a Grey Eagle show because I only get a chance to do those maybe once a year, and I am playing to my family and my friends and neighbors!
SML: “The Valley Wind” makes several references to birds. In your opinion does the ability to fly pale in comparison to the freedom to do so?
Ramsey: Most of the birds that I was referring to were these crows and things that were hanging out in my backyard. They weren't flying around as much as posting up in the branches and staring and yelling at me!
SML: It took six days to record “The Valley Wind” with Seth Kauffman (of Floating Action) in a snow-covered Nashville studio. What was the experience compared to your time in Echo Mountain Studios recording “A Long Dream About Swimming Across The Sea?”
Ramsey: They were both really good experiences. This time I wanted to go through the process more quickly and not allow there to be any over thinking. The songs were all written, but any thoughts on what we were doing with them were kind of left up in the air. Plus I wanted the whole thing to be sparse, just to leave room for the songs.
SML: Some of your lyrics are very touching. Does introspection flow through your pen naturally or does that take time to sort out before it hits paper?
Ramsey: Maybe equal parts writing and pacing. Add in a little staring out the window.
SML: Can music be a true therapeutic agent?
Ramsey: Definitely. It works for me.
SML: Will there be another Tyler Ramsey song on the next Band of Horses album?
Ramsey: We have all been writing and collaborating and getting songs together. We'll see what we end up with!