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THE BLUEGRASS VIRTUOSITY OF DAN TYMINSKI

Should I do something, is not a good question. How do I do something, now that is a beautiful question.”

Dan Tyminski, 14-time Grammy award winner, leans closer to me with gentle urgency in his voice. How you do something provides opportunities. Should implies uncertainty. “When it came to music for me, there was never a choice. I was going to play music, that was it.”

We sit opposite each other in the high-end room of Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville, encircled by pre-war Martins, Lloyd Loar-signed mandolins, custom color 1960s Fenders, and pristine Gibson archtops. This is the shop where I met Guy Clark rolling cigarettes by hand, Sturgill Simpson waiting for a ride, and the sweetest Vince Gill who smiled at me and said, “hey darlin!”

Tyminski sits in a paisley pink chair, dwarfed by his height. He wears a rust colored plaid shirt, khaki pants, and lace up leather boots. When I share that his waxed mustache reminds me of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, he excitedly replies, “That’s my favorite movie!”

“I’m a Martin man, through and through.” Dan and his 1946 Martin D-28, the guitar he purchased when he joined Alison Krauss and Union Station in 1992. It is one of only two guitars he owns. Photo by Anna LoPinto at Carter Vintage Guitars.

As a world renowned instrumentalist and vocalist, Tyminski has been a staple in bluegrass music for over three decades, well-known for his significant contribution as vocalist and guitarist of Alison Krauss and Union Station, of which he has been a member since 1992, playing a pivotal role in the band’s distinction as the second highest earner of Grammys ever awarded to a band. His solo pursuits are just as astounding, with multiple independent album releases, as well as over 1 billion streams as the voice behind Avicii’s 2013 anthem “Hey Brother.”

I distinctly remember the first time I heard Dan’s voice. My aunt had gifted me a disc of the soundtrack to the Academy Award-nominated Cohen Brothers 2000 film O’Brother Where Art Thou?. The epic comedic drama is loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey, with folk and roots music being a central component of the film. The score was composed by highly acclaimed musical producer T Bone Burnett and featured Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, as well as Tyminski. To me, Tyminski’s vocal performance of “Man of Constant Sorrow” was the brightest gem on an already well-adorned crown. After all, he was George Clooney’s voice.

With something akin to religious fervor, I played that album ceaselessly, meticulously dissecting each of its songs. I dropped classical violin and instead started playing old-timey fiddle, swapped my Fender Strat for an old 1940s Kay archtop guitar, and traded my little amp for finger picks and slides made out of old pill bottles. My obsession was far from unique; that album was a cornerstone catalyst for an entire generation of new musicians. Between his work with Union Station and memorable performances in O’Brother Where Art Thou?, Tyminski had firmly cemented himself in bluegrass history.

Tyminski’s important place in the lineage of bluegrass is better understood by knowing the genre’s origin story. The modern concept of bluegrass is a relatively new form of music dating back to the 1940s, but its roots date back hundreds of years. In the 17th century, immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland arrived in the Americas, and by the 18th century had settled in the Appalachian region, bringing musical traditions of their motherlands with them. Fiddle tunes, ballads, and folk dances were popular and passed down through the generations. Themes of pastoral life and remote living permeated the music and became the foundation for old-time, hillbilly, and mountain music. Guitar, mandolin, and fiddle were crucial elements to this music, but arguably the most defining instrument was the banjo, which was brought to the Americas by enslaved peoples from West Africa. Its distinctive sound became a hallmark of Appalachian music, originally played in the traditional clawhammer style.

Born in Kentucky in 1911, Bill Monroe is widely considered the “Father of Bluegrass,” popularizing mountain hillbilly music in the 1940s with virtuoso instrumentalists (most notably Earl Scruggs’ five-string banjo), layered harmonies, and an emphasis of the off-beat. His group, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, gave the genre a name, as well as cast the mold for future musical acts. The first generation of bluegrass greats included Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse, among others (note the popularity of brother harmonies, or “blood harmonies”).

Through the years, bluegrass increased in popularity and established itself as a stand-alone genre. In the 1970s, a new wave of younger artists continued the tradition of bluegrass. The instrumentation was mostly the same, only with longer hair and bigger shirt collars. A sample of the second generation of bluegrass artists included Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Keith Whitley, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Del McCoury, and J.D. Crowe.

In the 1990s, Dan Tyminski along with Alison Krauss and Union Station ushered in the next, third wave of bluegrass. Krauss’s crossover hits like “When You Say Nothing at All,” attracted a new subset of listeners. The group had struck that perfect tension of broad appeal while still honoring bluegrass traditions.

Dan as a young boy in 1975 playing his mandolin. Mandolin was his first instrument, but banjo was his favorite. Photo courtesy of Dan Tyminski.

Tyminski’s devotion to music started at an early age. Growing up in rural Vermont in the 1970s, his parents would spend the weekends in pursuit of music. “I’ve been going to country bars and listening to live music ever since I was really small, five or six years old. My parents made it through each week just so they could make it to the weekends and take us to whatever square dance, fiddle contest, barn dance, or country music bar they could find.”

He started playing mandolin at the age of six out of convenience, as his brother had brought one home from military service, but for Tyminski, “that instrument didn’t burn in me.” It wasn’t until he was twelve and heard his brother’s cassette tape copy of J.D. Crowe and the New South’s song “I’m Walkin’” with its hard-hitting banjo that his deep-set obsession began. “Once I got a banjo, I never turned back.”

Tyminski had limited access to recorded music (besides that one tape and a handful of others he “can count on one hand”), as well as no formal teaching, so he garnered the majority of his experience from intense observation and participation. He began attending bluegrass festivals in his early teens, where he would strategically sit as close to the banjo players as possible, carefully observing each note.

He became completely absorbed in his music, painstakingly playing a specific phrase over and over again, to his exacting standards. “When it came to music, I never had a quest to learn everything. It never burned in me to have the accumulation of information, it was the execution of whatever I knew. I would play one lick for upwards of two or three hours. I could hear the most minute time difference. If it wasn’t perfect, I just kept doing it, and kept doing it. Versus some parents who would encourage you to play music, my mother would encourage me to set the damn thing down… she’d say ‘please stop, go outside, and do anything else besides this.’”

Besides his inherent interest in the subject, music also gave Tyminski a place of solace. His childhood home was combative and chaotic. “My parents fought. I have seen more than most. They loved music, but they drank. Music for me was consuming, it took everything else away. I couldn’t hear their noise. I took a deep dive into my therapy, my comfort, my ultimate escape from the town I grew up in. I credit everything I have to music and a few key people in my life.”

Nearly every opportunity Tyminski had to progress, he took it. He was eager and found mentors in the country and bluegrass music community like Smokey Greene (who let him on stage when he was a little boy) and Doyle Lawson. When his brother started singing, Tyminski decided to also sing. “I idolized my big brother. He was the one I heard singing, he was the reason I wanted to sing. Singing was a complete afterthought, necessity, necessary evil, whatever you want to call it. But I sang just so I could sing harmony to him.” The brothers started a band called Green Mountain Bluegrass and toured up and down the East Coast.

Tyminski (back center) and his band Green Mountain Bluegrass, in which he played banjo as well as sang with his brother. The group recorded and performed in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Dan Tyminski.

“Everyone I know that I consider an expert had their 10,000 hours early in their lives. They didn’t make a choice to do it, man they just did it. There was no other choice for me… I was going to play music even if it was just in a country bar band. There was never a question ‘should’ I do it. I lost a dozen quality jobs to play music.” Fortunately, his efforts paid off. Tyminski started gaining traction in a professional capacity in the early 1990s when he relocated to Virginia and joined the Lonesome River Band. Much to his disappointment, he was hired as a mandolin player, rather than as a banjo player. He still accepted. In 1992 he was asked to join Alison Krauss and Union Station as a guitarist and singer, and, despite his hesitations that again he wasn’t playing banjo (and didn’t even own a guitar), he accepted.

Tyminski became incredibly adept at what he good-naturedly refers to as being the “hole-filler.” Whatever was missing from a band, from a song, or from a performance, he would anticipate and resolve. Perhaps this is in part to his upbringing in the live music scene, sitting at a bluegrass festival, in a collective familial atmosphere, the whole being greater than the parts. Or, maybe it’s due to a childhood temperament he describes as “shy” and “timid,” always aware of not taking up too much space. Even when he talks, he gives the impression of carefully assessing dynamics. He is charismatic like many stars are, but there is sharpness to him you don’t experience as often. While some artists can have their “head in the clouds,” Tyminski seems attuned to everything happening.

It has served him and his bands well. Bluegrass is inherently collaborative, emphasizing the prowess of each individual instrumentalist, while blending two, three, or even four-part harmonies. You want a man like Dan in the band. He’s good at solving problems. Take for example when T Bone Burnett was organizing instrumentation for “Man of Constant Sorrow”, the central song to the plot of O’Brother Where Art Thou?. The studio guitarist was having difficulty finding the right rift, and Tyminski asked for a stab at it. The film was set in the 1930s, and he was told to play something that sounded like rock and roll before rock and roll was invented. “I dropped the tuning, and just started thrashing on it.” He got the lick on the first try; he knew exactly what the song needed, and won a Grammy with it too.

Tyminski’s main musical endeavor, Alison Krauss and Union Station, has been on a temporary hiatus since 2014. With that pause, he has been free to pivot to his own projects. What happens when those parameters and expectations are gone, even if you’ve enjoyed those parameters? “I’ve alway been someone else’s version of me. Alison had her version of me: what she sees me singing about, how she sees me musically. Lonesome River Band had their version of me. There are always projections. Mind you, both of them were close to who I am, but I always shot for specific things… I was always trying to appease. I was always trying to make someone else happy with the job I was doing.”

Tyminski (front) with the Lonesome River Band in 1988. He initially hoped to join the band as a banjo player, but was asked to join as the mandolin player. He saw the opportunity and accepted. Photo courtesy of Dan Tyminski.

Now, Tyminski is free to explore “‘what does this make me feel like?’ It can be in tune, it can be out of tune, it can be long, it can be short… I will always love bluegrass, it still burns in me. But now I can use ‘how does this make me feel’ as a filter instead of ‘how does this fit together.’ Always focusing on ‘how does this fit together’ can make things sterile and bland. How do I make my fucking hair stand?”

Tyminski’s independent deviations have a bit of grit to them. “Man of Constant Sorrow” was one of the first solo departures, and of his other pursuits, Avicii’s “Hey Brother” was wildly successful, and his 2017 album Southern Gothic was noted for its ominous and honest writing (stylistically it veered from his other work, but dark themes are prevalent in folk music). “I write songs, but I’m not a songwriter. Maybe one day. Now when I wake up in the morning, I feel the need to jot something down. I didn’t before.”

Following his intuition has been transformative for Tyminski while also simultaneously illustrating the breadth of his creativity. However, he doesn’t shy away from revisiting his bluegrass roots. On the docket for 2022 is a forthcoming tribute EP to the late musical genius Tony Rice. “Tony was the greatest master right-hand [guitarist] that ever existed. It wasn’t about how many licks he played, it was his touch. I loved everything about the man. Losing him has been the biggest musical loss of my life.” The EP will feature an original by Tyminski, as well as duets with artists including Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Dailey and Vincent. Tyminski also has a full-length bluegrass album slated for this fall.

Parts of Dan Tyminski’s story of becoming an expert musician are logical, and an expected (but still impressive) trajectory: his innate ability, his exposure at a young age, his relentless work ethic, and the role of his mentors. However, the most remarkable part of his journey has been his adaptability. Where most would have seen barriers, he saw opportunities, thanks to an ego that was incredibly malleable. He wasn’t fixated on just one path, he just knew somehow he’d get there. “My tombstone will not read: ‘Here lies the man with the plan.’”

Tyminski dreamed of becoming a professional banjo player. Did that happen? No. Is he one of the most awarded, recognized, and respected bluegrass artists of all time, with 14 Grammys to his name? Yes. Want to be an expert at something? Start by saying yes.

Or, as Tyminski puts it, “if you want to be warm, get close to the fire.”

DAN TYMINSKI’S RANCHLANDS PLAYLIST

A few tunes from our conversation with bluegrass great Dan Tyminski.

Listen on Spotify.

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