by Jordan Green
There comes a time when an artist must discard everything he thought he knew, and start fresh.
So it is with Tyler Nail, a singer-songwriter who retired his Americana trio — an undertaking with Quique Rodriguez-Pastor and Johnathan Loos — with a final show in Floyd, Va. on March 18.
Rodriguez-Pastor and Loos are moving away from Winston-Salem, and Nail had been feeling the itch to do something different for a while.
For about a year, Nail and Molly Grace have been writing and performing songs together as the duo Grace & Nails. But it’s the full band Nail is putting together now that most embodies the sharp turn his music is taking.
“The full band has a lot to do with disowning Americana,” Nail said, while finishing a chicken sandwich at Krankies Coffee several hours prior to the Floyd gig. “When I came to understand what I interpreted what Americana was to be, I put all my chips in that basket. I got disgusted with that. This band is f*** Americana.”
The core of the new band is already established, with guitarist Josh Ling of I, Anomaly and drummer Daniel Faust. Nail is currently shopping around for a bass player and keyboardist.
“There’s a side of me that hasn’t been expressed through songwriting and Americana,” Nail said. “I have limitations: I can’t help that my voice sounds pleasant or that I have a traditionally Western sense of melody. I’m trying to find new tools to grit it up, so it’s less about flowers and birds, as it used to be. It will be a harsher sound and it will express a new attitude of “f*** you.”
Nail owns a sweet, keening voice somewhat reminiscent of Michael Stipe, with vocal phrasing that bites down hard on his vowels. The dusty, unadorned acoustic guitar playing featured on much of his music to date is threadbare to the point that you can hear his fingers moving over the instrument’s frets.
The 26-year-old Nail is a true product of Winston-Salem, having grown up in the blue-collar neighborhood of Ogburn Station, where generations of men worked at Piedmont Concrete. The neighborhood, where his dad still lives next door to the legendary Pulliams Hotdogs & BBQ, has become increasingly impoverished with rising crime, Nail said. The city’s efforts to revitalize the Ogburn Station Shopping Center has become something of a boondoggle, with hundreds of thousands of public dollars invested in Malone’s Family Restaurant, which remains unopened.
Nail started writing songs and playing guitar almost by necessity when he was 16. He was a drummer in bands that struggled to find a proper vocalist, and he would often find himself singing by default. When he started writing songs, he decided he needed an instrument with more tonality than a drum set.
An artist with a prolific recorded output and catalogue of songs, Nail released his seventh album, Under Evergreens, in January. During an interview, he acknowledged that his music adheres closely to the traditional song form, adding, “Words carry the most weight.”
He writes for Relish, the Winston-Salem Journal’s weekly arts and entertainment supplement from time to time, and journalism is only one of many creative undertakings that augment Nail’s music.
“I mess around with scripts,” he said. “I’m trying to improve my skills as a journalist. I like to write words and personalize them with music. I have been a musician in this town for 10 years. I love music, but music isn’t the sole embodiment of what I do. I’m going crazy with artistic vision. I’m making clothes. I’m exploring photography right now. I’m developing a V-log. I don’t want to say too much about that right now. It’s kind of a show — almost mini-doc.”
The multifaceted nature of Nail’s activities can be both a blessing and a curse. Satisfying all his creative drives might promote spiritual wholeness, but the approach doesn’t easily translate into a livelihood.
“As a livelihood it’s gotten harder,” Nail said. “And the harder it gets the more I work. I will say that adding more and more outlets to the s*** that I do makes me more docile.”
Notwithstanding the challenges, Nail has experienced Winston-Salem as a fairly nurturing place to make music. If he has any gripes, they aren’t directed towards the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, which has supported him with a small grant. The problem has more to do with the lack of audience for original work.
“Cover bands are valued too highly,” Nail said. “Original artists aren’t valued enough in the mainstream. I can’t tell you of a place where artists aren’t scrounging and working three jobs. Within the community of artists, there aren’t a lot of people making money, but there are a s***-ton of artists that are making incredible work and it’s very encouraging.”
As he takes the next step in his vocation, Nail took pains to emphasize that he’s not retreating.
“If I were to imagine what I really want people to understand,” he said, “it’s that as the trio stops existing, the thing that it’s leading to is not settling down, but expanding.”