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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

Youth Spotlight: Tyler Williams

Tyler Williams says,
Tyler Williams says, "Music is my life."

Bluegrass Musician getting degree in Broadcasting

By Angela Wampler | A! Magazine for the Arts | November 29, 2011

On a hot summer night in 2006, Tyler Williams and another musician, Marty Leedy, took the stage at the Old-Time Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Va.

One sang while the other played guitar, then they switched roles. While neither was a musical virtuoso, their sound embodied the great musical tradition of Southwest Virginia. This led to the recording of Bringing It! by Virginia State Folklorist Jon Lohman, who heard something special in the heartfelt way the two friends sang and played.

Lohman assembled a band of stellar musicians, including No Speed Limit's Josh Pickett on guitar and Jacob Eller on bass, Jody King on banjo, Billy Hawks on fiddle, and Aaron Williams on mandolin. As the singers had not met the pickers before, songs were selected that would be comfortable for all, like an informal jam session. Unlike the slick records that mark much of the modern era, the resulting recordings have a "back porch feel" of a bunch of guys having fun and singing together for the simple joy of it.

Returning to the Galax festival in 2009, Tyler and Marty competed against each other in the Folk Song category. Tyler won with his rendition of the Bob Dylan ballad "The House Carpenter," accompanied by Marty on acoustic guitar.

And the recording of Bringing It! isn't the first time that Tyler has been surrounded by some of his bluegrass idols. He also has shared the stage with Doyle Lawson, IIIrd Tyme Out, The Lonesome River Band, Ronnie Bowman, Pine Mountain Railroad, and Blue Moon Rising.

The dedication and ambition with which Tyler approaches his music are inspiring. Also inspiring is his refreshing and positive attitude to refuse to be limited by disability. Tyler was born blind and suffers from cerebral palsy. "Yeah, but I don't want that gettin' in the way of what I want to do," he says. "Let's look past the whole blind and c.p. thing."

Watching Tyler perform, you see nothing is holding him back from what he loves to do most — playing his beloved bluegrass music.

Tyler was introduced to music at an early age. As a toddler growing up in Ohio, Tyler sang along when his parents played country music by Steve Wariner and Randy Travis. Tyler received a toy keyboard as a birthday present and learned to play his first tune, "Yesterday." For his fourth birthday, Tyler received a full-sized keyboard, which he still plays today. When he was five, he started taking classical piano lessons, learning by ear. At age six he was introduced to bluegrass by his uncle Derek, a guitar player.

When Tyler was 16, he became interested in pursuing music as a career. He began learning to play the guitar and attending bluegrass festivals. He would go to the library to borrow CDs by Flatt and Scruggs, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and Boone Creek. He learned the words to each song and began looking for opportunities to play and sing publicly. Before long, Tyler was invited to be a part of The Hocking Valley Bluegrass Boys band and later helped form Overdrive, a bluegrass band.

When he was 18, Tyler met songwriter Mark Brinkman at a jam session. Tyler recalls, "I sat in and sang "Sunny Side of the Mountain' and sang tenor on "Blue Stone Mountain,' one of Brinkman's originals. I asked the guy singing lead how he knew the song and he said "Know it? I wrote it!' Brink has since become a mentor. I'm planning to put out an album next year that features several of his songs."

Tyler received a guitar and a mandolin as high school graduation presents. His dad acquired a guitar for himself, "never thinking that Tyler would take it over." When Tyler left for college, however, that's exactly what happened. Tyler attended Wright State University for a year before transferring in 2006 to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, where he was part of the bluegrass program for four years, playing guitar, mandolin, bass, and singing.

In 2007 Tyler met his girlfriend, Ashley Davis, when they jammed with some friends. In 2008, Ashley joined the all-female group Sweet Potato Pie, before teaming up with Tyler to form their own band. The two blend tight vocal harmonies with great musicianship to share their passion for music with audiences. Locally they perform once a week at Phil's Dream Pit, a barbecue restaurant in Kingsport, Tenn., and frequently play at Acoustic Coffee House in Johnson City, Tenn.

Today Tyler is pursuing a degree in broadcasting at ETSU and has already finished a minor in Appalachian Studies, focusing on bluegrass. He plans to start a radio show on and to continue playing gigs with his band, which now consists of himself on vocals and guitar; Ashley on vocals and fiddle; Will Knight on banjo, dobro and vocals; and Ken Williams on bass. Tyler also is scheduled to cut some vocals on the new ETSU Pride Band album. Previous projects feature Tyler singing on Alex Hibbit's album It's About Time and Buddy Pendleton's project \.

Tyler concludes, "Music is my life. I have been really blessed to have family and friends who have supported me this far and will continue to support me throughout my musical career."