Jonathan Tyler Smokes out Grady's 66 Pub 

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After an initial welcome with open arms to the Dallas and national music scene, complete with tours and accolades, reality took a sharp curve for Jonathan Tyler and his band. A lawsuit leading to a name change, fallout with the band’s former label and heavy drinking left an uncertain future for Tyler. With their third release, Holy Smokes, Tyler, 30, and his band have turned a corner, creating an energetic and positive record.

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They perform Thursday at Grady’s 66 Pub, 444 W. Main St., in Yukon.

Expectations for Holy Smokes, Tyler’s first album since 2010’s Pardon Me and third overall, could easily have been akin to a blues rock version of Beck’s Sea Change, a work focusing on the woes of the recent past. However, Tyler offered up a record sounding like an artist breaking free of chains and smiling while shrugging off the weight.

“It’s just life itself. Different experiences,” he said when asked about the comparison between his last two albums.

Origin story

To get to the origin of Tyler and his band’s sound, one must go to his childhood.

The Alabama native was introduced to the guitar at age 13 by way of a surprise gift from his parents.

“I got a guitar for Christmas and started playing with other kids in the neighborhood,” he said.

He began writing songs the following years. Being the mid-1990s, the rock music landscape differed from Tyler’s current love and output, which is bluesy rock with hints of soul and country. Alternative acts Green Day and Weezer, both early influences on the guitarist, were new names then. However, it is the music of the Deep South that has had the largest effect on his songwriting.

“I grew up on Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd and stuff like that,” he said.

It is this style, with a dash of soul and pop sensibility, that is injected into Tyler’s music. The twang of Fender Telecasters, metallic ascending and descending notes of guitar slides and droning organs are no strangers, a stark contrast to anything in Green Day’s catalogue.

The band developed in Dallas in early 2007 with its initial lineup including guitarist Brandon Pinckard, drummer Jordan Cain and bassist Nick Jay. Cain and Jay are both native Oklahomans. In May, “soulternative” singer Emotion Brown joined the group, and by the end of July, they released their first album, the independent Hot Trottin’. At the time, the act was named Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights.

The band paid its dues with nonstop touring and promotion, selling Hot Trottin’ at shows while making use of YouTube and Myspace to showcase music. The freshman effort led to critical praise and attention.

Excitement kept building. Soon, the members found themselves opening for acts such as Erykah Badu, The Black Crowes and Cross Canadian Ragweed. The band signed to F-Stop Music, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, in 2008.

The momentum swelled into 2010 with the release of its second album, Pardon Me. The record received positive reviews while media exposure soared. The band performed on the ABC late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! and found its music appearing on Boardwalk Empire and Friday Night Lights. ESPN used the song “Young & Free” throughout the 2010 college football season.

Accolades came following the exposure. The Dallas Observer Music Awards named Tyler Best Male Artist while the former hyperlocal Dallas-Fort Worth news site Pegasus News named them Top Artist of 2010.

The band played Bonnaroo Music Festival and South By Southwest and toured with Robert Randolph and the Family Band, ZZ Top and others.

Changing wind

After 2010, the environment began to change. Jay left the band and was replaced by Chase McGillis. Later, an unexpected lawsuit caused Tyler to drop “Northern Lights” from its band name.

“An attorney out of Minnesota hit us up and was like, ‘I had a band in the Seventies called the Northern Lights. So you can’t use this, or we’ll sue you.’ But then later he came back to us and said, ‘OK, you can use it — but it’s going to be 50 grand,” Tyler said in an August story from Rolling Stone Country.

They did not have $50,000 to spare, so currently, the act is known as Jonathan Tyler. Following this setback, it became entangled in a power struggle with Atlantic Records. The label wanted full control over who would produce the band and what songs would be on the third album.

Tyler balked at the plan and parted ways with the label, which led to alcohol abuse.

“I was broken, I’d lost my confidence,” he told Rolling Stone. “I had to find a way to make it enjoyable again and get some gratification.”

He financed the studio time himself by playing shows constantly for months. The result is a record made exactly how he wants it.

“I think it’s a little more organic in the recording. It was mostly done on analog tape,” he said. “We didn’t do a lot of overdubbing.”

Its appearance at Grady’s 66 Pub is not due to being another venue on the circuit, but a years-long friendship.

“When the band started, we opened up for [Grady Cross’] band Cross Canadian Ragweed, and they were one of the first bands to have us on tour with them,” Tyler said. “So, Grady became a good friend of ours and we kept in touch over the years.”

Grady Cross owns Grady’s 66 Pub, and Tyler looks upon the venue fondly.

“I’ve always loved coming back when we’ve had a chance to play the venue,” he said.

Print headline: Night lights, Jonathan Tyler brings his Southern-style music to Grady’s in Yukon.

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