The image is forever burned into our pop-culture consciousness. George Clooney, sporting overalls and scruff, wailing “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the Coen Brothers’ twangy Odyssey O’Brother, Where Art Thou? Then, there’s the man behind that scene: bluegrass singer-songwriter Dan Tyminski, of the Dan Tyminski Band and Alison Krauss and Union Station, still one of the most respected names in the genre and still doing what he loves. Tyminski’s been busy with a fall tour mostly centered on the middle of the country, recording with Krauss and Union Station and the occasional celebrity golf tournament, but he still found time to pick around with CMP’s Lindsay Eanet.
Country Music Pride: Where are you now?
Dan Tyminski: I’m in Franklin, Tenn.
CMP: You’ve got a couple of festival gigs coming up, including Roots ‘N Blues right here in Columbia, Mo. Are you more of a festival guy or a concert hall guy?
DT: I grew up going to the festivals. I’m definitely a festival guy. I love going to the concert halls and playing them. There’s the certain aspect of having control over the conditions. But I grew up going to the festivals. I’m a festival guy.
CMP: Any festivals from your childhood that had a big impact on you?
DT: I grew up going to a festival in upstate New York. It was the Smokey Green Annual Bluegrass Festival from when I was five or six until I was probably 20. I consider Smokey’s festival my earliest training ground—it’s where I met new people every year and just really look forward to just jamming in the field. The festival revolved around meeting new people and playing music. Just field picking. That was it was a place you had a bunch of like-minded people who wanted to pick and we’d play til the wee hours of the morning.
CMP: You credit your brother Stan with your musical development. Can you talk a little bit about the influence he had?
DT: I was 11 years younger than my brother and tried to copy him. Whatever he did, I wanted to do, ‘cause he was my big brother. He came home on leave from the service and he had a mandolin that he left with me. I had access to a new instrument and couldn’t wait to tinker around and play it. I got the bug—I really wanted to start playing when I was 12 years and I heard JD Crowe and the New South. My brother had come home on leave, he was discharged at this point, and he was playing that tape in his vehicle and I remember listening to that banjo and over and over again I would play these songs. From the point where I was about 12 ½ years old, I’ve pretty much stayed obsessed with it.
CMP: You’re known best for your reworking of “Man Of Constant Sorrow” for the O’Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack almost a decade ago. How have things changed for you in the decade post-Brother?
DT: I don’t think things have changed a whole lot. I’m doing the same thing that I’ve always done. I don’t think at this point in my life, I know how to do anything else. It’s nice to have had some success with O’Brother and Alison and Union Station. We’re probably playing to larger crowds, and I think as you go on in your musical career, you obtain more fans. It’s nice to think this is what I get to do for a living. I still wake up thankful that this is what I get to do for a living and how I support my family. I never considered whether or not I could do it for a living, you kind of have to make a living doing something and I feel extremely fortunate I get to do this for a living.
CMP: What are you working on now?
DT: Right now, Alison and Union Station, we’re working on a new record in the studio. I’m still touring with the Dan Tyminski Band, we’re still doing shows, but I think the main thing on the plate is the new record with Alison and Union Station. We’re somewhere around the halfway mark of recording and it’s always exciting when you get to go and make some new music.
CMP: You just released a new line of Martin guitars. How did the collaboration come about?
DT: It was through a mutual friend, a friend who works for the Martin Guitar Company, Larry Barnwell. He’s a sales guy in the northwestern part of the United States. Through speaking with Larry a few different times and asked me if I would consider doing an artist model, which for me, I can very confidently say that is the most exciting that could ever happen to me in my career. I’m a lifetime Martin lover and almost anyone who plays bluegrass music strives to have a herringbone, a D-28 dreadnought Martin guitar. And when I was offered an opportunity to have a guitar I could call my own, I was thrilled. I would probably hold that above anything else that’s happened in my career.
CMP: What do you think the impact is of having artist-designed instruments available for the rest of us amateurs?
DT: Well, I mean there are a lot of guitars to choose from in this day and age. In the bluegrass world, there are a lot of musicians who are endlessly looking for that perfect guitar for them. And a lot of time, it’s the pre-war herringbones which were made from 1934 to 1946. They had a 12-year run. To acquire one of those guitars, you can pay well over $100,000 for one of those instruments. And the desire, for me, to have an artist model was to have a guitar that would act and sound like the old ones but affordable for the musicians. And this is meant to be a guitar for musicians to play live. Not all guitars sound great in front of a microphone. Some sound great when you play ‘em but don’t necessarily treat the microphone the same way. We were very conscious of the traits that make a guitar microphone-friendly and we kept those in mind with the design. It was meant for the stage.
CMP: You’ve got the International Bluegrass Music Awards coming up in October. What’s it like to be up for Entertainer of the Year?
DT: Well, I think anyone who has been fortunate enough to receive nominations in those categories know how important it is when you spend that type of time. Any time you can have your peers and the fans acknowledge what you’ve done as something special, it validates what you do. I love it and would do it with or without the awards, but it certainly makes you feel warm and sort of keeps the fire kindled to want to keep doing it when you know there are people out there who appreciate what you do.
CMP: Any thoughts as to who your “Plus One” will be?
DT: Haven’t gotten that far. In times past, I’ve been able to take my wife to some shows. I’ve been able to take one of my children. We haven’t nailed that one down. I would like to think my wife could make it, but we all lead busy lives.
CMP: You’ve been in bluegrass for a while now. Where do you see the genre going?
DT: Well, I think bluegrass music has always been kind of a minority music. It’s not a music that is necessarily best suited for the masses. In my experience, the larger you try to make bluegrass get, the harder it is to play to people. I think it’s best enjoyed in the smaller venues and the more intimate settings. I would choose a 1500-seat theatre in a place you could still feel connected to it. To play it well, it should be all acoustic. It’s more fun to hear it with the eight or nine open microphones and to hear the natural sound of the instrument. When you try to play bluegrass music in an arena, it becomes a sound challenge.
CMP: Who are you listening to these days?
DT: I’m not a big music listener. I really don’t have any go-to recordings that I run and play. My whole life, I’ve always played instruments. I’ve always sang. I’ve always had music running through my head 24/7 but I’m not a music collector. I didn’t get my first stereo until I was in my thirties. I’m forever playing something and a lot of different people do cross the ear path but I don’t really seek a lot of music. If there’s one guy, if I had to pull out one name, I’d have to say SteelDrivers for Chris Stapleton, the lead singer of that band, is an exceptional talent. People are going to look back and say, ‘Wow, he is it.’ But there’s a lot of awesome talent. Anyone who’s spent any time at the festivals know there’s a wealth of young talent out there. You just have to go and seek out that music.
CMP: You were named as one of Golf Digest’s “Top 100 Golfers in Music.” Any plans to have a celebrity golf tournament with fellow nominees Alice Cooper and Justin Timberlake any time soon?
DT: No, there’s nothin’ in the books. I get to cross paths when I do different celebrity events. I’m going to one this weekend in Hilton Head where they have a celebrity list, and I’ve met some of those guys that way. But knowing how much work goes into the golf tournaments, I’m not anxious to host my own any time soon.
CMP: Anything else you’d like to add?
DT: I always try to encourage people to go and hear live music. I know for a lot of people, the ease with attaining music now with the Internet and iTunes, you can hear whatever you want, but I don’t think any music touches you the way live music does. So I try to encourage everyone, even if they collect recordings and prefer to experience music that way, to go out and experience it. I have never been sorry when I’ve gone to see a live show. I encourage people to get off the sofa and go out and hear live music. It doesn’t matter what kind it is, what’s important is that you go out and hear it for real.