Dan Tyminski – Team player
In every respect but talent, think of Dan Tyminski as the anti-Jimmy Martin. While Martin, one of bluegrass music’s great vocalists, is an eccentric infamous for his abrasive ways, Tyminski is an unabashedly good egg: a self-effacing, small-town man, husband, father of three kids (neatly spaced out at ages 2, 4 and 6), golfer, churchgoer, and wine enthusiast. He’s loyal to his bands. He tucks his shirts in. As they say on the bluegrass circuit, “He’s as nice a guy as you’d ever want to meet.”
But as far as music goes, Tyminski and Martin have quite a bit in common. Tyminski looks to Martin’s early playing for cues on rhythm guitar, and as a singer, he turns in a tribute to Martin with a rousing “Sunny Side Of The Mountain” on his debut solo album.
Not that Tyminski needs to be compared to anyone. He is a widely admired young vocalist and instrumentalist with immense enthusiasm for reaching new audiences with a broader and deeper brand of bluegrass. His voice has a luminous and viscous quality that’s forceful without belting, dead on pitch, and as warm as bread from the oven.
That voice has been a linchpin for two of the most successful and influential bluegrass bands of the last decade. As a member of the Lonesome River Band, he helped hone the mellow drive that has come to typify contemporary traditional grass. And as part of Alison Krauss & Union Station since 1994, he has brightened the blade of the music’s cutting edge.
In bluegrass, key sidemen develop fan followings of their own, and if they’re really good, it’s hard for them to get out of their twenties without somebody jumping on them to make a solo CD. For years, folks had been clamoring for Tyminski, now 33, to commit something to tape, and his close ties to Virginia’s Doobie Shea Records put him in a seemingly good spot to do just that. With the recent release of Carry Me Across The Mountain, he has, and it’s a bundle of joy, but everybody’s thinking it sure took awhile.
As Tyminski explains it, he’s not really a solo album kind of guy. “I’m much better suited to be a band member than a frontman,” Tyminski says by phone from Doobie Shea’s studios, where he spends much of his free time when back home in southwestern Virginia. “I’m much more comfortable in that role. I’d rather sing harmony and play behind other people. I enjoy singing lead, but it’s never been a goal of mine to front a band. I would not look for any Dan Tyminski breakaway.”
Tyminski’s first big breakaway took place at age 20, when he left his brother’s band, Green Mountain Bluegrass, to join the Lonesome River Band. Born in Vermont in 1967, Tyminski had grown up in a family of bluegrass fans and players. He decided to have a life in music at age 12, he says, and his first serious instrument was the banjo. He had two brothers and a sister, and it was Stan, 11 years his senior, whom he idolized and who schooled him in the foundations of bluegrass. “I always wanted to play with him,” Tyminski says. “The one thing we had in common that we could share, with the age difference, was music.”
After Green Mountain Bluegrass had been touring for a few years, Tyminski put out feelers for a new job. Tim Austin, one of the founding members of the Lonesome River Band, met Tyminski at a New York festival. After an audition, Austin hired him right away. “He was just an exceptional talent,” Austin says. “Not only can he play anything, he can emit his emotions through his instrument. He’s not just a player who plays licks. He’s a rare bird.”
“I think I met Tim at a good point in my life,” Tyminski says. “I really needed to learn more about music. [Tim] was very influential.” The first thing Austin had Tyminski do was switch from banjo to mandolin. “That very much upset him,” Austin says. “I said you need to be a mandolin player, because you have a style that nobody else has, and I told him he needed to be a lead singer.” In fact, joining the LRB was contingent on Tyminski stepping forward into the lead vocalist slot.
He bore up to the changes and grew, especially rhythmically, he says. “I loved to play solos. I never spent a lot of time thinking about rhythm. I mean it was something I learned as I went, but I never devoted any time to it. Tim was the first person who really gave me some understanding of what good rhythm tracks are made of. He taught me how to build a foundation underneath what was going on.”
“I’m pretty to-the-point with him,” Austin says. “I put him up front, and I’m glad I did. He’s the kind of guy you’ve got to nudge him along, but the talent is all there.”
The LRB already had been through numerous personnel changes since its inception in 1982. And after Tyminski’s first album with the group, Looking For Yourself, came out on Rebel Records in 1989, two more key members retired. Fortunately, they were replaced by banjoist Sammy Shelor and vocalist/bass player Ronnie Bowman. Shelor’s round tone and killer chops and Bowman’s velvety voice would help make the LRB a powerhouse, though it didn’t happen right away.
“When Ronnie and Sammy first joined, trying to make a living, we got a drummer and started playing country and Southern rock covers at clubs,” Tyminski says. “It was probably the least favorite musical period of my life. We were playing five nights a week, five hours a night, just wearing ourselves out. Ronnie and I both probably lost two frets of range vocally.”
It took a great album, 1991’s Carrying The Tradition, with Austin, Tyminski, Shelor and Bowman, to change their fortunes. The record solidified the LRB’s reputation as a leading bluegrass band and took the 1992 International Bluegrass Music Association award for Album of the Year.
During his LRB tenure, Tyminski befriended Alison Krauss, often tagging along on road trips or working with her in the studio. When guitarist/vocalist Tim Stafford left Union Station, Krauss asked Tyminski to take over the slot. Facing the toughest decision of his professional life, he waffled, taking the job for a few months, breaking off to return to LRB, and finally going back to the most commercially successful band in bluegrass.
“It was not an easy time,” Tyminski says. “I love both bands for different reasons.” Ultimately, he says, the decision came down to a switch from Bowman’s electric bass to Barry Bales’ acoustic bass and generally a more diverse approach to music-making. “With Alison’s band, I get to play as much traditional grass as I’m comfortable with, and we do things that branch out,” he says.
Though he watches Krauss’ mercurial style with fascination, his own recording is a solidly traditional set, with only dashes of modern modes. The album’s opening title track presents the whole Union Station crew, including now-departed Adam Steffey on mandolin, sounding as old-world as they ever have. It’s a thrill to hear Krauss swell in the high harmony part of this song about a sick child.
The record pulls together players from various points in Tyminski’s life, including Bowman for a duet on their co-written gospel number “Praise The Lord”. Though the work was recorded as scheduling allowed over a year, Tyminski borrowed Bales from Union Station for all the tunes, lending a certain coherence in feeling. Other guests include guitarist Tony Rice, dobroist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Aubrey Haynie, and Union Station banjoist Ron Block.
One stellar track is a reunion with older brother Stan for a Louvin-esque duet on the Jimmie Davis song “I Dreamed Of An Old Love Affair”. Stan’s somewhat graver voice is a perfect match and makes one pine for a full album by these two. There are a couple other ’50s-era songs, including the Louvins’ own “Tiny Broken Heart” (another duet with Krauss), and the concluding “Sunny Side Of The Mountain”.
Though he may play some solo dates this fall, Tyminski is clear that Union Station comes first. It is, he says, a “dream gig” with only about 65 dates a year and unfailingly huge audiences.
That leaves him plenty of time to pursue projects that intrigue him. He lives twenty minutes from Doobie Shea’s Boones Mill, Virginia, studios, and he consults on most of its projects with label chief Austin, who remains a close friend. Tyminski’s list of production credits is growing, perhaps most prominently with this year’s debut album by Mountain Heart and 1998’s The Stanley Gospel Tradition, a tribute album that won the IBMA’s award for Gospel Recorded Event of the Year.
Union Station is gathering material for a new record, and Tyminski sounds as content as a bluegrass musician can be. He doesn’t need to worry about carrying torches for any particular school of bluegrass or cultivating expectations. He told an interviewer recently that if he had grown up around jazz musicians, that’s probably what he would be. It’s really just about music, and as long as he can make it with freedom and integrity, everything else will take care of itself.