Dan Tyminski is a reluctant lead singer, which is surprising for a few reasons. First of all, he consistently holds his own as a vocalist and guitarist in Alison Krauss & Union Station, which is one of the most formidable bands in any genre of music. Beyond that, Tyminski sounds totally at ease on his new solo album, Wheels, where he’s surrounded by first-rate musicians Adam Steffey, Barry Bales (also in Union Station), Justin Moses and Ron Stewart, as well as special guests like Vince Gill, Ron Block and Cheryl and Sharon White.
Here, the Grammy-winning voice behind “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” explains why a Coca-Cola truck shaped his future, how he learned to sing harmony and what makes him feel like a kid again.
CMT: What was it about bluegrass that first attracted you to it?
Tyminski: For me, it was the accessibility of it. I had parents that took me to all the bluegrass festivals, fiddle contests and square dances. Any time there was live music, I got to hear it, but with an emphasis on the bluegrass festivals. I found that I could very easily make friends and be pickin’ the very day we met. You’d have kind of a new band every day at the bluegrass festivals. So for me, all the people who I was a fan of were very accessible. I got to speak firsthand to all my heroes early on. It just never left me.
In the song, “Making Hay,” the singer decides to give up the dream of being a farmer and wear a tie every day and go to the office. For you personally, was there ever a decision where you said, “I’m chasing the music thing.”
There was absolutely that day. I played music all my life growing up, and I traveled while I was still in high school and couldn’t wait to get out of school to play music. But right at the end of that time, the band that I had with my brother broke up and I spent a year driving a Coca-Cola truck. And boy, in the heat of that Coca-Cola truck, I can remember a specific time when I told myself, “You know what? I’m gonna do what I love and if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, I still win, because I’ll be doing what I love.” So I remember saying, “No more necktie.” … I was right at the end of my 19th and the start of my 20th year.
When you were learning to sing with bands, did you have to get the hang of blending in with the rest of the band, rather than being a typical lead singer?
I never really sought after a lead singing role, so even to this day, lead is the part that I hear last. I grew up a harmony singer and sang with everyone I came into contact with, and for me singing tenor or singing a harmony part is a lot more of a natural thing to do than the lead role, for me.
How do you know when the harmony is right, as far as someone singing too loud or if they’re singing the arrangement that you need?
I go back and credit those bluegrass festivals. Like I say, that was my training ground. When you get to sing with enough people in enough situations, you naturally find your place or where you think your place is. You settle into a groove and hopefully the people you’re singing with approve.
Do you ever secretly rock out to your electric guitar?
You know, I don’t have an electric guitar. I really don’t have any electric anything. I grew up with the bluegrass blinders on. For me, my childhood was mandolin and banjo. I grew up a banjo player, really. That was my passion. I only really started playing guitar when I joined Alison and Union Station. That’s when I got my first guitar. So I was and still am a little intimidated by being in the guitar role because except for maybe the last eight or 10 years, it hasn’t been a comfort zone for me.
You don’t really want that comfort zone as a musician, do you?
You want to feel like you’re proficient. You want to feel like you can get around the neck. But no, I think to feel like you’re challenged is a great place to hang out because it keeps you in the mindset that I think you need to maintain while you play.
How much touring do you think you’ll get to do with this album?
We’re trying to do as much as possible and as much as makes sense. We all have families and we all try to keep somewhat of an emphasis on our home life. I think we’re all at ages where that’s really important to us, and a lot of us have missed our kids growing up. Now that we have a little maturity and appreciation for how important that is, we try not to stay gone. But, at the same time, we look forward to touring because that’s who we are. It’s what we do, and with the guys I’m touring with now, I feel like I’m a kid again. It’s as if we’re hitting the road for the first time, so there’s a fun side. We’re out there experimenting again and it’s young and fresh.
Anything you want to end with?
I always say that I really appreciate when people take the time to go hear live music. I love the recording end of it because you get to capture your music forever, but there’s nothing like going to hear live music. For me it was my biggest influence growing up, and I know I wouldn’t be the musician I am today had I not seen so much live music.