Musician of the Month: Tyler Jackson

by Matt Kersh

Tyler Jackson grew up in Sugarland, Texas, as the son of a Baptist minister. He was homeschooled throughout his elementary and middle school years. His family was part of a cooperative school that had 8 week “semesters” where they would go take their classes that were more specialized. Having grown up homeschooled in Boerne myself, we had virtually the same model. Going to classes for a term much like college, learning subjects that were difficult to do at home. Both my mom and Tyler’s were teachers before we were homeschooled, and we were blessed to have great instruction both at home and in our co-op schools in our courses ranging from upper level maths, sciences, debate, and drama.

I’m a tall guy at 6’5” and Tyler’s got a good inch or 2 on me, so it’s not surprising that he was into basketball. He was living in the Houston area during the glory years of the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Kenny Smith. Some of the players even sometimes did basketball camps and instruction for the homeschool kids in the area. “I had exhausted my ‘athletic credits,’ I even did cooking, and different foreign languages; music was really the last thing left.”

Little did Tyler know, the last thing he found in those formative years of his personal and educational development, would become the most important thing in his life. At about 11 years old, he first tried piano briefly and wasn’t really into it. There was a guitar around that was his grandpa’s he spent a little time playing, but the action on it was awful, making learning to play it incredibly difficult.

“There was a point there, early on, that I had kind of made it up in my mind that I wasn’t really a musician. I was really into swimming and doing well regionally, and also was into basketball, so I thought that maybe sports was the way to go for me.” As fate, or whatever you’d like to call it, would have it, he had to take a music class.

“At the time, the only option looked like it was for me to take a class on the recorder, and I really didn’t have any interest in learning the recorder.” This gave us both a good laugh. I imagine this big man sitting across from me, knee to knee, being relegated to the recorder, and possibly never becoming who I now know to be one of the more broadly-talented musicians around. My (half-hearted) apologies to anyone whose deepest love is for the recorder.

“My dad helped hire on a pastor for quite a large church in Houston for the senior citizens ministry that also happened to be an amazing ukulele player. His name is Buddy Griffin, and is still teaching a number of students there to this day well into his eighties. I thought to myself, ‘Ukulele is definitely more intriguing than the recorder, it’s kind of like a little guitar. I guess I’ll give that a go.’”

That marked the beginning of realizing that simple fingering could make chords and open things up for him. Having played the piano, a difficult guitar, and looking at music books that are far too complicated for beginners that deter many seeking to learn to play instruments, Tyler suddenly found that it didn’t take much to be able to play entire songs with a few easy chords. He even began to try and improvise while playing along with songs he listened to, thus birthing his development and love for playing. “The eight week course absolutely flew by, and I was actually pretty bummed it was over. Buddy approached me at the end of the semester, and said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good at this. Would you like to learn something bigger?’”

Tyler knew Buddy played the banjo, and decided that he was interested in that instrument. Unbeknownst to Tyler at that time, and to me as well until this interview, there are quite a few different breeds of banjo. Buddy was a tenor banjo player, so that’s what Tyler learned, and would become the instrument in which he most greatly excels.

“Our deal was, he would give me free lessons if I would play gigs with him for free. He would throw pretty challenging songs with the agreement that I wasn’t allowed to come back for another lesson until I learned whatever he had given me. It wasn’t scheduled weekly or every other week as is most typical of a schedule for music lessons, so I would leave for three days and just work and work and work, and then come back and say, ‘I got it.’”

One thing that makes Tyler such a superb musician is his work ethic and hunger to be great. I know many truly talented but fairly lazy musicians (I worry I fall in this category more than I’d like to admit), but when you combine talent and time and hunger like Tyler Jackson has done for many years, the musical product is sure to be special.

Upon showing back up having virtually mastered in three days what Buddy apparently expected to take weeks, the rate at which Tyler was already growing as a musician at the age of 11 and 12 years old was unique. “Ignorance served me well in that I didn’t know what I was doing was hard, I just thought it’s what everyone did.” As a musician myself for 25 years, both personally and observationally of those that are musicians, and especially of those who simply aspire to be one, it’s absolutely not what everyone does.

“Looking back on it, it was kind of hard stuff.” To translate, when musicians like Tyler say things like, “it was kind of hard stuff,” I decode that as “it’s the kind of stuff I’ll likely never be able to play.” Thankfully, I was blessed to write songs and sing along with my playing, but when it comes to straight musicianship, there are just players like Tyler that are at a level of proficiency that just feels otherworldly to me.

By the time Tyler was 13 or 14, Buddy had taught him everything he could. There weren’t many skilled tenor banjo players, so Tyler was referred to Smokey Montgomery of the Light Crust Doughboys, who were the primary contemporary of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Tyler would pick Smokey’s brain and watch him play, being that he was really the best at the instrument in Texas. Then, Tyler began his attendance at conventions around the country.

While at a convention in Baltimore, Tyler would meet another “Buddy” in Buddy Wachter. Wachter is virtually the best ever when it comes to the tenor banjo. One of the main reasons the tenor banjo is limited in proficient players, was that it was pegged as an instrument that was really big for about 10 years in the 1920’s in jazz music. Jackson and Wachter began a friendship where they would converse over the phone, sometimes for hours at a time, and simply talk music and trade licks. Tyler was truly learning the instrument he loved most from the best; a musician’s dream. One of the main things Buddy imparted was not to just listen to banjo players. He told me, “Don’t listen to banjo players…open your mind up to more.”

Buddy encouraged Tyler to listen to the way some of the great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, and Django Reinhardt approached their instruments. Wachter also told him, “If you want to make any kind of living playing music, you also need to be really strong on another more mainstream instrument.” Tyler was drawn to the bass guitar, which is perfect, being that every single genre uses the bass, and it also worked well for jumping in the orchestra as their wasn’t a line for filling the void on the daunting task presented by the (literally and figuratively) giant upright bass.

Tyler, not surprisingly, became an excellent bassist, and was accepted into the prestigious music school at the University of North Texas, which is inarguably one of the finest programs in the country. “The skill level of the students at UNT was incredible. I felt like everyone else was just way beyond me. They had a big head start on me with most of them beginning to play seriously by the time they were 5 years old. I was one of the only people from Texas, many of my classmates weren’t even American, and at the beginning I felt pretty small.”

Of course, Tyler hung in there, and grew even more. Out of the blue, he got a call from a man named Fernando “Ferdie” Calderon. “At first I thought it was a joke. Ferdie was a from Del Rio and sounded like he was straight out of Cheech and Chong.” Tyler was now 20, and took the call, and heard this “unique” voice on the other end of the line that says, “Hi, this is Ray Price’s manager, Ferdie. Ray called the school and wanted some recommendations for someone to play upright bass and we got your name.”

Tyler thought to himself, “Is Ray Price even still alive? The same guy I listened to with my grandpa as a little boy? If you went to my grandparent’s house, in the guest bedroom, you’d find early LP’s of Merle Haggard and The Strangers, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and Ray Price. I wasn’t sure if this was for real.” Turns out, it really was THE Ray Price.

And THE Ray Price was really interested in Tyler as a bassist. Ferdie asked if Tyler had a suit, which he no longer had one that fit. So, he went to Target and put one together that matched well enough. He made the 150 mile drive from Denton to Mount Pleasant, which is where Ray Price lived.

“I brought my banjo along, because I was afraid I’d get bored. I walked up with my tenor banjo in the case, which no one ever recognizes what it is. Ray asked me, ‘Is that a tenor banjo?’ I was shocked he recognized it that quickly, and replied, ‘Well, yes, sir. It sure is.’ Price said, ‘Good, that’s the best kind. I can’t stand that 5 string (stuff).’ I’ll never forget that moment.”

It was definitely a good start. There was a guy playing with Ray at the time named Dale Morris Jr. who was one of the absolute best fiddle players around. He played for Ray forever, but he’s been with many of the greats. Marty Stuart, Merle, Willie. He also sees Tyler’s tenor banjo in the case, and happens to also love that 1920’s jazz era music for which the instrument is known. Right away, they begin jamming on the bus. Tyler was immediately fitting right into this group of incredible musicians much older than he was, and bonding over their mutual love of the same genre of old jazz alongside Price’s ever-evolving brand of country music.

When touring on a bus, there’s no choice but to come to terms with the fact that you will be spending a lot of time with your bandmates. Heaven help you if you don’t get along. Fortunately, Ray’s band did get along, and they took to Tyler right away. Here he was, just 20 years old, jamming alongside these accomplished musicians that are 40 and 50 years older than him, and he’s meshing with them from the start like an old pro.

“All the guys were really cool. Great musicians. Nice. I was already so excited and was just hoping it would work out. Thing is, I hadn’t yet seen or played ANY of these songs. And all these guys had played this show together so long they could do it in their sleep. I really didn’t want to be that guy that made them sit around and have rehearsal when that was probably the last thing they needed or wanted to do.”

Tyler was able to get some charts from Ferdie for most of the songs, as well as a disc that had all but 4 or 5 songs so that he could prepare for taking the stage. Turned out Ferdie had previously been the bass player, so he was able to help get things in order. Not surprisingly, Tyler got along swimmingly. He was having a great time and drawing invaluable knowledge from a troupe of talented musicians with shared chemistry among them as he grew as a player.

After talking to his parents and deciding he was going to take a break from school to stay on tour, it was a few weeks down the road. One day, Ray, who always took his calls on speaker phone, got a call while they were on the bus. It was Willie Nelson. Guess where Willie got his start? Playing bass for Ray Price. Willie told Ray he was putting together a tour called “The Last of the Breed” and was inviting Ray to join him and Merle Haggard to make it happen. Asleep at the Wheel was going to be the opening act on the tour. They talked through details and WIllie asked Ray if he would join, and Ray said, “I guess that sounds pretty good.” To which Willie replied, “Well, that’s good, ‘cause we already got a hell of a lot of shirts and posters printed up with your name and face on them next to ours.”

Ray was adamant that his band back him on the tour. After the producer of the tour tried to steer Ray from bringing his group with him, Ray said that’s how it was gonna be and would pay them out of his own pocket so the tour didn’t have to foot the bill. These things are almost always about money, after all. So, literally just over two weeks after joining Ray Price’s band, Tyler was going on tour with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. You could say it was one hell of a good gig. This would be the first of three tours of 30+ shows over the next few years that Tyler, Ray, Willie, and Merle would all go on together.

Ray loved to play more than anything else. He wanted to be on stage for as long as he could and always said he would quit if he couldn’t sing anymore. Until the year of his death, Ray was playing nearly 150 shows annually. This was a man that was singing his songs in the original keys in which they were all played without problem or having to change things up, he always took care of his voice, was a consummate professional, now well into his eighties, who had made his living on stage for over 60 years, still working hard. What an example.

As the time with Ray was drawing to a close, Tyler ended up sort of being recruited to join the accomplished jazz circuit in San Antonio. He moved to the area and got connected with Joe Gonzales at Hearts’ Home. Joe asked Tyler if he would come play at a “house show” at the shop and then was offered a teaching position at the store. Having been in shops around the world, Tyler was immediately struck with the special nature of Hearts’ Home. He started teaching lessons and covering much of repair work on various instruments. It’s the closest thing to a “normal job” Tyler Jackson has ever had, but it’s still very much about the music.

Between being a husband, father, teacher, and performer, Tyler Jackson has a full life. He put in the work to become a musician’s musician, and is enjoying the fruits of his labor; not that it still isn’t hard work.

Tyler collaborates with some of the most talented musicians throughout the Texas Hill Country. He teaches lessons on bass, banjo, cello, guitar, and probably could do so on almost anything with strings on it. His family has now lived in Boerne since 2014. Tyler is married to Kristin, and they have two children: Matthew (3) and Hannah (1). www.tylerjacksonmusic.com



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