Few local musicians stand out like songwriter Tyler-James Kelly. Kelly is the frontman of the blues-rock band The Silks, one of the most sought after acts in New England. He has a way of electrifying people with his talents on guitar and his soulful voice. He knows how to rock, and also can be a tad twangy. That side of him is exemplified with Cowboy and Lady, the vintage country music project he has going on with fellow vocalist Jess Powers.
In April Cowboy and Lady released their debut album, Take Me To Town, to critical acclaim and on Friday, July 1 they’ll be playing The Columbus Theatre in Providence with Nashville musician Zach Schmidt and Connecticut folk artist James Maple. Ahead of the show I had a chat with Kelly about the influences behind Cowboy and Lady, the state of country music, playing in Boston versus playing in Providence and what the rest of the year has in store.
Rob Duguay: What I find striking about Cowboy and Lady with you and Jess is that it pays homage to those classic country duos, like Johnny Cash and June Carter, for example. When you and Jess were starting the project did you have that in mind or did it just come naturally from the way you both play music?
Tyler-James Kelly: We didn’t really have a design for a project at all actually, it was all accidental. We used to just play music around the house, Jess grew up singing in a church in Missouri when she was a little girl and we shared this mutual love for classic country. I grew up on Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn just as much as I grew up on blues. I actually started listening to blues to get away from the classic country that my nana would always play. I would play the blues to be rebellious and to get away from that but I grew to love it. My nana picks on me now because I used to tell her to turn those records off and it would be stuff like George Jones and he did a lot of stuff with Tammy Wynette. There’s a lot of intricate guitar work in country music and I fell in love with the guitar at a young age so that’s what made me fall in love with the style. Ultimately, as I said before, the project started out accidental.
RD: It’s pretty cool the way it all came out. The harmonies you and Jess have are very beautiful.
TJK: We don’t really spend a lot of time on anything. I don’t mean to depreciate the work, but we really just have fun and after a couple of songs came out of it we figured that we’d play a show to see what people think. It’s continuously been this fun thing and I’m glad people like it.
RD: Blues and country genres have a distinct relationship.
TJK: They’re very derivative.
RD: They both started around the same time and they both have similar sounds and similar structures. The Silks is a blues heavy rock band and this project you have with Jess is stripped down country; did it take any adjusting for you at first going from The Silks to starting up Cowboy and Lady?
TJK: Not at all, it’s pretty smooth for me. You’d be surprised but actually a lot of the songs I write with The Silks are played acoustic at first. It’s just me banging around on the couch and tossing around ideas. Sometimes those riffs start as acoustic and then I’ll bring them to the electric world and whatnot, but I really liked this separation of the two mentally on a personal level. I can get away from The Silks if I need to mentally and I’ll just play acoustic with Cowboy & Lady. I really wanted to show people that I’m extremely versatile when it comes to being a guitar player. I didn’t want them thinking that I could only play electric. I’ve been playing that way forever so I really wanted to showcase that flavor.
Acoustic guitar and just acoustic music in general is such a beautiful sound. My childhood friend plays cello and nothing sounds better than a piano, a cello and an acoustic guitar together. There’s something about the relationship between those three instruments that’s so beautiful, especially classical guitar. It’s all relative to me, I like switching gears that much. You learn a lot very quickly that way and then you learn how to switch the gears at a faster pace, too. The Silks are definitely a primary band and Jess and I just have fun. As of now she can’t tour because of her kids, but someday we’ll be running around.
RD: The new Cowboy & Lady record Take Me To Town was done in Somerville, Massachusetts, near Boston. It’s been tough for bands in Providence to break into Boston where The Silks have gained a following over the past year or so. Do you feel embraced in Boston as a musician from Providence or do you feel like an outsider up there?
TJK: During the past year and a ½ we’ve totally been embraced and it’s been happening more and more. A year before all of this started happening I was ready to swear off Boston. It was so tough and I couldn’t figure out why. Then it was like overnight and we got this little buzz and we’re so grateful. Now we got a bunch of relationships going, I know a lot of musicians there and other than the parking and the roads, Boston is a unique city. You’ll see some heavy hittin’ performances on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and that’s just the weekday. It’s very cool and you can see some heavy hitters doing their normal thing.
RD: There are a lot of incredibly talented individuals up there. A lot of great soul musicians and a lot of great blues bands, there’s a lot of musical diversity in Boston as well.
TJK: Everyone knows everybody and that’s really great. Everyone supports each other and I really like that part about the music scene in Boston. Providence could learn a lot about that kind of thing, there is a lot of support here and there, but it’s just not as thick as it is in Boston.
RD: You were talking about the classic country sound and how much you appreciate playing it with the Cowboy and Lady project. In country music, there’s this new wave of artists who are playing vintage stuff but they put their own spin on it. Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Margo Price come to mind. There’s a resurgence of Nashville country that’s coming up against all the pop crap that everyone is getting tired of. Do you feel that this is going to be a trend where classic rooted country music is going to be taking over all the Top 40 country that you hear?
TJK: I absolutely do. Providence bands even have been getting a little more rock, I don’t know what that’s all about because The Silks have been the same forever. We play good ol’ 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and I like that with a lot of bands in Providence there’s definitely this throwback. Hayes Carll is one of my favorites and he’s got this Kris Kristofferson folk country sound. It doesn’t matter, I’m not trying to put anyone in a box but I’m a huge fan and he’s incredible. I got his last album and he says it best in one of his songs where he sings “the next big thing is getting back to your roots” and sure as shit, what are we doing? Everybody’s tired of the bull and they want to be experienced again. All the music that I gravitate toward and all the records that I own whether is classic country, delta blues, whatever it is it’s a religious experience for me.
It has to move me, that’s what I like and I feel like people are starting to get hipper to that. They want to be moved, Nathaniel Rateliff has been playing another way for nearly a decade and all of the sudden he’s trying something new with an old soul throwback and boom, he’s top of the charts. There’s a little cheesiness in there with that hit “S.O.B.” and cheesiness has a lot to do with country music. You need to have a certain amount of cheeseball to actually have a country song. It’s supposed to be a little cheesy.
RD: Country music has never taken itself that seriously to begin with.
TJK: It’s not supposed to, that’s why you can have an upbeat sad song.
RD: After the show at The Columbus Theatre on July 1, what do you have planned next? Do you and Jess have a few more shows on the horizon? Are The Silks releasing anything new?
TJK: Jess and I are probably just going to keep playing and selling the record. We’re really happy about the record, we did nine songs in eight hours in Somerville. We’ll probably just ride that for a little bit and The Silks will be celebrating the release of our upcoming follow up to Last American Band at Aurora on August 12. I’m really excited about that, they’re a big step for us as far as sound goes. It’s very mature and we also recorded another album in Boston a couple of weeks ago and that’s going to come out around Christmas so we have a bunch of stuff going on until the end of the year. With Cowboy and Lady we’re just going to keep plugging away; Jess and I have a couple of ideas. We might do a covers album of obscure type stuff or we’ll just keep grinding. It’s laid-back and that’s where we’d like to keep it.
Buy tickets to see Cowboy and Lady, Zach Schmidt & James Maple at The Columbus Theatre on July 1: ticketfly.com/purchase/event/1154803; Stream Cowboy & Lady’s Take Me To Town on Bandcamp: cowboyandlady.bandcamp.com/album/take-me-to-town