Musical collaborations, both planned and spontaneous, are a hallmark of the Newport Folk Festival. Those collaborations hold out the possibility of the unexpected, of artists combining their separate visions to bring forth something different, a whole that is greater than its contributing parts.
This year, the scheduled variety includes the pairing of two virtuoso guitarists, Steve Gunn and William Tyler. Gunn is a prolific guitar player, singer, and songwriter who has been making records as a solo artist for some 15 years. He has also been an inveterate collaborator during that time, recording with Mike Cooper, Michael Chapman, Kurt Vile, and M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, to name a few. The variegated music that he has made in both guises spans American Primitive styles and fingerstyle guitar playing, drone and constructed experimental music, gentle acoustic folk and soaring psychedelic rock.
To find Gunn engaged in yet another collaboration, then, comes as no surprise. This time, his partner in music is Nashville guitar player William Tyler. Tyler first made his mark as a session player and member of oddball collective Lambchop and of the Silver Jews. He leapt into releasing records under his own name in 2010 with “Behold the Spirit.” That album, and those that followed, presented Tyler’s extraordinary, inventive instrumental music, often rooted in acoustic country and folk, but regularly incorporating experimental aspects, ambient and found sounds, and other elements.
After last year’s cancellation due to the pandemic, the Newport Folk Festival is back, albeit in an altered form that defers to the fact that the coronavirus is still very much with us. The festival is running at reduced capacity — about half of the usual attendance for each day — and implementing other social distancing measures. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is required to attend. And there will only be two stages. But the event is taking place over six sold-out days — Friday through Wednesday — instead of the usual three, so an ample and diverse roster of artists will perform, even though there won’t be as many on each particular day. What do Black Joe Lewis, Beck, Lucy Dacus, Jason Isbell, CAAMP, Margo Price, and Hiss Golden Messenger have in common? They’re all playing Newport this year.
When reached via Zoom recently to talk about his and Tyler’s upcoming performance on Tuesday, Gunn begins by noting that the two have been close friends for over 10 years, a friendship engendered by similar musical interests. “We both were living in similar guitar territory . . . we were playing fingerstyle guitar, we were doing a lot of folk-related things, we were interested in rock music, we were interested in experimental music,” he recalls. “I think that all of those influences sort of cross-pollinate within our own separate spheres.”
In spite of that friendship, the two first played together in a formal sense only a few years ago, as part of Yo La Tengo’s annual Hanukkah series of concerts in New York in 2019. That led to them doing a residency together a few months later. Gunn believes it was based on those performances that the Newport organizers invited them to play this year’s folk festival.
Gunn says Tyler is a different player than he is, which he attributes to the Nashvillian’s “whole history in country music” — one of the things that attracted him to Tyler’s playing. “I was more exploratory, playing a lot of improvised concerts. But his country influence was very, very interesting to me. I didn’t necessarily know how to play in that style, but I gravitated towards his playing in that respect.”
He describes Tyler’s music as having a panoramic character that he also strives to achieve. “It’s very technical, but it’s also extremely wide open.” He also thinks that Tyler can jump into any musical situation that’s thrown at him. He characterizes what results when they perform together: “It’s not so much of a push-and-pull sort of situation where you’re thinking, ‘Oh, what’s going to come of this? Let’s take this journey and see.’ It’s more of a heightened version of myself, if that makes sense. I think that we both kind of lend that to each other.”
The set they’re planning for the festival includes some new songs from Tyler, material from a new album that Gunn has coming out in August, some covers, and other musical forays as well. Whether the two will also collaborate on new material to present at the festival is yet to be determined. “We have a few ideas,” Gunn says. It will be just the two of them onstage for a mostly acoustic set.
This will be the first time that either has played at Newport, and Gunn says he and Tyler have both dreamed of having that chance for a long time. The stature of the festival and the wider path it has been carving in recent years have some resonance for him; he points to “the history of it, and the fact that it’s still going and still relevant, and that they’ve been inviting peers of ours and people we know.”
Now he’ll make his debut there with a musician he considers both a friend and a peer. “I’m a great admirer of William,” he says. “I’m really grateful to have friends who just inspire me all the time, and William is definitely one of those. So I’m particularly excited to play Newport with him.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com