Bill Lyerly was no new-comer to the stage when he signed with RCA Nashville in 1980. He formed his first band when he was 11 years old, and in high school he skipped class to rehearse and then perform with such greats as the Shirelles and Steppenwolf who encouraged him to take his music seriously.
The British invasion captured Bill’s imagination, and his first band set fire to Beatles, Stones and Yardbirds covers. Lyerly only had to hear a song once, and without ever reading a note or taking a music class, he stamped his style onto every phrase. After college he co-founded Super Grit Cowboy Band, one of the first alternative country bands, which reviewers, including The Village Voice, called the “South’s hottest honky tonkers”. After writing and singing lead on most of the material on Super Grit’s self-titled first album, Lyerly decided to leave and form an outlaw country band. He soon found himself playing seven days a week to crowds who couldn’t get enough of him.
It wasn’t easy for RCA Nashville to track Bill down, and when they did, they couldn’t convince Lyerly to play ball. An RCA producer had heard a song Bill had recorded in a small, North Carolina studio. It was called My Baby’s Coming Home. Bill, himself drove home the music on guitar, bass, piano and vocals and harmony. Clyde Mattocks of Super Grit added steel guitar, and Danny Dixon, drums. Finally the president of RCA got on the line with Bill and tried to persuade him to go to Nashville and record with RCA’s studio musicians. Lyerly turned him down, refusing to have his sound “homogenized, pasteurized and released in a slick package.” Six months later RCA relented, and Bill joined Waylon Jennings as the only other artist who was permitted to use his road band on records.
RCA continued to up the pressure for Lyerly to make Nashville his home base, and Bill continued to resist. Two of Bill’s promotional photos tell the story. RCA released an airbrushed image in which the musician looks like the young, sweet cowboy any daughter could take home. Bill hated it. He immediately called on a photographer outside the sphere of RCA’s influence who captured the rough and dangerous essence of Lyerly. The one who appealed to bad girls and bikers.
Two years later, after Bill’s version of Mystery Train had won him recognition and radio play around the world, the Lyerly-RCA relationship was beyond counselling. Nashville had become ashamed of being “country”, and had begun churning out pop crossovers. “I deplored clean and wholesome and hated rhinestone suits,” recalls Lyerly. He had also become fed up with RCA’s ultimatums to go to Nashville and record a slick record that might have been a commercial success, but, for Lyerly, it meant selling out.
When Roy Dea, one of Nashville´s last great old-school producers, left to form his own label, LSI, Lyerly went with him. Steve Earle, a young and promising Texas singer-songwriter, had been hired and signed by LSI for his first record deal. Both Steve and Bill, who quickly become friends, had their first albums released on the fledgling LSI label. Lyerly’s next album, Higher Ground, had a progressive rock and roll and blues approach to it that had never been done in Nashville.
By the end of the 80s, Lyerly’s music had evolved into a new sound, fusing Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters), Texas Blues (Freddie King) and British blues rock (early Eric Clapton). It was served up dense, dirty and scorching hot and Lyerly referred to it as “napalm blues.” His album, From the Old School, released on Broadcast Records in 1990, paid homage to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s British blues rock. Lyerly didn’t care that his American audience on the East Coast still grooved on traditional blues. The guitar tones in Old School were overdriven into heavy distortion with the power of rock and roll, making this work anything but old and taking fans back to the classroom.
In 1998 Railroad Station Blues, on the Riviere International label, was released in Europe and in the United States, receiving instant, rave reviews in Living Blues and Blues Revue, the Bibles of Blues music.
In 1999 Railroad was followed by, Cobalt Blues. This amazingly poetic and a times, haunting line-up of songs was nominated for a total of five CAMMY Awards with Lyerly taking home Best New Artist in 2000. Lyerly’s song writing genius comes forward in songs such as, Dark Glasses in which he reflects on the dark, final days preceding his mother’s death from cancer.
Motel Room Blues was brought out in late 2000 by Ripete Blues and received extensive airplay on the East Coast. La Hora del Blues, the top radio Blues program in Spain, was one of many to describe these CDs as “must hear” music.
In 2001 Broadcast Records released Requiem Mess, Lyerly’s first new country album since Prodigal Son in 1982. It was also the first collaboration between Lyerly and Clyde Mattocks since Super Grit Cowboy Band’s debut album. Blue Suede News called it, “one of the year’s very best.”
In 2007 Broadcast issued The Twang Years, selected country recordings by Bill Lyerly from 1977-1983. “Everywhere I played people would ask me when I was going to put out some of my early music on CD. There was a market for it so we digitally remastered everything and added some previously unreleased songs as well as early 45 tracks.”
Lyerly’s address books are full of inked out names. Musician friends who followed the cocaine trail to their deaths or to jail cells. Talented players who couldn’t take the pressure of gigging night after night with little sleep and lots of alcohol. “It’s a hard life,” comments Lyerly, “whether or not you ride from city to city on a Prevost or whether you hit the stage in your own area.”
Bill Lyerly survived and feels that Roots music sums up all he has lived. His songwriting rocks, it throws hard punches and then it sooths you during bad times. Lyerly has stayed true to his sound with no regrets.
Over his career Bill Lyerly has never depended on a record label for live shows. The list of major artists he has performed with includes many of the “who’s who” of the Rock and Roll and Country Music Hall of Fame. These artists include: John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Gregg Allman, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, REM, Bill Monroe, Emmy Lou Harris and Rick Nelson.
“Working with these people was a great experience for me- like going to the rock and roll school of cool,” says Lyerly. “Someday I’ve got to write a book about the sharing the road and some wild experiences with these guys.”