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Mane attraction: Tyler Gregory's look and sound echo a fading yesteryear



Just as Parks & Recreation star Adam Scott's probably tired of being congratulated on his Masters win, Kansas Americana artist Tyler Gregory would rather you not confuse him with Odd Future rapper/producer Tyler Gregory Okonma aka Tyler, the Creator.

There's absolutely zero resemblance: One's an urbane Cali-based hip-hop impresario with his own TV show (Loiter Squad), clothing line and controversial Mountain Dew commercials. The other's a gravelly-voiced banjo-playing throwback and would-be contestant on IFC's Whisker Wars. It's kinda crazy. Gregory laughs solicitously and agrees, "It's a little crazy."

He has the easy, informal manner of a man with two first names, recalling in spirit that rootsy, old-fashioned style of William Elliott Whitmore, one of Gregory's biggest inspirations. The greatest influence, though, was Woody Guthrie, who turned the aspiring musician from metal to folk. Of course, going from Dio to Dylan is not the most common transition.

"It was an odd transition, but a fast one," says Gregory. "It's something I've never been able to explain much. I just started listening to Woody Guthrie a little bit and, I don't know, it spoke a little more truth," he says. "I just got more connected to it. Maybe it was my age at the time. I just love the storytelling."

Like Whitmore, Gregory's baritone is deep, gravelly and tinged with gospel. After countless demos, last year he released what he dubs his official debut, Before the Black Powder Strikes. The songs have an earthy, timeless quality as though shot in black-and-white years ago, rediscovered recently, and subtly colorized for modern tastes.

Tracks range from the jazz-blues title track with its echo of Tom Waits, through the ragged rode-hard-put-away-wet recollections of "Saturday Night," and the tender jangling wanderlust of "Kansas Girl," with Gregory's booming voice spreading outward like maple syrup.

It was six years ago when Gregory ditched his day job to pursue music full-time, moving from open mics and coffee shops into clubs big enough to support two bandmates — upright bassist Sonny Sparks and mandolin/violin player Paul Coleman, who both appear on the album.

"They added color to a few of the songs, and now we're going to be kind of full force as a three-piece," says Gregory. "We're definitely taking another step and getting a little more serious about doing it as a trio."

Even so, Gregory is still better acquainted with performing solo. He's been busking since his teen years, when he'd travel 20 miles each weekend to a more bustling town where he could sit outside bars from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., performing for tips. It's taught him how to read an audience, and made him more at ease as a performer.

Yet it was still surprising when he was captured in a viral video busking in Lawrence before an enthusiastic blind, autistic child. In the video the elementary-age kid sways to the music and eventually reaches out to touch the musician and his guitar, while Gregory continues to play.

"A normal day, you put yourself out there and a good thing is going to come along," says Gregory. "It was pretty random in a sense, but a beautiful moment and powerful. Somebody got video of it, it went viral and I got a call from Good Morning America and The Ellen [DeGeneres] Show. It was just cool to see how fast something like that can happen."

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