Best of the Worst Kind
Best of the Worst Kind, Tylor and the Train Robbers’ second album, is named for a lyric in the song The Ballad of Black Jack Ketchum. A relative of Tylor Ketchum, whose band of guitar-slingers pay tribute to the outlaw’s escapades, Blackjack Ketchum was eventually caught and hanged in 1901 for a series of train robberies. In 1892, Texan Tom Ketchum and a group of friends robbed the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway at a water station just outside Nutt, New Mexico, making off with a large payroll. Over the next decade or so, Ketchum was involved in numerous crimes and shootouts, joining the famous Hole-in-the-Wall gang, a loose conglomerate of outlaw gangs which included Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, operating out of the Hole-in-the-Wall pass in Wyoming. Ketchum was caught in 1899, after being hit by a shotgun blast fired form a moving train he was attempting to rob. The Ballad of Blackjack Ketchum details the outlaw’s exploits, his robberies, eventual capture and hanging, albeit avoiding the particularly grizzly outcome of the final drop. A brilliant piece of wild west storytelling, the song fells like it must have been around for decades, rather than being the recent output of a songwriter not yet in his thirties.
Tylor Ketchum writes songs that belie his twenty-seven years. From the very first listen, I knew Best of the Worst Kind was an album that would be calling me back for repeat listens. There is a maturity and wisdom to the songs that lets you know you are in safe hands, even though this is only Ketchum’s second album. His prowess as a songwriter is backed up by the experience of his band, The Train Robbers. Ketchum’s brother, Jason Bushman, plays bass. The two of them moved from their home town of Helix, Oregon, to Boise, Idaho, some years back, in search of a music scene to get involved in. In Boise they met with a pair of older musicians, drummer Flip Perkins and guitarist Johnny Pisano (also father of Ketchum’s fiancée, Jennifer Pisano, who sings on the album) and formed The Train Robbers. So, this band is not just a second family for Tylor, it is family. Keeping duties in the family seems to be important. The portrait of Blackjack Ketchum which has been used on the sleeve of Best of the Worst Kind was created by Gary Ketchum, Tylor’s grandfather, so that’s four generations of extended family being represented here.
Tylor and the Trian Robbers’ first album, Gravel, released in 2017, showed Ketchum’s talent for blue collar country, influenced by Oklahoma’s red dirt rock and a whole heap of Texas song writing. Best of the Worst Kind expands on that promise, tightening up the production, delivering a deeply satisfying listen. I asked Tylor Ketchum a few questions about the album, how easy it was to write a song about the hanging of an outlaw relative and why he chose to move to Boise, Idaho.
Listening to both your new album and your first one, Gravel, you clearly knew from the start the type of songs you wanted to write and how you wanted them to sound. When did you start writing these songs?
I got my first guitar to learn on when I was about 12 years old, it wasn’t anything fancy, but it was perfect for me at the time. It didn’t take long for me to move on from learning other people’s songs to trying to write my own. Some of the songs from Gravel, “Mom’s Old Fender” and “I Got You”, were written when I was pretty young. Like a lot of first albums, Gravel was a compilation of the best of all the songs I wrote up to that point. Best of the Worst Kind is mostly songs that I wrote since Gravel was released, but I did bring back a couple older songs. “Fumblin For Rhymes” was one of my fist songs and I re-worked it a little and decided to put it out on this album. “Storyteller” was written back in 2012 when my Grandpa passed away. I wrote it to help cope with the loss but couldn’t finish it for over 5 years after his death. Sometimes I feel like that song and the time it took to write it are a literal representation of the time it took me to grieve.
Your press release states that you were in your mid-twenties when you recorded Gravel (released in 2017). I assume that means you are still in your twenties? The songs on Best of the Worst Kind (and Gravel) sound like the compositions of someone with more years behind them (not sure why, thinking about it. Hank was gone at 29). Maybe it’s because the artists that these songs remind me of tend to be older. What’s your view on maturity and song writing? Do you understand what people are trying to convey when they say that these sound like the songs of an older man? Is it because so much music produced today is throw-away?
Thank you! Yes, I am still in my twenties, just turned 27 in February. My Mom says that I’ve always been kind of an old soul. Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and they introduced me to the classic country greats at an early age, so I feel like I had good musical influences from the beginning. Spending that time with them helped me to recognise the value of listening to your elders, their stories and their advice. Since then, I’ve continued to connect to older people in my life and have great respect for their input, so I think that I’ve been able to take that voice and bring it into my writing.
How much do you think the maturity of your sound is down to your fellow band members? I understand a couple of them have a few years on you. Do you think this influences you in your song writing? Have they influenced you directly, with the music they listen to and share with you?
I feel fortunate to have been able to work with Johnny & Flip, they have opened so many new doors to music I was never exposed to growing up. It really broadened my horizons of musical influences. By having them as my sounding board for my writing, it has helped me raise the bar.
Your band has become somewhat of a family affair. Does this make things easier, or potentially the opposite?
It’s definitely a little of both, ha ha! There is a real sense of security having my family next to me on stage. Since they know me so well, on and off stage, we can connect musically in ways that I don’t think a lot of other musicians can. I know I can trust them, and I also know that they are in this with me for the long haul - and that is valuable in this business, I think. On the other hand, it can be hard because there’s not much separation between work life and family life. We are all working on building this together and it can be a lot sometimes.
You moved to Boise, Idaho, from Helix, Oregon, in search of a music scene. Looking at the map, Helix looks like a very small town indeed, but it looks like it is equidistant between Boise, Portland and Seattle. What made you choose Boise over the two bigger cities, both of which have established music scenes? Why did Boise attract you? How has moving to Boise affected your music, compared to how moving to Portland or Seattle might have done?
Honestly, I had always planned to someday move to Austin or Nashville because I felt like those were the places where the music I wanted to be involved with were thriving. I was introduced to the music scene in Idaho after I went to the Braun Brother Reunion in Challis, Idaho, when I was 18 years old. It was the first time I had been around that much of the music that I loved all in one place, which probably made the Idaho music scene seem a lot bigger. I met George DeVore in Challis and then he ended up playing a music festival in my hometown later that summer. I got to talk with him there and he gave me that classic advice, “get out of this town!” I moved to Boise three weeks later. Honestly it was the easiest place for me to go to get me out of Helix. I am thankful that I landed here because the music scene isn’t as saturated as it might have been in a bigger city. I was able to grow and stand out here, which created a lot more opportunities like opening for some big names that tour through this area. In a larger market those gigs would have been a lot harder to get, so I feel like I was meant to land here first.
The title of the new album, Best of the Worst Kind, is a line from your song about Black Jack Ketchum, a distant relative of yours. Is this a song you’re had in mind for some time? How does it feel to have a had an outlaw in the family, especially one who was hanged for train robbery? Did you find this song easy to write?
Ever since I named the band the Train Robbers, I knew that I needed to write this song, I just didn’t know how I wanted to approach it. So, it kind of simmered in the back on my mind for a few years. A western song about a train robber isn’t particularly hard to write, but I wanted this song to be different. I didn’t want it to be cheesy or too theme-y. Since Black Jack is a relative, I wanted to be able to tap into that story and kind of go into character both when I was writing it and when I perform it live. The more research I did on him, the more I felt like I could tap into his persona and once I did that the words just flowed. I was up in Stanley, Idaho, for a month-long residency at the Kasino Club, I was spending my days on the front porch of a little cabin at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains and the song just started to course through me. I let it all come through and put everything on paper - I didn’t want to cut it short. I threw out all the song writing “rules” and just went with what was coming. So, in some ways it did come easily, but it has also been cooking in the oven for several years. It just took me being in the right place and in the right state of mind to bring it out and get down on paper.
Your music has a lot of Texas and red dirt in it. Are you happy to be associated with those traditions, or do you feel that such categorisation is a distraction? How would you describe your sound?
I am happy to be associated with those genres/categories of this music. Almost all my musical influences come from those styles. However, I do think that Idaho country music is kind of its own genre that has never really been recognised on a large scale. Reckless Kelly and Micky & the Motorcars are now known as Texas bands, but the Braun family hails from Idaho and they brought a lot of the Idaho music with them to Texas. They grew up around a lot of great Idaho musicians including their Dad Muzzie Braun and Pinto Bennett and the Famous Motel Cowboys - which both bands have recorded songs from. I have also been heavily influenced by the greats of the Idaho music scene and I’m thankful that I have had the opportunity to work with a lot them over the past few years.
To my ears, I hear shades of James McMurtry and Guitar Town-era Steve Earle, among others. Who are the biggest influences on your song writing? Who do you like to listen to most?
Wow, thank you so much! James McMurtry and Steve Earle are both huge influences on me and have been big inspirations for my song writing. My influences are wide ranging, from Townes Van Zandt to Brandi Carlile, I gravitate toward any songwriter who can put words together in a way that no one else could. Tom Petty was a major influence early on, Guy Clark, John Prine, Nikki Lane, Jason Isbell, BJ Barham, Turnpike Troubadours, The Byrds, Emmylou Harris, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles, Hayes Carll, Chris Knight, Todd Snider, Corb Lund… this list could go on and on, but those are some of my favourites. Oh yeah, and Blaze Foley.
What new music are you enjoying? Are there any artists I might not know yet that you would recommend I check out?
We are lucky to get to cross paths with a lot of great bands on the road and experience their music. A few of my current favourites are Jonathan Tyler, The Black Lillies, Paul Cauthen, Shane Smith & the Saints, and Jeff Crosby.
You’ve been on the road, taking the new album to the people and sharing the stage with the likes of Shooter Jennings. Who have you enjoyed playing with most and who are you looking forward to playing with?
Playing with Shooter Jennings was a dream come true, the first song I learned to sing and play on guitar was 4th of July off Shooter’s first album. Getting to hang with him and the band on the bus felt like a big personal accomplishment coming full circle. We recently played a show with Johnathan Tyler who I really look up to as a performer and songwriter. Also, we got to play a sold out show here in Boise with Turnpike Troubadours last January, that was amazing. We did a sold out show in Montana with Corb Lund and had a great time with them. We got to open for Reckless Kelly a few months back for a sold-out show - every time we get to do one of these shows I feel like I’m living my dream. Coming up we are excited to play the Braun Brother Reunion this summer, where we’ll be sharing the stage with Steve Earle, Randy Rogers, Cody Canada & the Departed and a ton more. Also, we’re on the bill at the Jackalope Jamboree with American Aquarium, Lilly Hiatt and Shane Smith & Saints. Plus, we are playing the Wild Hare Music Fest with Jason Boland, Whitey Morgan and Micky & The Motorcars and bunch more. So, we are really looking forward to this summer!
Who would you have on the bill at your fantasy festival, dead or alive?
Definitely Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Tom Petty, Blaze Foley, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Rateliff, Nikki Lane, Margo Price, James McMurtry, Sturgill Simpson, Jerry Jeff Walker, CCR… is this a one-day festival or can it go all week?
Any other business? Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to both this new album and our first album, Gravel. We really appreciate the feedback! We hope that we’ll be able to make it over to your part of the world in the future, we’d love to come to tour over there!
Best of the Worst Kind by Tylor & The Train Robbers will be released on 26th April 2019. Until then, check out their first album, Gravel.