A lot of that performing by Tyler England came as part of the band of his longtime friend (and fellow Oklahoman) Garth Brooks.
But when his self-titled 1995 debut album on RCA generated a Top Ten single ("Should've Asked Her Faster"), Ty (that's what he went by on his first two albums) England's career took off on its own, leading him into a whirlwind of touring and promoting that, more than once, left him wondering "where am I, and why am I here?"
After a followup RCA album, he continued a busy schedule, yet strove to create more of a balance between his music career and his home life with his wife and four young children. He seems to convey the feeling that being around more to watch his kids grow up has helped him grow up as well, and when he decided to do a new album on a new label (he and RCA parted ways after no more hits) with a new producer, he felt it was time to present a new identity as well. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tyler England.
"I grew up because now I'm doing my kind of music. If you want a real understanding of what kind of music I love, this album is going to be much more clarifying to you than either of the first two."
That kind of music is, to a large extent, the classic, hard-core fiddle-and-steel guitar sound of the old Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell records his beloved grandfather - England describes him as "a music nut" - used to play for him. His new Capitol album, "Highways and Dance Halls" also displays a fondness for classic country artists of a more contemporary stripe, like Don Williams. He credits Brooks, his former boss and college buddy, with giving him the final push to change his musical direction.
England's first two albums were produced by another Garth, well-respected veteran Nashville producer Garth Fundis, but when Brooks agreed to produce the new record, he urged England to change not only his approach to what songs he chose and sang, but also how he actually sang them.
"When I was with Garth's band, I had to sing high harmony, higher than I sing naturallyÉEverything I sang on my first two albums was way up there. With this album, I sing in a lower key. I like the sound, and it's much more comfortable for me."
England is quick to say that he continues to value and treasure his experiences working with Fundis - "I love the guy" - but working with Brooks became an opportunity to let the long-brewing chemistry between them result in an album that shows who England really is.
"The difference between a Garth Fundis and a Garth Brooks is that I grew up with Garth (Brooks), and Garth has always known where my head was and where my heart was and where my vocals should beÉThere was a difference in approach (between the RCA albums and the new album), Garth and I were the only two decision makers at Capitol, and it was all about 'do you really like this song, do you love this song?'"
The two met in college and hung out and played music together. When Brooks got his first record deal, he asked England to be part of his touring band, playing guitar and singing backup.
While the songs they chose for "Highways And Dance Halls" do seem to reflect a more mature, reflective England, that's not to say that the album is a sober exercise in navel-gazing.
The opening "My Baby No Esta Aqui" is a good-natured, up-tempo my-gal-done-left-me tune that England calls "a little bit of candy." On the more serious side is "Too Many Highways," about the life of a lonely rodeo rider who wonders if all the traveling and living among strangers is really worth it. It's a theme that England readily admits strikes a chord in his own life of balancing his music career with trying to make sure his own kids remember who he his.
"That song is a lot about what this whole album is. It's just a cool song to guysÉhopefully we've got a balance on this record, but in the past, my albums always catered to the ladies in the audience, but this is just a 'guy cool' song, and it's very descriptive of the life I lead."
Life on the road is "much tougher now." England is particularly aware that his two oldest kids, now 11 and 7, are more keenly aware of the time he spends away from home, especially his son Tyler (the 7-year old) - "He's just so much more aware of what I do than he used to be."
Not more than a few days ago, England recounts, a call from his son's teacher brought the news that young Tyler was upset because "Daddy won't be home until Christmas" - even though Tyler Sr. was about to head home from the airport when the call arrived. A quick call to the school reassured the young boy, but the episode clearly weighs heavily on his father's mind.
Also of note on "Highways And Dance Halls" is "Travelin' Soldier," a song with a story line that could have come straight from any of the thousands of small towns across the country - a young boy gone off to war, and the girl he left behind. In this case, the war is in Vietnam, and England acknowledges that, at the age of 37, his memories of that war and that time are somewhat vague and fuzzy, and the song made no personal connection with him. It was just a song that told a vivid story in his mind.