I met Lyle Griggs in a bathroom stall-sized practice room in the basement of Branford College. The walls are lined with dotted, sound-absorbent wood planks, and most of the space is taken up by a grand piano. There’s barely enough room to stretch your legs—a few minutes in there and you can smell your own breath. But as the only music space in Branford, and the one in which Lyle usually practices, it seemed like a fitting place to meet.
Lyle is an agreeable-looking guy with a mousey nose, an irremovable smirk, and fluffy, noogie-able, dirty blonde hair. Banjo in hand, he sat cross-legged on a fold-up chair, the tip of his cowboy boot tapping my seat as he bounced his knee.
Born in Lawrence, Kansas, Lyle was raised on folk and country music. When he was five, his parents signed him up for piano lessons. He hated them. “I relied too much on my ear,” he explained, frustrated with the technicality of classical music. After eight years of lessons, Lyle quit, never having learned to read music.
But he continued to listen to music, even if he wasn’t playing it. Every evening, he would pick out a CD to play over dinner with his father. Through his father’s CD collection he developed his own taste in music, becoming obsessed with Johnny Cash, John Prine, and Dwight Yokam. He was particularly drawn to American folk: “Folk is oral history and storytelling,” he told me. “There’s an emphasis on preserving cultural memory through music.”
His freshman year of high school, Lyle picked up the guitar. Lyle and his father would split hour-long lessons, thirty minutes each, from a well-known guitar teacher in the area. Lyle spent his time on simpler songs that didn’t involve the sorts of complicated techniques that turned him away from the piano. “With guitar, you pick it up for a couple weeks and you can play three-chord songs,” he said, “You can still play and sing and have fun on the instrument.”
Lyle focused on fingerpicking in an effort to reproduce the twangy, delicate sound of his musical inspirations. “I didn’t learn how to play with a pick until recently,” he told me, and was never really drawn to the songs that required one. Instead, he learned every well-known John Prine song, translated his guitar skills to the banjo, and dove deep into the Texas and Bakersfield sounds.
“I don’t know if these terms are going to mean much to you,” he cut himself off. They didn’t. My preconception of country music was of a relatively homogenous genre, characterized by major chords, twangy guitar, and a cowboy aesthetic. But as Lyle explained to me, there is enormous variety within the genre and different places have distinct styles.
The Nashville sound, sometimes called “countrypolitan,” makes liberal use of smooth strings and delicate harmonies, cleaning up the roughness of its honky-tonk predecessor. The Bakersfield sound began in California and incorporated a lot of ideas from rock and roll. The defining characteristics of each subgenre are products of their origin. “Because of the emphasis on the country and the land… listening to music from Oklahoma is very obviously about Oklahoma,” Lyle explained. Well, maybe to you, Lyle.
But Lawrence is not Oklahoma. Cutting into an explanation of his love of natural scenery, Lyle interjects: “I’m not from the country… Despite the boots and the music, I’m from the middle of a large college town.” The music scene in Lawrence was dominated by indie and alternative bands, and though Lyle explored some of it at local venues, it was never his cup of tea. Without much of a country or folk context to mold him, Lyle was free to develop his own taste and style, informed by his father’s CDs and his unique experience in eastern Kansas.
Upon arriving at Yale, he used music as a means of connecting with home. “Playing country music in New Haven is a nice, nostalgic exercise,” he said, “It’s an interesting antidote to any feelings of homesickness.” Lyle joined Tangled Up in Blue, an American folk singing group at Yale named after the Bob Dylan song of the same title. It was through this group that he began performing and became inspired to write his own music.
Like so many of his favorite folk artists, Lyle centers his songs around the micro: a person, an interaction, a specific setting. “I write a lot of songs about weather and climate,” he told me, “I’m pretty obsessed with it.” One of his songs describes the 2011 drought in Kansas, while another documents a flood that devastated Western Massachusetts in the 1930s. Many of his songs have been about fine details of his new collegiate environment, as “a way to process how [he’s] experienced New England.”
But music, for him, is not just about digesting his experiences; it is also a means of conjuring old memories and immortalizing new ones. “I recall a lot of my life through music,” he explained, “It allows me to instantly connect to past selves, past experiences, family members.” To Lyle, music, like a specific taste or smell, evokes memories of a long-lost time and place. He also uses music to preserve the present, writing songs or intentionally replaying them to solidify their association with this period of his life. It’s like he deliberately wires certain moments to the stimulus of a song, ready to conjure them at will later on.
I asked him for an example of song that’s strongly associated with a given memory. He paused, and replied, “‘Loretta.’ It’s a Townes Van Zandt song.” Before he came to Yale, Lyle had been warned of the relative smallness of the Northeast’s sky and its more mountainous landscape. “Connecticut feels claustrophobic,” he said. “Loretta” reminds him of Kansas, “a place with much shorter forests and a lot more sky.”
I asked him to play it, and he obliged. He reached over, carefully threaded his banjo through the narrow opening beside the piano, and removed it from its case. He took a few minutes to tune the instrument: “One thing about the banjo is it’s very obvious when it’s sharp. The tone is so tinny.” After a few confirmatory strums, he cleared his throat and began to sing, a southern drawl creeping into his diction:
Loretta, I won’t be gone long
Keep your dancing slippers on
Keep me on your mind a while
I’ll be back, babe, to make you smile
I’ll be back, babe, to make you smile