Lyal Strickland hails from Missouri. The Heartland of America. I was intrigued when I read his ultra-condensed biography which describes him as a singer, songwriter and farmer who balances his art with raising grass-fed beef. That kind of bio is not something you see every day. I’m always seeking out new music and knew that Lyal had a story to tell. It turns out that he’s got a lot to say about life on the farm and how it intermingles with the craft of songwriting and the heavy demands of being an independent musician.
Lyal’s music has a universal resonance. One music critic calls his latest album Balanced on Barbed Wire “rural grit and grace.” I’d have to say that’s an accurate sentiment.
You can find out more about Lyal and listen to some of his music by visiting his website.
Here’s a video of “O Arkansas.”
Here’s a must see video—a cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
Since your press bio is only two sentences long, that leaves a lot of room for questions! So, tell us about your connection to music. What piqued you interest in music?
I suppose I was always interested in music. I was certainly always around it growing up. It really took a turn when I joined the middle school band, taking up the clarinet. I remember being just amazed that I could make noise out of something like that. That same year, I got a fire engine red bass. It was all downhill from there. I was interested in music, writing, and art. At the same time, I was trying to combat my introverted nature. Creating music seemed to incorporate all of these things, so I chose that path. It’s safe to say I was a fairly intense 7th grader.
Who were your early influences? Did you get the opportunity to experience much live music as a kid and young adult?
My mother was a radio DJ in Memphis years ago, and when she moved back to the Ozarks, she had some stints at the local stations. She always had tickets and backstage passes. I think I was about 7 or 8 before I realized you didn’t always get to meet the artist after the show. I also remember being terrified of Alan Jackson (I was pretty sure he was 15 feet tall).
For my influences when I started creating music, early on I listened to a lot of alt-rock and punk. It wasn’t until I got a Bob Dylan’s greatest hits album that I really understood how important songwriting was. Until that point, it was just a means to play my own chord progressions. I remember being about 14 and having this junky portable CD player shoved in my pocket while I was mowing the lawn. “Mr. Tambourine Man” came on and it kept skipping. I stopped mowing and sat under a tree in the front yard and listened to that album about three times over. From there it was a short jump to The Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and on and on.
Did you have any key experiences in which you knew deep inside that you had to throw your hat into the ring and try out a music career?
I don’t think I could point to a single moment. I just loved every aspect of it so much, I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It became my coping mechanism and my social life. I was positive that I would make it big before I had to worry about paying bills. That’s really been the hardest part as I get older–-trying to hang on and resist the temptation to have a 9 to 5 and all the things that come with it.
How long have you been playing gigs? Did you start the usual route–playing open mics and such?
I’ve never really played open mics. My first real gig was a weekly show an hour away to play at a Chinese restaurant for tips and a free buffet. My mom had to drive me. I only knew ten songs (9 originals and 1 cover) and I repeated them about three times over each show. Pretty sure I drove the waitresses nuts.
What’s your hometown of Buffalo, Missouri like? Was it a supportive community for you as an artist?
Buffalo, Missouri is Mayberry with a twang. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together. Sometimes that comes out as friendly, good natured attitudes, and sometimes it manifests itself as a little bitter and surviving in spite of the conditions. There’s a lot of hard working people here, and a lot of life truths.
There were a lot of people in Buffalo who were supportive of my music as I was growing up. Probably more that considered my career a curiosity, especially when I moved back to the farm. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me I couldn’t do what I’m doing. There were certainly moments when I felt like everyone was against me, but I think those are doubts every artist has.
How do you balance your farm life and your music life?
At first it was pretty difficult. I grew up around the farm, but I was more interested in music. It was only when I realized that something my family had worked towards for generations might fall away that I began getting involved. It was a huge learning curve. I immediately moved our herd over to grass fed, organic. It seemed natural to me. It’s basically the way my Great Grandfather raised them.
This past winter I finally broke down and got some help on the farm, even when I’m not on the road. It’s been a huge relief. I still love being out on the farm and taking care of things, but it’s comforting knowing that if I don’t get it done before I head out for a run of show, it’ll be alright.
Have you toured much outside of your region? Any goals in mind about any locations where you’d like to play?
For years I’ve just played in the mid-south. This year though, we’ve already been out to North and South Carolina, heading out to Indiana and Wisconsin, and I’ll be up to the northeast in the fall. My travel boundaries widen with each new album.
I’m interested in hearing about your songwriting process. Love the fact that you write so much about life in Ozarks and about your experiences in America’s heartland. Do you feel that growing up in this environment has enriched you and given you insights into people from all over so that your songs resonate with them?
I tried for years to run away from my background when it came to songwriting. I didn’t want to be pegged as a country bumpkin. When I moved back to the farm I started to hang with an old friend from high school, who drilled water wells. He came over one day, covered in mud. We were sitting on the porch staring out across the field and he told me he liked my songs but that I wasn’t doing my duty as a songwriter. I’d heard it a thousand times before, ‘write what you know’, but it really hit me that day. I had been running the farm for a couple years at that point, and at that moment on the porch it all seemed so clear.
There’s a lot of hard working people that are overlooked and forgotten. I know the ones close to home, but they’re everywhere. With my songs, I try to capture that. To me, it’s about the struggle. For the right path, for avoiding late fees on bills, for survival, and yeah, for love. Sometimes just the hope or memory of love is enough to make the rest fall away. I think those themes are universal, I just understand it best when I take a walk in the woods.
Your song “(What if We Could) Save the World” is a great singalong anthem. Has it become one of your signature songs?
It’s become one of them. It’s probably one of my more uplifting songs. Those songs can be few and far between for me.
“O Arkansas” from Balanced on Barbed Wire really stands out for me. What inspired you to write that song? And, by the way, what prompted you to name the album Balanced on Barbed Wire?
“O Arkansas” is a song of infatuation. There are people you meet and places you visit that you just get lost in. You’re blinded from all the logical reasons why it’s not a good idea and you’re convinced that it’s where you should be. And hey, maybe it is the right thing, but you’re far from thinking critically about it. I’m from the Missouri Ozarks which can be a little more rolling than mountainous. I’ve always thought the Arkansas Ozarks were beautiful, and when I’m there, it’s hard to pull myself back. So that’s a part of what that song is about, but of course it’s also about a girl. It’s always about a girl.
Balanced on Barbed Wire came twisted out of a line in “You’ll See.” The line is ‘You’ll see me looking just like a bluebird on barbed wire’. The songs on the album are about moving through life one day and one moment at a time. You have to walk the tightrope to make it to the end. There are so many chances you can fall down and never get back up. But of course even avoiding the fall, there is going to be some barbs and pain along the way that you have to pass over in order to appreciate the smooth parts.
Do you set aside time to write music on a regular schedule? How doyou psyche yourself up to create?
I practice on a regular basis, but I don’t schedule time to write. I wait until my emotions get bound up in my chest. Then I know it’s time, and there’s a song waiting. Film is a huge tool for me. I almost always have to watch a film before I write. Sometimes it will play into my mood, but mostly I use it to decompress and get my head out of the logistics and business end of my career so I can create again.
Your choice of covers is interesting… Your cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is superb. You take the song and make it your own and give it a whole new character. What was it about that song that attracted you to it?
I thought the emotional tone shift between Dolly’s original version and Whitney’s was interesting. When I dug into the lyrics, I really identified with them and thought I saw something different in them. Especially the last verse. There’s a lot of bitterness and abandonment there that I think stands in contrast to the other verses.
I also love your take on Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” What do you feel you bring to this song that makes it unique to you?
I love this song. I don’t write many story songs myself, so it was really fun to pick one up. The recklessness and passion of the characters is intriguing. I had to come up with my own guitar line, because I knew I didn’t have the patience to learn Richard’s amazing guitar part. I try to bring a softer, yet tortured, edge to the lyrics. I don’t know if I achieve that, but, man… it’s fun to play, regardless.
What are your short and long term goals?
We’re releasing a deluxe version of‘ Balanced on Barbed Wire with two new tracks in the fall. We ran into some road blocks when it was first released, but the support just keeps growing. We have more fans behind us now, and I want to give them a real chance to get this collection off the ground. I’m really excited about these new songs. They sit nicely in this album and help round out the story.
Long term, I’m continuing to write, and touring further and further out. The support my fans have shown is really humbling. Now when I tell myself, ‘I think I can do this’, I believe it more than ever.