For years, fans of the Turnpike Troubadours have watched Kyle Nix hold court with fiery fiddle solos that elevated the band's already magnetic stage presence. In 2019, the band announced their indefinite hiatus. But the break allowed Nix to share the songs he'd started writing while the Troubadours were recording their 2017 album A Long Way From Your Heart.
"I had the idea to [record an album] before [the hiatus], because some of my songs didn't necessarily fit like a glove with what we did as a band. So I figured that I could do my own and get the songs out there and not just hold them to my chest and not let anybody see them," Nix tells Wide Open Country. "It's nice to have it out there."
Those songs would encompass Nix's debut solo album Lightning On the Mountain and Other Short Stories, an epic 17-track Wes Sharon-produced record that emcompasses shoot-outs, lovelorn ballads, bluegrass breakdowns and family sagas, featuring several bandmates from the Turnpike Trouabdours -- Ryan Engleman, Gabe Pearson, RC Edwards and Hank Early.
Drawing on his own life story and his love of Spaghetti Westerns and short stories, Nix delivers a mix of autobiographical tunes and gripping story songs with characters worthy of works by Flannery O'Connor and Shirley Jackson.
After an instrumental intro, Nix kicks off the album with "Manifesto," an ode to his grandfather and father.
"I just wanted to write something for my grandpa and my dad. They were a part of things that were way bigger than anything I've ever been a part of," Nix says. "My grandpa was in the army -- General Patton's battalion during World War II. My dad was a Marine Raider in Vietnam. So they actually were in life threatining situations... They had guts. They were standing for something. When I started to write the song I just wanted to say 'These guys have done all this stuff and I'm just a fiddle player. I don't know where I stand.' I wanted to give them a tip of the cap."
From there, Nix delves into murder ballads ("The Wolf at the Door"), doomed relationships ("Blue Eyes"), star-crossed lovers ("Good Girl Down the Road") and more.
Nix says his appreciation for the works of Shirley Jackson, Breece D'J Pancake and Ernest Hemingway's The Nick Adams Stories started to shape his songwriting.
"They were sort of pouring out like that and as I recognized that I wanted to put that type of moniker on it. I don't like to label things so much, but I thought it would be kind of a neat label," Nix says. "It was just a gradual realization of what I was doing and wanting to kind of book-end it. Put a front cover and back cover on it and say 'here are the short stories.'"
"I was learning about certain kinds of structure and prose from Hemingway, because Hemingway had a really good way of stating the facts...very rhythmic. That really helps with your structure of writing when you really dig into the rhythm of writing," Nix continued. "It got my mind stirred up and it came out a certain way. The mystery of it -- I've always been infatuated with the mystery of how songs sometimes pop out and you don't know where they come from. I do know that this one was definitely influenced by short stories."
The singer-songwriter and instrumentalist also reflected on his childhood spent at his grandfather's house, where westerns with unforgettable Ennio Morricone film scores were always playing on the television. Nix weaves spaghetti western-inspired instrumentals throughout the album.
"It's something from my childhood, being at my grandpa's house and him having the TV on a John Wayne movie or even an older western. The epic sounds. I liked the sound and I liked the idea that the music in those movies tells a story," Nix says. "I figured it had a good connection to story and I wanted to connect the two and stitch that theme all the way through."
Nix credits his grandfather, a carpenter and part-time fiddle maker, with introducing him to fiddle music. He became enamored with the instrument and began taking lessons in Enid, Oklahoma from bluegrass fiddler Shirley Landrum. Soon, he was performing at bluegrass festivals throughout the Sooner State and surrounding areas.
"I think it was the direct relationship I had with my grandpa that made me fall in love with music and fiddle. He would have great music at his house," Nix says. "I would hear Bob Wills early on, great fiddle music. It's just one of those things I grew to love, probably because he loved it. It's in my blood. This is going to sound strange, but I think it was more about love than the influence of the music itself."
Beyond short stories, Nix says he's drawn to the work of other prose-driven songwriters, from Townes Van Zant, Steve Earle and Bob Dylan to frequent collaborator John Fullbright and his Turnpike Trouabdours bandmates.
"Every era of Bob Dylan, you learn something more if you really dive into it...Steve Earle can go from a clenched fist to brushing your cheek with his finger tips," Nix says. "And of course my bandmates RC [Edwards] and Evan [Felker] -- I always take into account what they've written and how they write."
As for whether we'll see the Turnpike Troubadours reunited for a new album any time soon, Nix says his bandmates are focusing on their own projects at the moment.
"Everybody's doing their own thing and everybody's focusing on themselves and that's what we want right now -- especially in this time of uncertainty. If you can focus on yourself and you have the luxury to do that, that is absolutely the best thing to do," Nix says. "RC [Edwards] is doing his own thing. Hank [Early] has been recording, Gabe [Pearson] has been going to school. A lot of stuff's been going on to keep us busy, but as of right now we're just focusing on ourselves and doing our own thing. Personally, I'm writing a ton of stuff. My mind is very busy."
Lightning on the Mountain & Other Short Stories is available now.