Brett Tyler spent his childhood listening to grunge and ska in suburban Minnesota, but he’d often visit his rural family deep in the north woods in Thief River Falls. Tyler recalls driving in his grandpa’s truck as a little kid, bouncing down gravel roads listening to country music.
“Who is this singing?” Tyler asked one day, incredulous. Grandpa responded, “This is Alan Jackson, he’s a country singer.” The young Tyler crossed his arms. “Grandpa, I don’t think I’ll ever like Alan Jackson.”
He was wrong.
Brett Tyler now spends his days in his small recording studio in Nashville writing songs with some of the biggest stars in country music: Maren Morris, Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Morgan Wallen, Dustin Lynch, Chris Young, Jimmie Allen. He just wrote the summer banger “Y’all Boys” for Florida Georgia Line. And Alan Jackson has become one of his favorite artists.
So how did a kid from Wayzata end up in the South writing about pickup trucks and cheap beer? As a teenager Tyler picked up the acoustic guitar, and after high school he moved to Brainerd, where he started playing small-town bars, churches, and summer camps. He spent his afternoons fishing on the lake and driving along gravel roads through the pines. These years helped him understand and finally fall in love with country music.
“There’s just something that feels like home to me that I can’t explain,” Tyler says, “Country music brought me back to the feeling of spending time up north with my family, and showed me the beauty of simple things and a simple life.”
Tyler spent most of his 20s in northeast Minneapolis playing heartfelt alt-country songs in the style of his heroes the Jayhawks and the Wallflowers. He became a fixture at the 331 Club and took jobs as back-up guitarist and DJ.
“I loved playing shows in Minneapolis, but I felt like there was always gonna be a better singer, a better performer, and I really enjoyed the process of writing and creating the music away from the spotlight,” Tyler says. At 26, he was still working at Starbucks to pay his health insurance and rent.
Then he met a few musicians returning from a songwriting trip to pitch pop-country songs to big record labels in Nashville. It was a revelation. “I knew there were people who had jobs being songwriters, but I didn’t know it was something a kid from Minnesota could do as a potential profession,” Tyler says.
He decided to try his luck and joined his friends on their next road trip. After one week he was convinced Nashville was where he needed to be. In September 2011, he packed his rusted-out Chevy Blazer and secured a job at a Nashville Starbucks.
“The first summer I was down there I was more broke than I have ever been. I was writing songs every day of the week and working 30 to 40 hours every weekend at Starbucks,” he says. “Nashville folks have a similar Minnesota Nice way of greeting people, where you never really know if they mean it or not. There is a joke in Nashville among songwriters: They say, ‘We should write.’ Because it’s what people say when you are too green to realize it’s frowned upon to walk up to a total stranger and ask to write music with them.”
Tyler spent months trying to make connections, and he played “writers rounds,” intimate showcases where songwriters perform original songs. “In Nashville, there’s always a chance that publishers and major record label executives will show up and hear something they liked. Nashville has a very network-heavy culture, so it’s important to go places, and be seen.”
Tyler frequented one small bar because its menu offered a Minnesota-style Juicy Lucy, and that’s where his big break came. “I was singing a bunch of songs I had written and a music publisher from a reputable company called Combustion Music, a partner of Warner Chappell Music, said he liked my songs and wanted to talk about being one of their next writers.” In May 2013, two years after he moved to Nashville, Tyler signed to his first publishing deal.
There was a steep learning curve after he got signed. “When I was writing alt-country Americana, I was more focused on the feel of the music and not paying as much attention to the lyrical side of things,” Tyler says. “Going into pop-country I realized abstract lyrics don’t fly. I still love writing songs that are personal and musically fulfilling, but there is something challenging and fun about writing songs for the country music listener. When I started writing those songs, I’d focus on the guy or girl who’s in the front row at the concert. The one who wants to forget about the long work week they had, drink a beer, and sing along with something easy and fun. It’s harder to do than you’d expect.”
Tyler spent long days in the studio working with well-established songwriters, and occasionally had the chance to write with some of the non-country artists he’d grown up listening to. “I had one write with the band Lit and I got an afternoon with Zac Hanson from the Hanson brothers,” he says. He also wrote with Gavin DeGraw, Nelly Furtado, and A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys. “Nashville is a fun town because you honestly never know who you might end up meeting or writing with.”
But Tyler’s career really took off when he met a young songwriter named Maren Morris. “Maren came to town to be a songwriter, not an artist,” he says. “We started writing a lot of songs together and there was something magical about the dynamic we had. She was never afraid to chase my crazy ideas, and we loved a lot of the same music. I knew she was really good. I didn’t know she would blow up and win a Grammy.”
In 2015, the co-written songs they’d uploaded to Soundcloud helped land Morris a record deal. “The two songs I have on her first record, Hero—‘Sugar’ and ‘Space’—are the last two songs we had written together. I learned from Maren to show up to every write that’s on my calendar. You never know what’s gonna happen.”
Tyler stresses to aspiring songwriters that it’s hard to break into the business without relocating to a city like New York, L.A., or Nashville. “There are plenty of great writers who live in Minnesota and take trips to Nashville, like Dan Wilson, writing for Dixie Chicks and pop artists. But if you’re new and nobody knows your name, you need to come join the music community. Go out for drinks and you meet somebody who knows somebody.”
Still, Tyler misses the Minnesota music scene.
“The artists there are so passionate, and the fans are equally as passionate. I wish more of the world could hear what’s happening in the great white north. There’s not always dollar signs behind it, but if you can do music in Minnesota full-time, that is the dream.”