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Country's King of Heartbreak: Tyler Farr talks songwriting, standing out, and Suffer in Peace

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Courtesy of Columbia Nashville

“I’ve busted my ass a lot and fell and had to get back up. I’ve made bad decisions and learned from them. I’ve had good moments and bad moments, and bad break-ups—been cheated on—and had good relationships, drank too much, paid for it the next day, you know? Been evicted from apartment complexes—that was when I first moved to Nashville and I didn’t have a dime.” That’s 31-year-old country singer Tyler Farr describing, in his characteristic growl, how to be a songwriter on the eve of his sophomore release, Suffer in Peace (out now). 

“All of that breeds song ideas,” Farr continued. “And I’m not telling everybody to go out there and get strung out on heroin and just go nuts, but you have to live as much as you can, otherwise you won’t have any stories to tell that no one’s already told.”

Peace, over its 11 tracks, has plenty to tell. There’s less of the jukebox stompers that shaped his 2013 debut, Redneck Crazy, but replacing those tracks is further proof that Farr is country’s king of heartbreak, “Not everybody can be a ray of sunshine, or it would be a boring, boring world,” he says with a laugh. “But we are singing country music. If you listen to a Hank Williams record from back in the day there’s a lot of sad there.” 

There is also, perhaps relatedly, more of Farr on the record. “You know the first album, you’re always a little timid—your first record deal, first album—you’re just happy to finally put food on the table. On this one, we’d had a little bit of success, so I felt more relaxed doing it. I felt like I knew myself better and who I was as an artist.” 

The album’s lead and still-chart-climbing single, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” (written by Melissa Peirce, Jonathan Singleton, and Brad Tursi), has a chorus of barroom heartache as well worn as your local joint’s corner booth. “A guy walks into a bar / Orders a drink, sees a girl that catches his eye / Asks her if she wants another, they fall for each other and end up lovers / They laugh, cry, hold on tight and make it work for a little while / Then one night her taillights fade out into the dark / And a guy walks into a bar.” 

The title track is a ballad in search of seclusion: a “cabin in the hills, in the middle of nowhereville,” where the singer—or song’s lead character—can hang up his heart a while. It along with “I Don’t Even Want This Beer” (about reluctantly drowning sorrows in the bottom of a barrel) and “Withdrawals” (about losing the high of your former lover), make you wonder where Farr has been. (In response, he says, “I don’t date,” making air quotes around “date”—”I’ve only been in a few serious relationships.”) 

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Farr, who broke through in Nashville as a songwriter, co-wrote three of the 11 tracks (“Poor Boy,” “I Don’t Even Want This Beer” and “Why We Live Here”), but believes in singing what he knows. “It has to be something that I have lived. Or might live in the future—something that I could live,” he said. Farr also wants to make sure each song sounds distinctly his own. “We try to pick songs that as soon as I start singing and hit the first note, people can tell its Tyler Farr. I pride myself on that.” 

From Garden City, Missouri, Farr is a classically trained vocalist (“No one thought it was cool growing up, I got a ton of crap from my friends, but luckily I was actually good at it”) who went to Missouri State University on a vocal performance scholarship. His signature is that gravel-ridden baritone — it’s as prevalent in his speaking voice as his singing — but the track he’s most excited to share, “Withdrawals,” shows the full scope of his range. “My voice, I think is what brings the country to it. The demo was piano and a drum loop and then you hear the track and it’s just rocking…I have to use the timber of my voice sometimes to make it country. You have to live it and believe it, and then it turns into a country song because it turns into a story,” he said of the track, which will be the album’s next single.

He’s right, and quick to point out that the whole album isn’t sad. Songs like “Raised to Pray,” “Better in Boots” and “Damn Good Friends” (a duet with tourmate and good friend Jason Aldean) all beg for live performances. He’s also reached his country music milestone, adding a track that pays homage to the U.S.A with “Why We Live Here.” 

Farr tours almost constantly, playing roughly 250 dates in 2014. He’ll play New York City’s Irving Plaza on Tuesday night as his album-release party. And says he structures set lists and performances around each specific crowd. I do whatever feels right when it feels right. If the crowd wants to hear a rap song and the girls want to dance, I’ll bust something out,” he said. “And if the crowd’s rocking and rowdy, raising hell, I’ll do a Foo Fighters song. You have to just be yourself.” Farr attributed a quote to Merle Haggard about how stars can walk on the stage and walk off without ever changing his or her personality.

“And that’s kind of how I am,” Farr said, stopping short of calling himself a star. Soon he’ll be the only one acting so modest.

Farr is currently opening on Jason Aldean’s Burn It Down Tour, with select headlining and festival dates strewn within. A full list of dates can be found on his website. Suffer in Peace is available for purchase on iTunes