One highlight of Tylor and the Train Robbers' debut album Gravel (self-released, May 18) is the song "What Keeps You Up," which tells the story of a musician who hits the road, leaving his wife and child behind. Band frontman Tylor Ketchum doesn't have any kids, but he did find inspiration for the song in his own life.
"It was kind of just a song I wrote when I first moved to Boise," Ketchum explained. "I was going through this thing—I had this new girlfriend, and I was trying to get all these gigs. I was going to open mics and trying to get in front of people that would be able to play with me or get me a gig somewhere else."
Eventually, Ketchum saw his ambitions as a musician were conflicting with his relationship.
"I wrote that song [thinking], 'What could happen in the future, and do I want to take this relationship all the way seriously and totally throw out my music?' Because it was almost one way or the other, it seemed to me at the time."
The relationship didn't work out, but Ketchum's career is going strong. Since forming in 2014, Tylor and the Train Robbers have performed with Micky and the Motorcars, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Dale Watson. Gravel combines thoughtful, well-schooled songcraft with confident musicianship.
"What Keeps You Up" showcases Ketchum's strengths as a songwriter. Neither the musician nor the mother come off as blameworthy. Instead, Ketchum suggests they'd have both been better off if they'd parted ways before compromising their dreams. It's surprisingly mature insight for a musician in his mid-20s.
The sophistication of Ketchum's writing impresses his bandmates, too.
"In a lot of Tylor's songs, they are [in] that conversational first-person," said guitarist Johnny Pisano (aka Johnny Shoes). "It seems like he's writing about his experience ... but that song almost seems like a story about other characters."
Ketchum's family history—which he alludes to in "Mom's Old Fender"—could help explain his quick development as a musician.
"My mom played music," Ketchum said. "That was her dream, to do that, as she was growing up. She had me when she was 21, so, pretty young and, you know, life happens, I guess. She kind of had to give up on that dream, but she's behind me even more because of that and wants me to live her dream for her."
In addition to his mother, Ketchum has uncles and cousins who played in bar bands around his hometown of Helix, Ore. His grandfather provided another key inspiration.
"He could never play for some reason—he just never had it—but he was always making sure I listened to the right stuff. ...Back then, they had a big record collection: Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard."
Ketchum formed the Bushman Brothers Band with his brothers Jason and Tommy Bushman and played shows in Helix, Pendleton and other nearby towns. Eventually, Ketchum's ambitions grew beyond his small town.
"I met a girl that lived there in Boise, and I went to visit. Ketchum told the East Oregonian. "There was a lot of cool music there ... especially coming from Pendleton."
It took a while for Ketchum to recruit the Train Robbers' current lineup, which is Pisano on lead guitar, Jason Bushman on bass and Flip Perkins on drums. Personnel changes kept the band from finishing Gravel for two years, and some fans and family members started to doubt that it would come out at all.
"You start feeling like the band who cried wolf," Pisano said. "You know: 'Well, it's comin.' 'Yeah, well, you said that six months ago.'"
The band benefited from those two years, though.
"I think we definitely benefitted from playing together as much as we did over [that] time," Pisano said. "And the album kind of developed along with all the time we were putting in."
Audiences will have plenty of chances to hear the result of all that work. Tylor and the Train Robber have shows booked from July to October, including an opening slot for the Marshall Tucker Band at the Canyon County Fair on Thursday, July 27.
Outside of playing live, Ketchum wants to grow more as a songwriter.
"I was recently doing an interview," he said. "They were talking about a certain point in a musician's life... where you've released all your inside demons, and you're like, 'What do I write about now?' That's when a lot of musicians go to writing about political things or things that are going on in the world. I'm starting to hit that a little bit, I think."