Earlier this year, the Lawrence musician Tyler Gregory collapsed in a field somewhere in Missouri. A cloud of black-powder smoke hung in the air above him. A man who sometimes plays washboard in Gregory's band had invited him to come along for a brief Civil War tour, and a re-enactment of the 1864 Battle of Plattsburg was in progress. Gregory was mocking death. "You can just choose when you're dead," Gregory says, shooting pool in downtown Lawrence. "And I figured, you can't go wrong with sitting by fires and shooting black powder all day, right?"
The experience gave him the name of his recently released third album: Before the Black Powder Strikes. The nostalgia of Civil War re-enacting also nicely jibes with the 23-year-old's busker persona. He has the voice of a middle-aged bluesman and the beard of a mountain man, and he's known for playing acoustic guitar on downtown Lawrence sidewalks. But Gregory is no panhandler. He's more of a self-employed traveling salesman who just happens to be peddling music. He's constantly writing, booking, promoting. His Internet profile is well-manicured. His e-mail and voice mail are appended with booking information.
"Every day for the last week and a half, I've had shows," he says. "I make my own merch. I'm a businessman. It pays the bills."
Gregory's entire body of work, up to now, has been an unglamorous journey — at least the way he tells it. After hearing a Woody Guthrie album of his father's, he quit playing in his Wamego, Kansas, high school metal band. "I feel that both metal and roots music have a sense of passion from the live performance, but it was the storytelling aspect of folk and roots music that really grabbed me off-guard," he says. "Maybe every five years, I'll go back and forth, folk to metal. As long as I'm playing, I'm happy."
Gregory considers Before the Black Powder Strikes his first legitimate album, though he has two prior informal releases under his belt. The title track is based on living on the streets of Lawrence. "I found myself dwelling in different areas of the city, until the sunrise, with different groups," he says. "You certainly learn the ins and outs of the city."
Gregory's neo-hobo aesthetic includes a broad knife, which he carries. But his jolly self-awareness counterbalances his anachronistic aura — both his personality and his recording doggedly strive for a kind of timelessness. The songs are full of insecurity, heartbreak and invisible people, and not romanced with self-importance or drunken revelry. "I have a true passion for each and every song," he says. "Every time I sing one of these tunes, I get drawn back to that certain time."
Gregory is not a total loner; he's had several different backing bands, and the new album features washboard, mandolin and upright bass. Johnny Kay, of Adam Lee & the Dead Horse Sound Company, helped him master Before the Black Powder Strikes. "Everything today is effects, so it's hard to re-create these kinds of songs in the studio," Gregory says. That's a pretty vague statement for a modern musician — which, of course, Gregory is not. Still, there's no end in sight. Of his chosen profession, he says, "You can be doing this stuff in your 80s," something he seems to expect to do.