Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights Readies Its Major Label Debut

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Nothing came overnight. Well, not success.

"There were times where we would get off work at 4, I would borrow my dad's truck, we'd rent a U-Haul trailer, pick the guys up and drive eight-deep in the cab to Austin," Herron says. "We'd get there at 8, play a show and leave town at, like, 1 a.m. Guys would sleep in the bed of truck on the way back to Dallas and we'd get back in the next morning and they'd go off to work. We were playing everywhere we could, but that doesn't mean we were making any money."

That do-whatever attitude would prove an asset.

When tattoo artist Kat Von D, who was living in Dallas at the time, was set to move to California to start filming her television show L.A. Ink, her manager, who also worked at Hollywood Records, needed a few young able bodies to help load the moving van. She called a friend of a friend of a friend who called Herron and, sure enough, Tyler, Pinckard, Jay and Cain were volunteered for the job.

In exchange, the manager agreed to watch the band, now coined Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, perform later that evening.

She liked what she saw—enough, at least, to follow through on her word and pass Hot Trottin' along to an A&R rep at her label. It was somewhat surprising for the band, though, when he actually came calling. Others soon did, too—representatives from Atlantic Records, Columbia Records, Capitol Records, Universal Records and American Recordings among them.

"We don't really know where that came from," Herron says with a shrug. Sending records off to people doesn't guarantee anything.

But chatter might.

"They all know what the others are doing," Tyler says. "They talk."

When Hollywood Records invited the band to Los Angeles to perform a showcase so its agents could get a feel for the band's live show, Herron and Tyler invited all of those labels out.

"It was great," Herron says with a laugh. And, yeah, it was kind of a big deal: "They all showed up and looked around and they had no idea that we were talking to all these labels. We had a lot going on! Or so it seemed at the time."

They talked. And talked. And talked. Tyler and Herron would fly to Nashville, Los Angeles, New York City. Lawyers got involved.

"It was just getting the right deal," Herron says. "We just weren't going to sign anything. We were like, 'Look. We're smarter than that.' It was just back and forth and back and forth."

Some of the labels, including Hollywood, eventually backed off. Atlantic didn't. And, after nine months of negotiations, papers were signed. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights joined Atlantic's roster.

The band's already rigorous performance schedule, and the experience it had gained with it, was to thank: "I was just knocked out instantly by the live show," says Gregg Nadel, the band's A&R rep at Atlantic. "The live show is pretty undeniable. And JT is just an engaging frontman. I always look for bands that are doing something on their own and are getting things going locally."

Actually, that's Nadel's pedigree. He's the guy who developed O.A.R. from college-rock favorites to mainstream stars. His more recent success story is with the Zac Brown Band, an emerging star in the national country music scene that broke through this year with the radio hit "Chicken Fried." Thing is, that was sort of a happy accident. That band was supposed to follow the O.A.R. plan of impressing along the tour circuit to an eventual, inevitable breakthrough. "Chicken Fried" just sort of blew up in the process, speeding up the development.

Either of those paths, Nadel says, could be in store for Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights. But mainstream success, far as he's concerned, is inevitable.

"This is one of those bands you look for," he says. "We really want to build these guys up as headliners. We believe that, if you put these guys in front of people—any people—they're gonna make fans. "

At October's Austin City Limits Music Festival, the band proved just that: Booked to play during an otherwise folk-heavy timeslot, the band actually reaped the benefits of the torrential downpours that plagued much of the festival. A massive crowd, tired of the dark and dreary tones heard throughout Austin's Zilker Park and looking for something of a pick-me-up, slowly found its way before Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights' otherwise out-of-the-way stage for its late-afternoon performance. And the band delivered. It was a mixed bag of a crowd—rockers looking for something lively, folkies bored with the other offerings, Red Dirt fans familiar with the band because of early bills shared with Texas country acts, and a slew of others in between just looking to be entertained—but, by performance's end, the band had a whole new field of fans. The band's posturing and vigor gained traction; when the band's set came to an end, the crowd wanted more. In turn, Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights offered one of the weekend's few encore performances.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman

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