Well, to begin with, his name isn’t Walt and he isn’t from Tennessee.
Born in 1961, Gayden Wren has been a journalist since the 1980s and a member of the New York theatrical community since the 1970s. He recently marked his 40th year as a member of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island. He is also a journalist and editor.
Growing up in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t easy to develop a taste for country music, and indeed he didn’t. Though his mother – who had grown up in the tiny north-woods town of Atlanta, Mich. – was a fan and a regular listener to country station WHN, Wren’s taste ran to contemporary rock ‘n’ roll (Beatles more than Stones), Broadway and, of course, the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. When he emerged as a songwriter in the early 1980s, it was primarily as a lyricist for musical comedies and the seminal Christmas-rock band Bah and the Humbugs.
As recently as the beginning of 2008, had you asked him, Wren would have told you that he didn’t know much about country music and what he did know he didn’t like.
In early 2008, however, Wren began a four-year sabbatical from his real life to care for his mother, who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. To get her to sit still long enough for him to cook dinner, he found that it helped to put on some of the music she liked, especially her CD collections of Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn songs.
Without really intending to, he found himself listening to the songs … and his perspective quickly changed. Almost immediately he became a passionate fan of Williams and Lynn. An uncredited duet on the Lynn collection led him to a previously unknown singer/songwriter named Ernest Tubb, and that opened the door to Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, Red Foley, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and a whole new world of music.
Or, more accurately, a whole old world of music. Prospecting through 80 years of country music, Wren found that his taste gravitated to the classics of the 1930s through the early 1960s. He still didn’t connect with the 1970s and 1980s country that he hadn’t cared for at the time, and of the current generation only Taylor Swift and the local Citizens Band Radio really won him over.
That still left decades of music to be discovered, though, and – thanks to the Internet, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and Bear Family Records – that’s exactly what he did. By the time his mother died in 2012, Wren was a confirmed country fan with several hundred country recordings and a small library of related books.
Able to travel again, he savored the chance to hear live performances by the likes of Merle Haggard, Wanda Jackson, and old favorites Lynn, Kristofferson, Nelson and Swift. He made regular visits to Nashville for the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and became a familiar face at the Fiddlers Inn and the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.
Able to resume performing after a four-year sabbatical – during which he had taught himself to play the piano as a means of entertaining his mother – Wren found himself, perhaps understandably, working on piano/vocal arrangements of some of the songs he was listening to the rest of the time. By the end of 2014, he was increasingly toying with the idea of a late-life career change to become a country cover artist.
Those plans took an unexpected turn on July 17, 2015, when – on the road between Knoxville and Nashville – Wren found himself singing an original country song, what turned out to be “Safe Between the Covers,” a song about his mother. He’d never written a country song before, and only rarely had written music at all, having worked almost exclusively as a lyricist; but this song struck him as a game-changer and, to his surprise, it turned out to be only the first in a series of new songs that has continued to the present day.
By the time he got back to New York, Wren had decided to pursue a two-pronged career as both a country cover artist on the piano and as a singer/songwriter of original country music. It was an exciting prospect, but it raised a difficult question: How could he differentiate between the two paths, ensuring that someone looking for Hank Williams songs wouldn’t be put off by hearing new material, or that someone looking for a cool contemporary single wouldn’t be taken aback by a cover of a Carter Family song from 1931?
Several years before, Wren had remarked to his wife that, if he ever opened a honky-tonk, he’d call it Tennessee Walt’s, an appealing pun on the title of one of the most iconic country songs of the 1950s. Remembering that idea, he decided that the name would do fine for the performing half of his new line of work, and Tennessee Walt was born.
Who is Tennessee Walt, then? He’s a country singer/pianist, based in New York, who performs new arrangements of classic songs by the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb … and, in appropriate contexts, new songs by a novice country songwriter named Gayden Wren.
Check elsewhere on this site if you’d like to hear what he sounds like!