There’s far more to Nashville than just Telecasters and commercial songwriting. And while crafting three-minute stabs at the bro country death star or the Americana honor roll is a worthy profession (to a degree), there are other people in town who’ve given themselves completely to more arcane styles of music. We’re talking Brazilian, Hot Club, and Louis Armstrong-style jazz, gypsy folk songs, classical concertos, and self-penned homages to these and more. You do what you have to do to make music like that. You play Sunday brunches and weddings, you put your whole self into the strings of your violin, and you commit yourself to being a gypsy hombre, a musician first and foremost.
That’s what Peter Hyrka has been doing for decades. As leader and founder of the jazz trio The Gypsy Hombres, a charter member of the early ’90s art rock group Human Radio, and as a violinist extraordinaire in a fiddle-friendly town, the 59-year-old Hyrka has made a career out of finding a musical niche in what may seem like the most unnurturing soil.
A native of Memphis, Hyrka exhibited a rebel streak at the early age of 8 when he chose his first musical instrument in the town that gave birth to the blues and rockabilly. “My very first instrument was accordion,” he says. “I’m still infatuated with them. I have five of them here at the house. I played the guitar later, but when I got out of high school, I enrolled in some classes at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). Without knowing anything about reading music, I just dove into the violin at the age of 19. I practiced a lot, maybe three or four hours a day. I was into bluegrass, but I soon got over it and got
Hyrka also discovered a love for jazz, specifically the style known as “gypsy jazz” or “hot club jazz.” The style was created and popularized by guitarist Django Reinhardt and his Quintette du Hot Club de France in Paris during the 1930s and ’40s. Reinhardt and his violinist, Stéphane Grappelli, stood jazz on its ear through their combination of swing rhythms and traditional Romany folk influences. Their recordings became a major influence on American jazz players, helping to bring the guitar to the forefront of jazz instrumentation and also became an inspiration for many of the first generation “Nashville Cats,” including Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, and Harold Bradley.
Throughout the 1980s, Hyrka worked in jazz, country, rock, bluegrass, and reggae bands in Memphis. In 1989, he was a founding member of Memphis-based Human Radio. The group quickly signed with Columbia Records and released a self-titled album in 1990. They scored a No. 32 hit on the Billboard mainstream rock chart with “Me and Elvis,” but it also typecast the band as a novelty act. “We did a MTV video, and it was radio friendly, but it wasn’t anything like the rest of our tunes,” he says.
Moving to Nashville in 1991, the band secured a release from their Columbia contract, and struggled to secure a deal with another label. The frustration eventually led to the band’s breakup. “We had a second album ready to go that never even saw the light of day,” Hyrka says. “You can hear bits and pieces of it on our website and Soundcloud.”
Hyrka continued working in Nashville, grabbing the occasional session gig or backing other musicians. In 1996, he turned his attention to his love of gypsy jazz, forming The Gypsy Hombres. The trio soon attracted a small, but loyal group of followers, including one fan who had played with Django Reinhardt himself. “He was rather ill at the time, but Chet Atkins used to come and see us at Boscos in Hillsboro,” he recalls.
Over the past 19 years, The Gypsy Hombres have self-released three albums (Café Strut, Nouveau, and a collection of Christmas tunes, Django Bells). Although Hyrka has been the only continual member of the band since its founding, his musical vision has kept a consistent sound for the group which currently includes Rory Hoffman on guitar and accordion, and Geoff Henderson on upright bass.
“We like to call our music jumpin’ gypsy jive,” he says. It’s a label that fits well as The Gypsy Hombres have added other influences to the basic hot club sound. Although the band bases their sound in a style that originated over 70 years ago, Hyrka is firm about the difference between inspiration and imitation, and he definitely sides with the former.
“I’m a progressive,” he says. “You know, life goes on, things grow and change. It’s funny because Django Reinhardt’s guitar sound is now very iconic, and many people try to duplicate it, but it sounds kind of two-dimensional to me. He played a cheap guitar. That was what he had and so that was his sound.”
In addition to expanding on the sound of gypsy jazz, the group is also dedicated to finding a balance between well-known classics and original material. “We’ve got a handful of originals and are always looking for more ideas,” he says. “It’s fun because it’s a teeter-totter between playing originals and playing stuff that people are familiar with.”
One of those new ideas was a classical composition based on The Gypsy Hombres’ original material, specially commissioned for them by Nashville Chamber Orchestra composer Conni Ellisor and performed by the band on NPR. In addition to his work with The Gypsy Hombres, Hyrka has created string arrangements for live performances, and he’s played with John Cowan, Steve Forbert, Todd Snider, and the platinum-selling Christian pop rock band Sixpence None the Richer.
“I haven’t done as much (session work) lately, some string bass, a little of violin here and there,” he says. “But people ask me, ‘Do you play violin or fiddle?’ There are a lot of great fiddle players in this town, and I’m not really a fiddle player. I’m a violin guy.”
The source of Hyrka’s brief moment of MTV stardom, Human Radio, has recently made a comeback. The band briefly reunited in 1998 to record with Japanese pop-vocalist Miyako Shinohara, which led to a tour of Japan, but they parted ways again. They reunited in 2012 when a close friend requested the band play a local fundraiser. The second reunion led to the band reforming to work on new music, along with a handful of recent live appearances.
Earlier this year, Human Radio launched an Indiegogo campaign that brought in over $16,000 to cover the costs of recording and releasing a new album. As stated on the fundraising campaign’s website, “without the ambition and impetus of ‘making it in the record business,’ the band finds itself free to create its own identity again, and new and exciting music unconcerned with modern trends
Along with his work with Human Radio, Hyrka continues to play live dates with The Gypsy Hombres. They play private events and weddings and are currently enjoying an extended residency at The Southern, providing brunchtime accompaniment every Sunday. They’re also looking forward to returning to The Family Wash’s stage as regulars at the club’s new location.
Hyrka’s career arc has certainly not been a fast track to fame and riches, but it has been a journey with its own musical satisfaction. “(The Gypsy Hombres) have been called a Nashville institution,” Hyrka says. “I don’t know if that means we should be institutionalized or not, but it is a cool thing to do.”