Tyler Hilton entered the national consciousness via the TV series One Tree Hill, on the old WB network. For nine seasons (with a break in the middle), he played the arrogant wise-ass musician Chris Keller, who sang memorable duets with Bethany Joy Lenz' Haley (among other things).
In the film Walk the Line, Hilton made an indelible impression as Elvis Presley, a drinking pal of the young Johnny Cash. He played the school bully who forms an unholy alliance with principal Robert Downey Jr, in Charlie Bartlett.
Yet the California-born Hilton, who'll appear Thursday, July 5 at Saddle Bags (with Gloriana), is an accomplished singer and songwriter who sets his sights early on a music career. He's more than just a pretty-boy object of teen adulation.
His music is soulful and from-the-heart, blending elements of rock, folk, pop and country (his most recent album, Forget the Storm, appeared in April).
He often duets with Taylor Swift, and in fact appeared in her video for the hit "Teardrops on My Guitar."
We caught up with the thoughtful 28-year-old on the phone from Dublin, where he was performing in front of rapturous audiences.
One Tree Hill, in reruns, is currently an enormous success on U.K. television.
Which came first for you, music or acting?
Tyler Hilton: It was music; I kind of fell backwards into acting, honestly just being lucky. But I've been playing music for a longtime, and my family are all musicians. I don't know if I could shake it that easily, either. It's just something that I do, and everything else feels a bit more like work.
I've always really liked acting, a lot. I did it in high school. The first thing I ever did was Walk the Line - they wanted musicians, and they wanted people that didn't act. It was kind of an awesome opportunity to play someone I loved. And the same thing with One Tree Hill, they were looking for musicians to do a cameo. It wasn't even supposed to be a character. So I've just kind of gotten lucky because of the fact that I was a musician. And because I had other things on my resume, I was able to get the audition for Charlie Bartlett. And I guess I was good enough to get it, which blew me away. But it's all just kind of been random, you know?
I think it would be unfair to call me a full time or professional actor, because of everyone who acts full-time, and they've studied it and stuff, I wouldn't feel quite right. I haven't spent that much time doing it. I just happen to a be a singer/songwriter that got lucky enough to be in some movies.
Tell me about your musical influences. Did I hear that you were something of an Elvis-head?
Tyler Hilton: I really liked Elvis because I think he took so many different styles of music, but he executed them so well, everything from country to rock ‘n' roll to blues to gospel ... he was able to do it all. And I always liked that, because I grew up listening to blues. For some reason I'm just drawn to Delta blues and folk music. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, that kind of thing has always really excited me for whatever reason. And I've always identified most with that.
There's another part of me that just happens to really like pop melody and great songs, that kind of thing. And maybe that kind of ends up making those songs sound that way - but the genre, the vibe or the musical philosophy I travel after is like this troubadour thing. I'm just so fascinated by that, and I always connect with it. I'll admit I'm not a crazy rocker, it wasn't really my thing, but man, a guy with an acoustic guitar playing on a dusty road or busking for change, that's always been like "Whoa, that guy! Who the fuck is that guy?"
Pop quiz - James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Cat Stevens, Neil Young. Which for you?
Tyler Hilton: Mmm I'll say probably James Taylor's songs better, but I'm gonna go with Neil Young. It's just a vibe and the character, you know? Somewhere between those two.
You've done a few things with Taylor Swift. Why do you work so well together with her?
Tyler Hilton: She's a nice girl. I respect her as an artist, and I think she's a great writer. When I first heard her, I thought "She's not like this crazy amazing Celine Dion vocalist. But there's something about her music that's so simple, it reminds me of all the music I really love." That first record of hers was like that, it was like ‘50s rock ‘n' roll, or early country music where there was nothing to it except an amazing personality that just happened to be captured on tape. All of her innocence and lack of experience was captured, and she can write it so beautifully without filtering. I don't know how she does it. I was just fascinated by it. She kind of owned the fact that she was writing about unicorns in her bedroom, and I thought that was so cool.
We were fans of each other's, and she started inviting me to some shows of hers, and we started becoming friends. Her family let me stay with them when I first moved to Nashville, and our families have remained friends since then.
I think she's super-talented.
Since One Tree Hill is, more or less, your drawing card, do you find it difficult to get "the kids" to take you seriously as a musician? I imagine there are screaming girls in your audience.
Tyler Hilton: I've learned a lot about how one thing can become what you're known for. But if I think about it, it ends up changing what I do. In all honesty, I have One Tree Hill to thank for tons of things - the interviews I do, the amount of people that buy my records, it's all from One Tree Hill.
I always compare it to Kelly Clarkson. Most of the time, I forget that she was on American Idol. Because to me she's just a great singer, and she's kind of been around for a long time. I forgot she fuckin' won American Idol; it's just so weird to think that it was so long ago.
It's just the way the industry is. They're just waiting for me to do something else they can latch onto, whether it's this huge single, or some other movie, and then all of a sudden I'll be known from that.
But it is weird that, for all the things I do and have worked so hard on, to be "Tyler Hilton from One Tree Hill." Which I didn't spend that much time doing. I happened to love doing it, but it was a small thing that I spent time on that became really big.
But I say, the more people at the party, the better. However they come, I'm glad they're here.
Where: Saddlebags, 317 W. River St.
When: At 9 p.m. Thursday, July 5
Tickets: $10 advance via etix.com, $15 at the door