Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb – Interview with Casey Tebo

Director Casey Tebo Talks Inspiration, the Rebirth of Steven Tyler, and Out on a Limb

Director Casey Tebo (left) and Steven Tyler (right) at the 2018 Nashville Film Festival

By Christopher M. Rzigalinski

A 45 year-old male audience member once asked English writer and actor Quentin Crisp what he should do about his thinning hair. “Shave your head. This is the principle on which [style] works. You are losing your hair. So you embrace the loss of your hair. You swim with the tide, but faster,” Crisp responded. “Embrace what you alone have.” I’ve always considered this argument to be the most effective defense against aging. Director Casey Tebo’s film called Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb (2018) proves that, at the age of 70, the Aerosmith frontman is just beginning to find his greatest inspiration.

Rock stars often become caricatures of themselves as they get older. They repeat musical formulas that were once innovative, making the same songs over and over. Despite my love for Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, they’re good case studies in this area. But Out on a Limb captures Steven Tyler reinventing himself as a country musician in Nashville. The concept seemed absurd to me at first. Growing up listening to classic Aerosmith albums like Toys in the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976), Steven seemed miles away from Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, or even Townes Van Zandt. I was wrong.

Casey Tebo went on an even more intimate journey when making this film. Known for directing shows like CMT Crossroads (2012-2014) and documentaries on rock bands like Black Veil Brides, Tebo hadn’t worked with Aerosmith on camera since 2013’s Rock for the Rising Sun. After that project he started to notice a shift in Steven. “He called me to go to Vancouver and help him with his solo show, and I had never seen him this happy,” Tebo told me. “Then I ended up filming the show at the Ryman [Auditorium] and I thought, ‘I’m going to put something together here and do it as a surprise.’”

Filming at the historic Ryman raised some eyebrows. As the home of the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s holy ground, it could be easy to read Steven Tyler’s show with the Loving Mary Band as infiltrating sacred territory. But things changed since the Byrds first brought their Sweetheart of the Rodeo-period brand of country rock to the Ryman in 1968. Casey faced some pushback from traditionalists, but he had a thorough comeback. “If you go back to the late 80s, some of the hits Aerosmith had like ‘Crazy’ and ‘What it Takes’ are as much country pop hits as anything that’s out today,” he reminded me. People need to be careful when they say somebody doesn’t belong. That may be the case with Jon Bon Jovi, for example, who was a glam pop guy. But someone like [Bruce] Springsteen or Steven, country is their roots.”

The blues-based early Aerosmith I loved growing up, as well as the band’s later pop hits, aren’t far removed from authentic country music. Any prejudice against Steven Tyler’s new musical direction stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of country music’s history. In popular imagination country is often considered to represent right-leaning political values and Southern culture. This sometimes makes it seem ideologically out of step with the rest of the country. But that arbitrary distinction was created by a misguided political attack on artists in the mid 20th century.

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy targeted folk musicians like Woody Guthrie and the Weavers during his ill-fated Communist witch hunts in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Up to that point, these two forms and even blues were considered part of the same poverty-stricken experience in the American south. The McCarthy investigation created a divide between “safe” country music and “threatening” folk music. Those outlaw folkies went on to inspire the second wave of rockers in the mid to late 1960s like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and, eventually, Aerosmith. At heart, however, the rivers of country, folk, and rock run to the same ocean. Casey Tebo helps us see that Steven Tyler’s ship is just sailing back home.

Peter La Chapelle, Okie from Muskogee: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007, p. 46-47.

(L-R)  Steven Tyler,  Suzie McNeil, Marti  Frederiksen, Sarah Tomek,   Andrew Mactaggart,  Rebecca Lynn Howard,  and Elisha Hoffman Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures

Steven’s personal triumphs are inspiring. To be relevant, though, audiences still have to care about his music. Out on a Limb provides an investigation into Tyler’s staying power. Tebo attributes it to Steven’s ability to maintain “himself in the public eye. He did American Idol for a couple years. He’s remained that sort of iconic guy.” Consistent reinvention holds the public’s attention. But it’s Steven’s kindness and authenticity that take center stage in the film. Collaborators and friends including Slash, Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots), David Hodges (Evanescence), Nathan Barlowe, and horror icon Adam Green attest to Steven’s humility and lasting friendship. These revelations prove that Tebo achieved his goal when deciding to make this film: “I didn’t want to try and prove to anybody that Steven’s a good dude. But when I made the movie, I thought, ‘I want people to see this guy for who he actually is.’

Left: Steven Tyler and makeup  artist Melina Farhadi  Right:  Steven  Tyler, Sarah  Tomek, and Andrew  Mactaggart . Photos courtesy of Momentum Pictures

It’s tempting to see Steven Tyler or any of our rock idols as larger-than-life figures. Casey Tebo makes clear, however, that Steven’s story is his story as much as it is ours. “It completely bums me out to see so many people sitting in traffic, driving to a job they hate, because they think they need to uphold some sort of societal demand,” he confessed. “I was 30 when I said, ‘Look, I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a kid.’ If you have dreams and you work hard, you can do it. It’s really about trying to inspire people to not be miserable.”

Listening to your heart allows you to become the person you always wanted to be. Or, as Quentin Crisp would say, it allows you to find your “style.” Steven Tyler has found a way to keep evolving and inspiring others. That’s a style which never grows old.

Steven Tyler and the Loving Mary Band (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures) 

Steven Tyler: Out on a Limb is a Momentum Pictures production. It’s written and directed by Casey Tebo. Executive Producers of the film are Steven Tyler, Rebecca Warfield, Timmy Thompson, and Todd Thompson. The film is On Demand and Digital HD May 15th.

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