We recently talked about Zach Bryan returning a more honest, rough-around-the-edges take to country music. It seems like he’s not the only one to do so; he's also certainly not the most vocal about it.
When diving into singer-songwriters of Bryan’s ilk, you inevitably run into Tyler Childers.
This Appalachia Haze
Timothy Tyler Childers was born in Lawrence County, Kentucky on June 21, 1991, to a father who worked in the coal industry and a mother who worked as a nurse. As a young lad, he started singing in the church choir, later picking up the guitar at age 12. College didn’t seem like a good fit and he ended up dropping out, working odd jobs while chasing a career in music.
Musically, he filled his ears with the music of Ricky Scaggs, Credence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynard and other such artists, often using a coat hanger to play along to the music. He would also later discover the writings of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Jesse Stuart and Silas House (the latter two being from Kentucky, like Childers); master storytellers who convey so much with their words.
Making his way
The world got a taste of Childers’ talent as a singer-songwriter with his first album, the 2011 independent release Bottles and Bibles.
The album features a masterful blend of country, bluegrass and folk with lyrics that tell the stories from his region, those of small-town life, religion and hardships faced by the working class, particularly the coal miner. It’s a stripped-down affair musically, punctuated by Childers’ mastery of the pen.
From Appalachia to the World
Following a couple of live EPs recorded at Red Barn Radio, a performance on the OurVinyl YouTube channel, particularly his performance of “Nose On The Grindstone”, introduced the Kentucky native to a much larger international audience, racking up millions of views.
A chance encounter with Miles Miller, who caught one of Childers’ shows, led to Sturgill Simpson (for whom Miller was the drummer) meeting the young songwriter. After hearing his latest batch of demos, Simpson and Childers went into the studio to record what would ultimately be Childers’ breakout album, 2017’s Purgatory. The album would be released to rave reviews, hitting number 11 on Billboard’s US Top Country Chart, number 4 on the US Folk Albums Chart, and number 3 on the US Independent Albums Chart.
The pair would do it again on the 2019 album Country Squire, scoring his first Billboard no. 1 album. The album oozes the country and bluegrass sounds that Childers is known for, and would fit in a record collection along with your Dwight Yokum, Randy Travis, Tanya Tucker and Chris Stapleton records. His writing remains his strongest suit, sticking with the stories of love, faith and hard work.
Making a Bold Move
Fans would get a surprise in 2020 when he released the album Long Violent History. An even bigger surprise would be to hear Childers’ new mastery of the fiddle, leading his band through old-time string-band arrangements of old folk songs, leading up to the climax of the album’s lone original song.
“Long Violent History” is a modern protest song, taking much of its inspiration from the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the United States, as well as the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest labour disputes and armed uprisings in US history. Lyrically, Childers makes strong allusions to the violence committed to the Black community, asking everyone to have empathy for their struggles and situations:
Now, what would you give if you heard my opinion
Conjecturin' on matters that I ain't never dreamed
In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman
Based on the way that the world's been to mе
It's called me belligеrent, it's took me for ignorant
But it ain't never once made me scared just to be
Could you imagine just constantly worryin'
Kickin' and fightin', beggin' to breathe
Childers further gave context to this album, his position and his sobriety in a YouTube video posted at the time of the album’s release.
Three Flavours of Music
Childers’ 2022 album Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven brought more surprises from him; a three-disc set that offered three different versions of the album. The first disc (“The Hallelujah Version”) features the eight songs (a mix of originals and covers) recorded live in the studio. The second disc (“The Jubilee Versions”) takes those recordings and augments them with strings and horns, conjuring sounds reminiscent of Alain Toussiant’s work with The Band, as well as 1970s country music. The third disc (“The Joyful Noise Version”) is probably the biggest departure for a Tyler Childers album; a disc of remixes of the songs incorporating electronic elements, slicing and sampling. A bold move for someone who is very protective of the country sound and identity he’s made for himself.
Looking to the future, Childers has a new album on the way at the time of this writing. Rustin’ in the Rainis due out in September of 2023, with the first single “In Your Love” already available.
The song itself is a country ballad with a beautifully written and directed music video telling the story of two men who fall in love while working in the coal mines of Appalachia, and the struggles they face.
Americana ain’t no part of nothing
These words were said by Childers after winning the 2018 Best Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the Americana Music Honors and Awards ceremony. While appreciative of the honour, he’s not shy about being critical of the current state of country music. His music is a blend of country, folk, bluegrass and classic rock that were the soundtrack to his childhood, though he considers himself a country artist.
His sound is not far from the truth. As stated earlier, he would fit in with a lot of older artists and is musically a standout in today’s modern country scene. As he stated in an interview with the Guardian in 2019: “Let’s not just Solo cup and pickup truck it to death. Let’s handle this in a smart way. Nobody is thinking about lyrical content, or how we’re moving people, or what’s going on in the background of their minds.”
A lot of people would tend to agree with him, including your humble author. I can probably go off on the same issues that Childers has with the genre, but that will be a topic for another blog post.
In the meantime, go bask in the music and stories that Childers has given us so far, and see how a newer artist can make us nostalgic.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.