Tyler Childers: Purgatory
For a while now, Tyler Childers has been the open secret of the Appalachian music scene. All of us knew how good he was, and all of us knew he was bound for bigger things. It finally happened this year in the form a major new record co-produced by none other than the reigning savior of country music, Sturgill Simpson.
While brimming with old-school country charm, Childers is absolutely a contemporary artist rather than a throwback or retro-chic performer. Indeed there are a number of very fine retro country music artists out there, but Childers isn’t trying to be Dale Watson anymore than he’s trying to be Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings—he is trying to tell his own story.
That said, when you watch Childers perform, it’s hard not to think about the greats. That Childers seems to have so much of the genre’s heroes within him is undeniable, an artist with an exceptional combination of songwriting ability, vocal acumen, musical skill, and personal charisma that only a few living humans ever posses. Childers is that rare perfect storm that not only blends those extraordinary gifts, but puts them in a person who wants to sing country music. Add the fact that Childers seems uninterested in becoming part of Nashville’s corporate country music machine and you have an artist playing genuine American music, about real life, for people with the heart to hear it. Working with Americana darling Simpson gives Childers that extra bit of attention and credibility that he’s deserved all along.
Childers’s new album, Purgatory, is far more of a studio product than any of his prior efforts. At first I didn’t like this. I felt let down by the shiny, polished nature of the album. I especially didn’t like how “Whitehouse Road” had been changed into a slower, more stompy affair. If you’re like me, you may always prefer the rougher live versions of these songs. As good as the studio band (featuring Simpson himself on guitar) is, I would rather hear Childers’ live band, The Food Stamps (from West Virginia), accompany him anytime.
That’s not where this ends for me though. Purgatory is a more complicated record than I expected. Something happens if you give this album a chance: Childers’s perfect vocal delivery and the stunning quality of the songs triumphs. The third time through the record, I loved it. As I stayed with the album, I started to think about the way the songs were arranged, alternating as Childers’s live sets do from full band to solo acoustic, from songs about drugs and murder to tunes about love. The arc of the record seems to take the listener on Childers’s own journey from rural rake to marital bliss. I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting Purgatory correctly as being a sort of concept record, but after doing some research, it turns out that I was right. It’s a testament to the album’s effectiveness that I was able to pick up on it without help.
Purgatory is not just a concept, however; it’s also 10 great songs, each of which exemplify what makes Childers such a fine lyricist: he writes songs with small, gripping details that prompt you to think of your own life, of things you’ve seen and people you’ve known. Childers is so effective a songwriter that his best songs seem to become part of you when you listen to them.
One of Purgatory’s tracks, “Lady May,” is about Childers’s wife, Senora May. In the song, Childers admits his own limitations (“...I ain't the toughest hickory / That your axe has ever felled”) but also his surrender to the woman who has come to own his heart:
“I came crashin' through the forest As you cut my roots away
And I fell a good long ways
For my lovely Lady May.”
Hearing this, you are bound to think of a time in your life when, for better or worse, you felt utterly and uncontrollably in love with someone who made you feel unworthy. Childers tells you his story, but he also makes you feel your own.
Personally, my favorite track on this album is “Feathered Indians.” This is a song that people sing along to, loudly and word for word. In it, Childers relates an encounter that seems to have started as a one-night stand but left a deeper mark on him. Within the story arc of the album, it seems that this affair did not work out. Still, the song’s lyrics are some of the sweetest on the album:
“Lookin’ over West Virginia smoking spirits on the roof
She asked ain't anybody told ya that them things are bad for you?
I said many folks had warned me, there’s been several people try
But, up ‘til now, there ain't been nothing That I couldn't leave behind.”
Framing a love verse as a bit of anti-smoking encouragement is the sort of clever, resonant writing at which Childers excels.
Still, “Universal Sound” is the keystone of whole record. Seeming to flirt just a bit with hippie mysticism, Childers somehow ends up with a pretty authentic message about mindfulness. This is not a song that anyone from the glory days of outlaw country would have written in his or her prime. However, it sounds perfectly at home on an album about a modern man finding, after many personal tribulations, peace in his life.
“I focus on my breathin’ in the universal sound
I let it take me over from the toenails to the crown of the body that I’m in, ‘til they put me in the ground And I return to the chorus of the universal sound.”
Well, I’ll be damned—a country song about spiritual epiphany, with hardly a hint of old-time religion. Maybe it’s the twenty-first century, maybe Childers is an unusually broad-minded person, or maybe it really is just hippie mysticism.
Regardless, I still feel like Childers is singing to me as much as anyone, which is the perfect lens through which to view the entirety of Purgatory: this is modern American music for everyone. You don’t have to live in the sticks or come from Appalachia to love this album. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve been to this part of the world. If you have a heart, this album has something for you.
Purgatory releases today. Purchase your copy of his album, here.