Tyler Childers wears his eastern Kentucky roots with pride on his debut album Purgatory (out Aug. 4). The Lawrence County native pays tribute to his homeland, taking cues from the washed-in-the-blood ballads that have emanated from Appalachian hollers for centuries.
But while Childers’ music is rooted in tradition, his lyrics speak to the experience of the modern American, particularly those in the rural areas similar to where Childers was raised.
There are tales of Southern vices — pills, tobacco, mason jars of moonshine — and all they entail. Songs of redemption, heartache, loss and romance. And when you start wondering if you’ve stumbled onto a lost record from Bill Monroe’s heyday, Childers’ pulls you into the 21st century with a line about a conversation thwarted by modern technology. (“Up in Pocahontas in the Cranberry Glades/ I ain’t got bars nor the charge to call her anyway,” Childers sings on “Universal Sound.”)
Residents of the Bluegrass State are already familiar with Childers. He’s been a regular on the Kentucky circuit for several years, playing county fairs and dive bars with his band, the Foodstamps. But it was another proud Kentuckian who helped introduce the 26-year-old southern wunderkind to the rest of the country.
Americana hero Sturgill Simpson co-produced Purgatory along with veteran Nashville producer David Ferguson. But make no mistake — this is Childers’ album. And he deserves the credit for helping create one of the most authentic and original albums of the year.
Whiskey, Religion and Country Zen
Purgatory fittingly kicks off with a song about good old fashioned sinnin’.
“I been ramblin’ around and led astray by the paths that I’ve been choosing/cutting paths like a forest fire/ pupils wider than backhoe tires,” Childers sings on the tongue in cheek come to Jesus tune “I Swear (To God).”
“Tattoos” finds Childers seeking solace in the wake of a breakup.
“I am now an old headstone/to her grave I’ll die alone,” Childers sings. “A testament to how she’s grown/ forever she is sleeping.”
“Whitehouse Road,” a backwoods Southern rocker that sounds like a pool hall conversation between Billy Joe Shaver and Guy Clark, is a standout on the 10-track collection.
“Get me drinking that moonshine/ get me higher than the grocery bill,” Childers sings. “Lord it’s a mighty hard living but a damn good feeling to run these roads.”
Childers’ hardscrabble tales stand in stark contrast to the carefree ditties that rule mainstream country radio. If bro country songs are about living for the party, Tyler Childers’ songs are about living with the consequences of your vices.
Childers tips his hat to the macabre bluegrass tradition of the murder ballad with “Banded Clovis,” a tune about a “broke ass and busted” man who shoots his friend on a scavenging trip gone bad.
But Purgatory’s most ambitious and joyful moment is “Universal Sound,” a meditative track about finding peace in the moment and the beauty of shared experiences.
With Purgatory, Childers joins the ranks of Sturgill Simpson, Angaleena Presley and Kelsey Waldon as a Kentucky export doing the Bluegrass State proud. The rest of the country music- loving nation should be lining up to give thanks.
Tyler Childers is currently on tour throughout the U.S.