Tyler Childers: 'In country music, nobody is thinking about how to move people'

With John Prine and Willie Nelson among his fans and awards to his name, the Kentucky songwriter is a rising star of country – but he’s dismayed by its fixation on beer and pickup trucks

After finishing his 2017 album Purgatory, Tyler Childers was talking to his producer, Sturgill Simpson. “He said: ‘This might do something,’” Childers recalls. “‘You might be able to make a land payment. You’ll never see the land, but it’ll be there!’ And we just laughed about it a little. And then he was right.”

Purgatory, Childers’s second album, proved to be his first big success. It reached No 17 on the US country chart, and Childers was named emerging artist of the year at the 2018 Americana awards. He made that land payment, too, with his wife, the singer-songwriter Senora May, for a plot a decent drive outside the small Kentucky town of Irvine.

I met Childers in Kentucky in June, a few days shy of his 28th birthday. Bouncing along mountain roads in a beautifully weathered sky-blue 1979 Jeep truck that he says he got cheap from a spendthrift guy a few towns away (“I got the angry-girlfriend discount,” Childers says), he pulls over at a local petrol station where men in the parking lot greet him as if it has been a while. The clerk compliments his haircut. His long, fiery curls have been trimmed short – it’s hot out, Childers says. He is wearing a Wrangler jacket and Rustler jeans, through which a belt is hooked that reads BEYONCÉ.

Last year, Childers was on the road so often that he considered himself lucky if he got back home long enough to mow the grass. This year, he is just back from 10 straight weeks of touring, including dates opening for Willie Nelson and for John Prine, with whom he released a limited-edition cover of Paradise, Prine’s famous 1971 Kentucky-set song about the devastation of strip mining.

Childers is the son of a strip miner and vocal about its environmental impact, but with an insider’s respect for its workers. “We can be positive participants, or we can hold on to this extraction behaviour,” he says. Miners are among the people who populate his songs, alongside fox hunters, millworkers and barroom regulars. On Peace of Mind, from his new album Country Squire, a menthol-smoking, Avon makeup-selling mother of a cheerleader distractedly burns frozen waffles as she works over what went wrong in her life. Childers is partial, he once told an interviewer, to characters that are led astray.

Musically, the “ancient” quality that people mention in Childers’s songs owes to an allegiance to Kentucky’s deep country and bluegrass roots. From where we stand now, it is another two hours to where Childers was born and raised, between Paintsville and Louisa – so close to West Virginia that when the chef Anthony Bourdain did an episode of his travelogue Parts Unknown in that state, he featured Childers’s songs. “Straight as the crow flies, I grew up 20 minutes from 23,” Childers says. The US Route 23 is also known as Kentucky’s Country Music Highway, the road near which Dwight Yoakam, Chris Stapleton, Tom T Hall, Loretta Lynn and Ricky Skaggs have lived.

As a kid, Childers owned three cassettes, two of them by Skaggs, and he listened on repeat, hooked by the fusion of country and bluegrass. He absorbed his dad’s Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama records, using a coat rack to mime the guitar riffs, until he realised it would be a lot cooler to actually learn to play. Teenage Childers fell for Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac; meanwhile, an English teacher was feeding his head with Kentucky writers, such as Jesse Stuart and Silas House, who struck him as both revelatory and knowable. “It was like, why am I trying to find my voice?” Childers says. “I am blessed to be in a place that has its own.”

This takes on greater importance when you hail from one of the most misunderstood regions of the country. “Bourdain got it right,” he says. “He laid out the good, bad and the ugly. But so many don’t.”

Tyler Childers: ‘The problem with country is we’ve turned the props into the play.’
Tyler Childers: ‘The problem with country is we’ve turned the props into the play.’ Photograph: David McClister

I tell him I grew up in western North Carolina, also part of Appalachia. The endless mountain road construction, the paper mill and fox hides that Childers sings of on Country Squire ring familiar to me, but Childers’s landscape is also highly specific, a counternarrative to the outsiders who seek to perpetuate stereotypes of backwardness and poverty. “Piss-poor anthropology,” as Childers puts it.

“There are different pockets of the rural US and each one of those has their own colour, their own language, the things they’re worried about,” he says. “They’re so different.” It’s hard to think of a great country singer who isn’t also a poet of place, but those singers are becoming hard to find. As Childers says of Nashville: “It doesn’t make sense to move to one of the biggest-growing cities in the nation to sit in a room with 12 people and write a country song. They’re all singing songs about ‘the place down the road’, but what is that place now?”

Childers released his first album when he was 19 and for years worked in landscaping jobs, couch-surfing and playing regional gigs. Miles Miller, Sturgill Simpson’s drummer, happened to catch one of those, making sure Simpson was in the audience the next time Childers played Nashville. “Call me when you’re ready,” Simpson said. When he heard a demo of Childers’s second album, Simpson told him: “The songwriting is there, but this doesn’t do justice to what I saw you do on stage.” That’s how Childers found himself in the studio with Simpson and David Ferguson, Johnny Cash’s engineer, for the recording of Purgatory. And when it came time to record Country Squire, Childers went back to them. This time around, he had been endlessly listening to Allen Touissant’s Southern Nights – the great 1975 psychedelic soul ode to Touissant’s Louisiana creole evenings. “It’s a perfect song cycle,” Childers says. He wanted Country Squire to have the same seamless-feeling structure, but set in Kentucky.

At the Americana awards, when Childers stepped up in a Colonel Sanders-style suit to accept the emerging artist award, he voiced his frustration with the genre. “Americana ain’t no part of nothin’,” he said. “It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers.”

Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music”, Americana, Childers says, started as “a place to recognise people being ignored by their own genres, but now it’s a hindrance. The stuff we used to call ‘good country’ is now getting called Americana. We’ve not fixed the problem of bad country.”

Country, Childers says, became vague and commercial. “The problem with country is we’ve turned the props into the play,” he says of the commercialisation of the songs. “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.”

I had wanted to hear Country Squire in the place it came from, and Childers obliges. The location of his land is a secret he would like to keep, but he drives us in so many circles it would be near-impossible to find again anyway. He plays his phone through the stereo, and the Jeep charges along switchback roads and through deep dappled woods as Childers and the band launch into the title song, which chimes in with Childers’s life on the road and his yearning to settle down – before that land payment, he and Senora May considered living full-time in a camper van.

There is an obvious kinship with Simpson, Yoakam, Prine and Skaggs in these songs, along with the shimmery imprint of Touissant’s starlit nights and traces of Gram Parsons’s cosmic country. But they are grounded in real life, whether it is songs of nightshift railmen or the innuendo-laden lament of a singer on the road that is Everlovin’ Hand. When the pedal steel shows up on songs such as Country Squire and Creeker, it is a reverent presence.

Childers quit church by his teens, but he absorbed the music of the primitive Baptist church, where the pedal steel was often the only instrument played. “Some of that church music, it’s like this pure, raw, unfiltered emotion,” he says. “I wanted these songs to have a little of that Baptist bounce.”

Occasionally and perhaps deliberately as we drive, Childers drifts the other lane. “My dad always said, I pay taxes on both sides,” he jokes and shifts into low gear to make the next ascent. The songs fuse into the landscape, blend into each other around the disappearing curves. I don’t know the name of the road we’re on, but this music has a place on US 23.

Country Squire is released on 2 August


Rebecca Bengal

The GuardianTramp

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