By Kevin Broughton
You think this next text message can be a point of leverage.
“Fine. But I get 30 minutes.”
Tyler Childress’ publicist, frantically shuffling timelines all morning and into lunch, is profusely apologetic after the third (or was it fourth?) shift.
“Ugh! I wish I had 30 min. But he has something right at 3:00, so the best I can do is 2:30 to 2:55…I’m so sorry. Seriously. Is that ok?” The lady is a first-rate pro, earning every bit of her keep from one of the Gold Standard music-publicity firms. Which, in turn, is evidence that Tyler Childers is springing from relative obscurity to the next big freaking deal in a short period of time; these folks rep the A-listers. So what’s with this guy?
Some folks scoffed at the notion – seven months hence – that Sturgill Simpson might be enough of a determined contrarian to reshape Nashville in his own image. Well, he saw a Tyler Childers show a year or so back, and decided he’d try his hand at producing a record. And as we mentioned a couple weeks ago, Sturgill’s gone from making the best country album one year to producing it the next.
The album does a lot of things early: Grabs your attention with the tagline of a Baptist hymn, then ticks off a checklist of lies borne of infidelity, all on the opening cut. Poignant lines about the impressions a feathered-Indian belt buckle makes on a lover’s thigh. And later: hopeful, helpless, thoughtful, and crushingly resigned reflections of an Appalachian existence summed up in last year’s best nonfiction book.
And like that, you’re done. Hooked. A captive of the record of the year. We’re calling this fight. The guy’s 26. You really can’t appreciate the “bigness of the deal” until you’ve run through the record – out on Friday – several times.
But wait. 2:30 p.m. and our 25 (under protest) minutes are nigh.
Dang. Note to self: Tyler didn’t answer, and I leave a polite message. He calls back 5 minutes (OUR FIVE MINUTES) later. Oddly, it wasn’t a media call that (like the rest of them) ran long.
“Man, I’m sorry,” Childers explains. “I’m going to England next week and need a certain guitar. So I’ve been doing some horse-trading. What you wanna talk about?”
Well, lots. But we ain’t got but a minute.
The guy’s a little tired. Well, a lot, maybe. At one point he pauses in the middle of a sentence and says “Wait. What day is today?
“Yeah,” he says. “Caroline Spence, who played with us the last two nights at Eddie’s…”
Here, you get ill, with a swimmy head. Eddie’s Attic. He played in Atlanta the two nights before you’re flinging sharp elbows at imaginary writing rivals for a bit of time. The room spins. Ugh.
The drummer on Purgatory, Miles Miller, introduced you to Sturgill Simpson. I’m interested in how that came about. Was it an oh-by-the-way thing, “How’d you like to meet Sturgill Simpson?”
About a year and a half ago I was opening for Caroline Spence and Miles was at one of the shows. He came up and introduced himself and it got to where we’d hang out whenever he came back to Kentucky. And he showed some of my stuff to Sturgill and talked him into coming out to a show I was playing at the Basement East. He made the introduction, and that’s about it.
If Sturgill Simpson shows up at your gig…is that maybe a source of nerves?
There was definitely a feeling of “Holy s**t, Sturgill Simpson’s at my show.” But to be honest, I had also said, “Holy s**t, there’s Miles Miller at my show.” I get nervous playing in front of people of a high musical caliber. But I dealt with it.
Purgatory is being called your debut album, but you released Bottles and Bibles six years ago. How long have you been making music in your 26 years?
I mean…I’ve just been playing in one form or another for… well, a long time, you know? I started out in high school playing for free beer. Then I graduated and started playing for money on the side. And free beer. And now I’m to the point of playing for my job, my income. And that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to do: making a living at something you enjoy doing.
Some of the cuts on Purgatory have been floating around out there on EPs – there’s a stripped-down version of “White House Road” I almost wish Sturgill had left alone. Of the songs on this album, how many of them were essentially ready to record, and how many of them did you write before going into the studio?
I had ‘em all when I walked in, and a lot of them I had been playing out for a while. I think there was one – “I Swear to God” – I was halfway through that song when we sat down to talk about recording. And it was pretty much done by the time we went into the studio. But the majority of these songs I had been traveling and touring and singing for a good while. “Feathered Indians,” I had written it not long after Red Barn I was recorded, but it’s been ready to be on something for a long time.
What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t making music?
The last day job I had, I was workin’ for rent, building fences on a farm this older couple had in Lewisburg [West Virginia], and I was also working at a brewery washing kegs, just to have some side money on top of the little bit I was makin’ playin’. Before that, I was de-nailin’. And easy job to get days off from, ‘cause I could say “I’m gonna de-nail for three days and go play four.” But if I wasn’t playin’ music, I’d probably be…layin’ floors or something else carpentry-wise. Framing houses…some kind of manual labor.
Several of these songs have a real antihero vibe to them. And you’re not bashful about addressing the opioid crisis ravaging the country – and your neck of the woods in particular. When it comes to corn liquor, snorting pills, and riding the roads, do you speak from a little bit of experience?
Do I speak from a little bit of experience? Well, yeah, you know…
Let’s go at it this way: the song “White House Road.” Is that song borne of observation, experience or a little bit of both?
It’s both. I mean, there are parts of me inside of all my songs. But there’s parts of people I’ve hung around in those those songs, too. Like in “White House.” I wasn’t gonna be found… “Hey, Tyler’s up on White House.” But plenty of people I knew were. A party’s a party wherever it’s at.
I kinda want to follow up about that song. As I hear it, and knowing you’re on the cusp of taking things to the next level, one could envision that one becoming your signature show-closer, kind of a party anthem. I don’t think that’s necessarily what you’re going for; were you just making an observation, free of any value judgment, about life in Lawrence County?
Well, it’s an observation, sure. And even at the end of the song, the character’s looking at his future “in the cold hard clay,” he realizes that the way he’s chosen to live means death’s not a whole lot farther away. But it seems a lot of people don’t take that line into account, so it has kinda become a party anthem. And we’ve been closing out the show with that one for like four years. And if that’s what somebody wants to take out of it, then that’s their prerogative. But it’s one of those songs that in a different time in your life, you can get something from.
A lot of the songs I grew up listening to – like Truckers’ songs – those were my party anthems. We’re gonna get s**t house wasted and listen to Truckers’ songs! And the older I get…
…the Drive By Truckers, you mean?
Yeah. You grow up and you think what you’re singing along to, and you start thinking, “There are some pretty dark characters in those Truckers’ songs.”
Give us a thumbnail biography. What kind of family did you grow up in, and what about your early life and upbringing inform your songwriting? What was your life in Eastern Kentucky like?
I grew up in Lawrence County, Kentucky and my dad worked in some form or fashion in the coal industry. He started out on a backhoe for Kentucky May, then it went under and then kinda had a job fall into his lap as a purchasing agent for Miller Bros. Coal. He worked hard and was persistent and showed up. He did that and my mom was a nurse for the health department in Johnson County. I had a good raisin’. They busted their ass to make sure my sister and I were taken care of.
Did a lot of huntin.’ Went to church with my parents and grandparents. Listened to a lot of old men on the front steps jawin’. Listened to a lot of yarns spun by old timers in front of a wood stove in a coon [hunting] club and a barbershop. People around here have their own way of sayin’ things, and I’ve always had an ear for it I guess. Somebody would say somethin’ and I’d think, “That ought to be a song,” know what I mean?
Yeah. “Get me higher than a grocery bill” is one of those lines. That is a poignant, well-spun, local line. And on that, there are spiritual themes sprinkled all over this record. “Born Again.” The title cut, with the mythical, Eastern Kentucky Catholic girl. And I think I hear the tag line for “Just As I Am” in the intro to “I Swear.” How big a part of your life was faith growing up, and today?
Yeah, that is the tag from “Just As I Am.” Growing up in a Freewill Baptist family, -- I don’t know how they do it in other faiths – but that was the invitation at the end of the service…
…all six verses, then over and over, till somebody came down the aisle…
…yeah, man. So I just had that phrase in my head, as being the invitation to, well, this album. Everything that happens after you leave on Sunday. Or however you want to take it; I don’t know.
I’d like to circle back for a minute. You’re 26, and you’ve got Sturgill Simpson – arguably the biggest voice in authentic country music – producing your record. It would be really easy for a fella to let that go to his head. Was there an “Oh, wow” moment when that came together? How do you keep yourself grounded in a situation like that?
Lady May! Any time I get a big head, she lets me know where I stand. Everybody has their own way of being accountable, whether it’s the congregation, or just waking up one day and deciding it’s time to have some self-respect. Or sometimes you luck into finding a damn good woman. Like I did.