For American Songcatcher episode #6: I’ll Die With That Hammer In My Hand
Tyler Childers was born in 1991 in Lawrence County Kentucky, an area of the state that in many ways typifies rural Appalachia in the national imagination. He’s lived all of his life just down the road from Butcher Hollow, the home of Loretta Lynn and the setting for the song, and later the film, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Like Lynn, Childers’ father was a miner. Growing up he says “I sat around a lot with my dad—around hunting clubs, and outside of church and barbershops—listening to fellas older than me tell tall tales and flat-out lies.” Given of the stories he tells through his songs, he adds puckishly that “I guess some of that rubbed off on me.”
While neither parent was musically inclined, music was never all that far away. Childers recalls that his father’s truck had two cassettes in it: a Ralph Stanley album and a Hee Haw gospel collection. At home, there was a closet with more cassettes and broader choices, ranging from traditional country to crossover bands that brought country themes and ideas into pop and classic rock. He’d listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival, Alabama, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, sometimes playing along using a coat rack to stand in for a guitar and a microphone.
The culture of music was always nearby as well. Whatever the region may have lacked in economic wealth it gained in a rich cultural heritage stretching back to the arrival of the Scots Irish who first settled the region. This is where Appalachian folk gave birth to Bluegrass, barn dances, and ultimately Nashville’s music row and the Grand Ole Opry. US Route 23, known as Kentucky’s Country Music Highway, runs directly through it. Childers says “Straight as the crow flies, I grew up 20 minutes from 23.”
He first learned to sing in the church choir. When he was five, his grandfather bought him a guitar and had a friend teach him the basic chords. By 13 he was writing songs and singing them for friends at his high school in Paintsville, Kentucky. David Prince, a musician and English teacher who taught Childers in 9th Grade, recalls that “he was just a wired little kid with a guitar running around and singing Johnny Cash.” On a school trip to Louisville, says Prince, “I remember we told him he couldn’t have any more coffee, so he didn’t stay up late drinking it and writing songs.”
Childers wanted to be a baseball player, though spent more time on the bench than on the field. That’s where he sat one day when an assistant coach was dragging the field in his truck and blaring John Prine’s “Please Don’t Bury Me.” Childers was captivated, and the coach began bringing his guitar and teaching him John Prine songs after practises. Years later, Childers would open for Prine on tour, joining him on stage for “Paradise” and “Please Don’t Bury Me.”
He went to university for a semester, then moved a program at community college before dropping out. He wrote songs between landscaping jobs, playing in bars and roadhouses throughout the area and beyond. In 2011 Childers released his first album, Bottles and Bibles, recorded in a friend’s backyard studio. It was followed by two EPs recorded at Red Barn Radio, a radio show in Lexington, Kentucky. He sold the recordings at gigs, in time building a following in Kentucky and West Virginia. Then, as in the years to follow, he gained an audience largely from singing to them—while his songs caught many ears, few of them were of radio DJs.
Then, in a bingo hall just outside Vestal County, Kentucky, he met Sturgill Simpson. Simpson was older, perhaps wiser, and more experienced in the music industry. He also shared a perspective of on what country music could be, and what it could do. (He once told a reporter that “In country music, nobody is thinking about how to move people.”)
Childers gave Simpson a demo recording and his email address, and Simpson got in touch the next day saying “call me when you’re ready.”
He did, inaugurating one of the most important professional relationships of his life. His second album, Purgatory, was produced by Simpson and Dave Ferguson, Johnny Cash’s engineer. After completing the sessions, Simpson said “‘This might do something. You might be able to make a land payment. You’ll never see the land,” due to the demands of constant touring “but it’ll be there!’” The album quickly rose to number 28 on the Billboard 200, and was chosen by NPR as one of the best albums of 2017. Margo Price tapped him to open two of her shows at the Ryman Auditorium where he received his first standing ovation. As the audience rose, Childers simply stared out at the audience clutching his guitar.
Childers was drawn to the voices of the region—he would ask “Why am I trying to find my voice? I am blessed to be in a place that has its own.”—in music as well as Kentucky writers such as Silas House and Jesse Stuart. It was a voice that he knew well, yet also felt was largely misunderstood. When he was in high school, Diane Sawyer profiled East Kentucky in a segment for the television news program 20/20. Childers, and certainly many others, felt that her report was critical of Eastern Kentucky life in ways that only served to reflect northern stereotypes, exploiting them for the purposes of the show. He never forgot it. In his songs he doesn’t shy from the realities of life in the region. But he likewise doesn’t shy from the complexity of the lives lived in the coalfields and the hollows. The people of his songs, such as the bus driver in “Bus Route,” wouldn’t have found an easy place in Sawyers’ report.
“It’s songs for us,” he says of his writing. They sit in contrast to the hayseeds of The Beverly Hillbillies or Hee Haw. They are human, modern, and varied. He’s said that “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 writes about them: the miners, the fox hunters, the barflies and the millworkers. “By being honest and trying to share my life experience,” he says, “it can hopefully bridge a gap” between that experience and his audience.
The settings are often autobiographical. His song “Country Squire” tells the story of a trailer he bought on Craigslist, intending to use as a home until he and his wife could build something more permanent. “Lady May” and “All Your’n” are love songs written for his wife, Senora May. Musically, Chidlers’ purposefully draws from a larger palette than many writers might, drawing on all the music that, as a child, he found in the cassettes in his father’s closet.
His latest release continues the theme. While on tour, his fiddle player had two fiddles, though one would often go missing. He’d then find Childers squirreled away with it somewhere, learning the tunes and techniques of old-time fiddling. Despite playing fiddle for less than a year his latest release is a collection of mostly old-time and bluegrass fiddle tunes. Titled, Long Violent History, the album ends with a title track—the only vocal song included—that meets the discord of the current cultural moment head on. He sings, “Could you imagine just constantly worrying, kicking and fighting begging to breathe?” In a video released to accompany the release he sits alone on a chair discussing his intention which, perhaps he expects, is likely to be misunderstood. On October 3, 2020, it reached #1 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk chart.