Sometimes in country and Americana music, among the hubbub of new voices trying to elbow into the limelight, a voice as impure as America itself finds its way in as if by accident. That is the voice and song-style of Kentucky native Tyler Childers, whose tunes like “Feathered Indians,” from his much-discussed Purgatory, arrive weathered and worn as a stone.
And filling up White Oak Music Hall with that sketchbook of rural American life will mean that locals can leave behind the drone of 2.4 million people and listen to the pointed stories from the hollers and riversides drenched with cigarettes, doped-up mistakes, and tussled love.
He is a message that from places that most coastal people pretend is nothing but forgotten pine trees, coal mines, swimming holes, and slanted homes filled with banjos, grocery bills, and moonshine, can come the shrewdest songs that set matters right, at least for a few minutes.
And he is the messenger (even if he is not the “sharpest chisel,” as he sings) that can cut through the cheese cloth that gauzes up reality most days. From the rusty faucet of his voice, he gives shape to places and people that are trapped and free at the same time.
Childers does not pretend to be perfect, pretty, or wreck-free, just a person that knows the line between heathens and saints is often blurred or gray. Losing friends and family (like on the elegiac “Follow You to Virgie” found on the barebone YouTube version of Live at Red Barn Radio) as well as a sense of place and personal dignity, can also reveal maps of redemption and renewal. That is, the songs themselves can help deliver a sense of unlocking hope in a scuffed, hard-edged world.
Yet, sometimes the bending postures of these songs are weighed down by the most classic of concerns, like odes to love that take shape not in some general landscape of melodramatic feeling but in high-relief postcards rendered with piecemeal poetics: the wind “can leave you shiverin’ as it waltzes” through the tree limbs near the mill, which graces the song “Lady May.” The world may be wizened, as in beaten-up and ramshackle, or over-wise, like full of pretension and pomp too, but love keeps a person’s fiber of being intact.
Most arresting, though, is his ability to weave together the small town news of the day, as well as the economic uncertainty pulling the country apart, which no church can seem to rectify or song totally offset. “Hard Times” is an archive of built-up desperation: buying rings at the pawn shop and cribs for kids, even as the paychecks grow thin and thinner. So much so, “hell’s better than tryin’ to get by,” which eventually leads the narrator to contemplate an inevitable dark turn – holding up a Texaco station, only to be shot, leaving behind orphans, rent due, and another miner ready to take his place clawing in the earth’s womb.
Tons of people have covered the subjects before, like Robert Earl Keen lending a desperado allure to the crash course of people’s lives in “The Road Goes On Forever” or his “Whenever Kindness Fails” spieling about a lone wolf gun man, which Childers might slightly mirror in his tales of a cocaine-addled womanizer zooming down the black, gummy-tar pavement on his popular “White House Road.”
Previously, Bruce Springsteen spent entire albums like Nebraska
and The Ghost of Tom Joad
registering the wandering pain, isolation, acrimony, loss, and emptiness that has often replaced the American dream. But Childers, in his own succinct, raw-voiced way, gives voice to the 21st century hog-tied blues felt by everyday people in places where front porch sessions are more important than Instagram likes.
That is why more than seven million people on YouTube have gravitated towards his song “Nose On The Grindstone,” which paints a picture of people hunkering down in the toughest of times as they try to recall, and harness, lessons learned, like “keep your nose on the grindstone and out of the pills.” The song becomes a mantra of sorts, a recycled prayer; so, in those moments when happiness erodes, the body wears, hurt festers like swollen waterways, and every second becomes a countdown to fate, that lesson can mean the difference between burning bridges or waking up, alive and muddled, the next day.
Yet, listeners should not conclude that Childers only offers the shaken husks of shame, recklessness, hardship, or frustrations, though even his pastoral “Rock Salt and Nails,” teeming with willows, ducks, and black birds, is also tinged with a heart-shattering underlying tale of being hurt by women. Sometimes he can muster up the yellow afternoon glare of young country love, like on the honky-tonk “Bus Route,” or show the humor, and actual artful metaphor, of providing synthetic flowers on Valentines Day in the tune “Fake Bouquet.” Plastic flowers will never wilt and always hold their bloom, just like the steadfast love of even an absent-minded man.
That is the world of Childers – where dopey romantic gestures can outrun the deluge of confusion, boredom, and even the anguish that sometime corner people. And even when pain is fresh, or impinging on every second, he knows a song might unravel the way out. His songs seem to infer, “Do not retreat, do not cower, do not waste away.” The cold air can only sting for so long. The rain will grow distant. The propulsive pain and casual cruelties will finally be worn down to nubs that can no longer hurt.
Tyler Childers is scheduled to perform at 6 p.m. April 11 outdoors at the Lawn at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. For information, visit whiteoakmusichall.com. All ages. $25 plus fees.