Debut album is a masterpiece of Appalachian country
I learned about Tyler Childers during those raw, biting March days at the very beginning of the pandemic. It seems strangely fitting that a musician whose cultural roots are defined by a rich sense of community—the hugs, the hollering, the dancing around fires with whiskey and earth-smells on the air, all emblematic of the Appalachian coal hills—would become the soundtrack to days when hugs were banned, hollering was an aerosolized weapon, and fire, whiskey, and dirt seemed a far cry from the air-conditioned sterility of home.
Tyler’s music is transportive. That is an impressive feat. Music is great at transmitting an emotion or telling a story. To bring you to a place requires a decadent soundscape and masterful lyricism; Tyler Childers achieves both on Purgatory.
His breakthrough album came out in 2017, when the year-end chart topper was “Body like a Back Road.” Purgatory is a very different animal. As the needle drops, it’s wistful strings as opposed to electric guitars and pounding drums. “I Swear (To God)” is a conflicted reflection on an allegedly great performance by Tyler and the band; allegedly because they can’t seem to remember past “a couple drinks… a few hits from an antler pipe… [and] a few white lines.” Tyler Childers talks about substance abuse from a place of brutal honesty and grit. His whiskey-soaked voice betrays nights spent on (and under) a barstool. He departs from the secret handshakes of glitzy Nashville country, where a baggie of cocaine is passed from artist to listener by vague references to excessive partying and unremembered nights. Instead, he presents the party and the hangover. He offers acerbic critiques of his own choices. “I been ramblin’ around and led astray / By the paths that I been choosin’”—the chosen path doesn’t lead to truth. “Throwin’ my money on a funeral pyre / But it sure feels good abusin’”—happiness rooted in self-destruction is consciously accepted as self-abusive. How else could he approach this topic? His native Kentucky is plagued by addiction. To buy into the tepid parties of stadium country would be to dance on the grave of neighbors and friends lost to bottles, pills, and powders.
The crown jewel of this album is Tyler’s masterpiece, “Feathered Indians.” The fiddle and guitar riff which opens the song evokes a feeling of heartfelt yearning. His voice takes on a certain sweetness that isn’t present in the album opener. It maintains a sense of maturity and is at the same time innocent. It’s as if he’s fallen head over heels in love yet has the memory of heartbreaks past. In many ways, “Feathered Indians” is the real beginning of the album, and “I Swear (To God)” is more of a cold open. The ethos of the album is found in the longing for the beloved: “I’d go running through the thicket / I’d go careless through the thorns / Just to hold her for a minute / Though it’d leave me wanting more.” This longing only takes shape once those flatpicked strains emerge in the first few moments of this second track. Tyler achieves effortless intimacy. His lyrics are an honest heart laid bare. “Sing your whispering song / softly in my ear / and I will sing along” is lyricism profound in its simplicity. You can’t help but smile at the image of the beloved singing in their lover’s ear, raising their hearts to adoration and their voices to song. It’s simple and it’s not naive, but it is somehow innocent in its grizzled, throaty presentation of Childers’ voice.
The title track “Purgatory” is among the songs that best transport the listener to Childers’ country home. Banjos, fiddles, and upright basses throw themselves at the listener with gusto! The banjo is recorded in a vintage style, with a certain fuzziness and lack of bass which hearkens back to the recordings of yesteryear. You could see the Soggy Bottom Boys of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” in their one room studio scratching out a tune like this. Flatpicked guitar stings reminiscent of Childers’ contemporary Billy Strings stand out as terrific blues turns. The lyrics evoke a jamboree setting; they’re a wink and a nudge towards that same awareness of the singer’s sinfulness which defines “I Swear (To God).” This track also speaks to the Catholic imagination: “When the time has come for changin’ worlds / I’ll hedge my bets to a Catholic girl / Catholic girl, pray for me / You’re my only hope for Heaven.” Purgatory is, to the American eye, a uniquely Catholic concept. It is suffused with the mysticism of the Church. This rambunctious track keeps its eyes on heaven amidst human sinfulness. How unconventional—and how Catholic—for a country song at home in a smoked up honky-tonk to focus on the hope of redemption.
“‘I’d run across a river just to hold you tonight” could be the thesis of this album. Tyler Childers’ Purgatory evokes feelings of longing and desire paired with the hootenanny, hillbilly joy of the Appalachian hills. That longing comes to a close in the final track, “Lady May.” It’s a love song to the artist’s wife, and it is simply sublime. Tyler can say it better than I can, so I’ll leave you with this: “I came crashin’ through the forest / As you cut my roots away / And I fell a good long ways / For my lovely Lady May.” I fell a good long ways for this album and artist, and it’s my sincere hope that you will too.
Zach Pearson is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in Music. He is a proud resident of South Jersey, and enjoys clarifying that the term Taylor Ham is contrary to the natural law. Reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.