Tyler Childers – Purgatory
Thirty Tigers – 5 January 2018
The son of a Kentucky coal industry worker and a nurse, the nasally twangsome Tyler Childers has what it takes to impress. Purgatory, his second album, marks the first time that country star Sturgill Simpson has, working here alongside David Ferguson (engineer on Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin albums), produced anything except his own work. It’s not hard to hear what he saw in Childers, a persuasive practitioner of bluegrass streaked old-school country with a keen storytelling sensibility.
With Simpson on guitar and backing vocals, it’s ostensibly a themed album, charting a semi-autobiographical journey from wayward teen rebel to grounded married man. It opens with I Swear (To God), a jaunty fiddle-backed chug detailing the morning after a hell of an all too regular night before with “pupils wider than backhoe tires.”
Salvation presents itself in the second song, Feathered Indians, a number musically evocative of a bluegrassy Steve Earle where he finds the woman who’ll set him on the right track, the title coming from an image of physical love as he sings how “my buckle makes impressions on the inside of her thigh. There are little feathered Indians where we tussled through the night.”
It’s a short-lived affair, however, as, come the yearningly melancholic, pedal-steel-laced slow waltz Tattoo, where “I’m now her used to be. He is now the one she needs”, striking a powerful image of himself as “an old headstone to her grave.” The music takes a more uptempo path with the cheerful country jog of Born Again, a lyric that, while addressing relationships, seems more about reincarnation than conversion, Childers playfully embracing karma as “come to Earth again, clucking out a livin’ as the favorite layin’ hen.”
A dirty, bluesy Southern rock groove provides the bedrock for Whitehouse Road, a drug dealer’s song that echoes the opener as he sings about rotgut whisky and cocaine getting him through the pain of a hard life and “higher than the grocery bill.”
Charles Cashman’s banjo makes its presence felt, joining Stuart Duncan’s fiddle for the backwoods murder ballad Banded Clovis. It relates the tale of an addict murdering his friend for the titular ancient arrowhead found while scrabbling through snow-covered mountain dirt in search of treasure to feed their habit of “the pills and the powder, corn liquor and women.”
Another number driven by Cashman and Duncan is the frisky hoedown title track. It returns to the album’s narrative thrust of how finding the love of a good girl rescued him from a life heading to hell on a road lined with booze, pills and white lines. If not leading him to Heaven, he’s at least finding a middle ground refuge.
As the title suggests, the Waylonesque sway-along Honky Tonk Flame pulls up a barroom stool for the thematically related tale of a man rescued “wasting his life on a burnin’ desire” by the true love of a woman rather than “them skirts you’ve been chasin’ all over town”, the near five-minute track ending on an extended gutsy guitar and fiddle scraping coda.
He touches again on eastern beliefs on the outlaw country coloured Universal Sound. It picks up the reference with Childers singing about focusing on breathing and using meditation to calm a frenzied mind and thoughts that “bark like hounds” and become one with the universe. That peace and serenity enfold the album’s final number, Lady May, a simple acoustic strummed love song to his wife with its mix of religious and nature imagery and the poignant line of how “I’m baptized in your name.”
Childers isn’t pushing forward any musical frontiers, but he does make familiar landscapes feel freshly tilled on these songs about the trials, tribulations and temptations of a hardscrabble working life and the love that can be the balm of Gilead to ease the suffering.
Out now on Thirty Tigers. Order via Amazon.
Upcoming UK Dates
Jan 29 – Komedia, Studio Bar, Brighton
Jan 30 – Omeara, London
Feb 01 – Allotment, Manchester
Feb 03 – Tron Theatre, Glasgow