Tyler Childers: Country Squire
August 2019 brings the release of Tyler Childers’ latest studio album, Country Squire. Recorded at The Butcher Shoppe in Nashville, Tennessee, the same studio his August 2017 breakthrough effort, Purgatory, was created and issued on his label, Hickman Holler Records. Childers penned all nine songs included on Country Squire and returned to the studio with the same production team of Sturgill Simpson and Dave Fergusson. As with Purgatory, Simpson assembled a cast of elite session players including Stuart Duncan, Russ Pahl, Mike Rojas, Bobby Wood, Miles Miller, and David Roe to record the album, crediting at least twenty different instruments in the process. It’s somewhat notable that Simpson chooses again to use session players for recording in lieu of Childers’ highly popular touring band, The Food Stamps. This isn’t at all that unheard of in the industry, and both lineups are top class, although fans appear to have their individual preferences for studio versions or live performances. Nevertheless, the approach brings a diverse experience to the music.
For Country Squire, Childers has partnered his label with RCA Records. While this move has seen mixed reactions from fans and critics, again the strategy is not unusual, nor is it a negative factor. Some decried the move as selling out, and went so far as to ridicule the second single, “All Your’n,” released earlier this year as ‘too cute,’ or ‘selling out to the mainstream,’ or evidence of RCA meddling in the process. There were suggestions that Childers wasn’t “outlaw” enough anymore because of this. This kind of criticism is completely unwarranted, and totally off base. First of all, Tyler Childers isn’t the guy to brand himself as an outlaw, simply because he doesn’t carry that kind of ego. However, he is the kind of guy to stand up at the Americana Awards and declare, “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory’.” Those are not the words of an artist who’s going to sell out to anyone. Additionally, Country Squire was written and recorded before the RCA alliance, which was constructed to provide increased promotion and distribution of the record. This can already be seen in the increased budget for showcasing the record, along with a supporting international tour at larger venues that has already sold out over 20% of its dates. As stated above, Childers wrote all of the songs on Country Squire, and along with his chosen production team, maintains all artistic control of the music. Have no fear. There’s been no meddling in this product by RCA and “All Your’n” is just a love song. It’s not the tractor rap, snap clap, drum program trash, nor is it a sign of any of that coming in. Since when has a love song been ‘not country enough’ for the audiences? And since when is exposing more folks to good country music a bad thing?
Country Squire is a genuine refection of life in Eastern Kentucky. The collection of songs within clearly reflect Childers’ own experiences and those of his family, friends, and neighbors. It’s almost a concept album in that respect, of which Childers himself has declared, “I hope that people in the area that I grew up in find something they can relate to. I hope that I’m doing my people justice and I hope that maybe someone from somewhere else can get a glimpse of the life of a Kentucky boy.” He also specifically refers to it as a, “working man’s country album.” There are no necessarily reoccurring characters per se, although it could be argued that many of the songs are, in one form or another, directly relatable to his own journey. The tales are quite similar in context, and the production approach merges songs seamlessly. For example, the gap between “Bus Route” and “Creeker” where the instrumentation blends two distinctly different lyrical themes into a continuous experience. Adding fuel to the concept approach is the impressive album artwork, by Colonel Tony Moore. After using Jimbo Valentine’s notable services for the artwork on earlier album projects, Childers turned to another fellow Kentuckian in comic book artist, Moore, who provided the Country Squire cover artwork, several promotional pieces and animations, as well as character designs for the “All Your’n” video. Childers has even gone so far as to introduce one of the album’s cartoon characters in his live performance at Floyd Fest in Virginia last weekend, showing up courtesy of David “Chill” Napier of the Driftwood Gypsies and a cat mask.
The album opens with the title track “Country Squire,” exploring the rambling daydreams of a struggling musician forced to find factory work out of state and away from his loving partner, and wondering if she’s thinking about him as well. Right away, Childers demonstrates his songwriting mastery as he weaves in intimate details of the setting, such as a sidewalk outside a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio. The location isn’t simply randomly chosen, and it’s certainly not very glamorous for a love song. But it’s authentic, and it’s included from the personal knowledge and experiences of Kentucky residents, seeking work to the north. Chillicothe sits on US Highway 23 roughly 170 miles north of Paintsville, Kentucky where Childers graduated from highschool in 2009. The odors referenced in the song’s opening verse are likely from the 100+ year old Mead Paper mill, which folks colloquially refer to as the “smell of money.” In just the first few lines of the record, there’s already genuine attention to real life experiences that builds trust and credibility to the story being told. While that picture may come across as gloomy, “Country Squire” is anything but depressing. The song’s protagonist goes on gleefully in song and music, with his plans to catch and tan a large fox for a warm winter coat and fix up his Country Squire for his “honey.” Because our hero here is also a musician, we likewise hear about his weekend journeys around the bar circuit, while his dreams of saving for a better life continue. The dreams evolve and become more ambitious as the song progresses, eventually explaining that the Country Squire is an old camper that he’s meticulously restoring piece by piece as an act of love for her. “Country Squire” is an inspiring tale of struggle, persistence, and sacrifice made easier by the end goal of being together in a more comfortable place.
“Bus Route” follows it up immediately in a delicately feathered fashion by Stuart Duncan’s fiddle. Once again, Childers shows us his songwriting chops by creating wonderful characters the listener can enjoy, fear, and empathize with. Whether it’s the “prettiest little girl” that our hero blunders an attempt to kiss as an elementary schooler, Ray Dixon, the notoriously old school strict bus driver, the little girl’s father, or a clumsy boy with his face in the chewing gum on the floor of the bus, Childers paints the picture of what growing up riding a school bus in Lawrence County, Kentucky was like. Russ Pahl’s jaw harp and dobro provide complimentary rhythms that paint the ambling pace of a school bus grinding up hills and winding around curves. Listening to this song, you can just place yourself in the seat of the bus, dodging glares from its disciplinarian driver, and watching the escapades of a 5th grade would-be Romeo. The performance video of “Bus Route” below was recorded from a soundcheck at the aforementioned 2017 Americana Festival.
“Creeker” is a sad tale of a “country boy” trapped in the city and struggling to cope with it. As might be expected the Creeker turns to drinking whiskey in a small corner bar at a table by himself, lamenting the various events that landed him in the city. Okay, so we have another sad, drinking whiskey song, right? Sure, but what makes “Creeker” so special is lines like, “Lost as a ball in a full field of corn,” or a verse like this, “Now they knew not his name and he knew not their faces; And he knew not the how nor the reason for why; You could ever wake up and wanna keep on a-livin'; In a place where a friend is such a hard thing to find.” Suddenly it’s not just another sad song about a whiskey drunk, but a story you completely sympathize with. It’s not just some drinking booze song a guy made up, but the retelling of likely real life experiences of country folks struggling to adapt to unfamiliar environments in the city. It’s now a sobering reality that in coping with grief, “Some fellas get pissed in a small corner bar.”
Released as a single and an accompanying video in March of 2019, “House Fire” uses a hyperbolic metaphor of a house fire to describe the passions felt for a lover living too far away, and his need to get to her. Perhaps by design, it’s not as lyrically complex as the companion tracks on the album, which allows for the driving rhythm of the instruments to effectively carry the urgency of the referenced journey at hand. The result is a song so dynamic that it’s difficult to remain seated while listening to.
A second single and lyric video came out this June, with an official video following in July for “All Your’n,” a pure country love song, authored in the first person, and sung directly to the object of the subject’s affections. Childers demonstrates his versatility on this song, using his unique voice to capture the complete vulnerably and overflowing raw emotion the song illustrates. This isn’t an obligatory sappy love song, recorded solely for the sake of getting on the radio. It’s another look into life in Eastern Kentucky, coping with long-distance relationships, and the perseverance necessary to endure them. Listening to “All Your’n,” you can feel yourself winding up mountain roads, watching from the passenger seat, as Childers sings, “Driving through the roadwork. Oh, the work they took forever on,” noting the landmark scenery as you pass “The place you learned to say your prayers. The place I took to praying.” It’s brilliance unfolding in front of us, and the beauty of it all is that he’s just speaking sincerely from his heart.
The album closes with a healthy dose of Bobby Wood’s harmonium on “Matthew,” a tale of a soldier from the Iraq wars returning home to find work as an armed security guard. Finding the role rather mundane, he ponders deer hunting, recollections of the war, and the admirable examples his father set for him in the face of hardships and challenges. As the song continues the former soldier follows his father’s lead, and finds contentment and happiness in the simple joys of hunting, fishing, time with his own children, and friends.
Tyler Childers may not be “outlaw” enough for some folks, but the kid from Kise in Lawrence County, Kentucky (where they cannot keep the road signs up anymore because he’s so popular), is treading his own path in the face of vastly divergent musical trends. More importantly, he’s making the country music industry take notice. That’s what the outlaw country movement of the 1970s was all about. It wasn’t about an image, flipping off your fans, falling down drunk on stage, getting coked up, or writing self-congratulatory material. All of that and more may or may not have occurred in the process, but the movement was about independence and artistic control of the music. That’s what Tyler Childers is doing here under the mentoring and tutelage of Sturgill Simpson. Sometimes the outlaw you’re looking for is nothing more than a simple Country Squire.
Pickers, players, and potentates:
Stuart Duncan – Fiddle, Mandolin, Banjo
Russ Pahl – Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Pedal Steel Guitar, Baritone Guitar, Gut Sting Guitar, Dobro, Jaw Harp
David Roe - Bass Guitar
Mike Rojas – Accordion, Piano, Hammond B3 Organ, Clavinet, Synthesizer
Bobby Wood – Piano, Hammond B3 Organ, Wurlitzer, Harmonium
Miles Miller – Drums, Washboard, Background Vocals
Tyler Childers – Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
Sturgill Simpson – Background Vocals
Produced by Sturgill Simpson and David Ferguson
Engineered by David Ferguson
Mixed by David Ferguson
You can learn more about Tyler Childers at: tylerchildersmusic.com/home