MUSIC: Tyler Childers surprises country music world with protest album

photo: Tyler Childers/Hickman Holler Records

By Jeff Uveino

Tyler Childers made his message clear in the words that he sang and the words that he spoke.

The 29-year-old country singer from Lawrence County, Kentucky released a surprise album on Sept. 18, and in its aftermath, left some fans rejoicing, some furious, and some scratching their heads.

The album, titled “Long Violent History,” replicates the sound of Childers’ previous music catalogue, filled with strings and little artificial production.

Eight of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals. It’s the title track, however, strategically placed at the end of the record, that makes this rising star of rural Appalachia an unlikely defender of social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“How many boys could they haul off this mountain, shoot full of holes, cuffed and layin’ in the streets,” Childers cries in his powerful, gruff cadence. “‘Til we come into town in a stark ravin’ anger, looking for answers and armed to the teeth?”

Empathy. That’s Childers’ message.

Fully aware of his predominantly white, rural fan base, Childers presents his plea for justice in a way that his listeners can relate to.

“Thirty-ought-sixes, papaw’s old pistol, how many, you reckon, would it be, four or five,” he continues. “Or would that be the start of a long, violent history of tucking our tails as we try to abide?”

To make sure that his message didn’t get twisted or misinterpreted, Childers released a video on Twitter to accompany the album.

“(The album) is a collection of instrumental pieces intended to create a sonic soundscape for the listener to set the tone to reflect on the last track, which is my observation piece on the times we are in,” Childers said. “COVID has been a strain on all of us in some form or fashion… all the while, we have witnessed violent acts of police brutality happen around the nation that have not been addressed.”

Childers continues by asking his “white rural listeners” to do a self-examination on the matter.

“I venture to say that if we were met with this type of daily attack on our own people, we would take action in a way that hasn’t been seen since the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia,” Childers says. “If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?”

He closes the video with an appeal to vote out the people who have “been in power and let this go unnoticed,” as well as a questioning of the morality of the Confederate flag.

The day the album and video were released, Childers began trending on Twitter, a space that is rarely taken up by country music artists. However, it is difficult to say whether his political stance will help or hurt the rising star’s career.

Childers has been one of the buzziest independent country artists of the past few years. His album “Country Squire,” released by his indy label Hickman Holler records in August 2019, reached No. 1 on the US country charts with virtually no radio airplay.

He was named “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the 2018 Americana Music Honors and Awards, and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020 for his performance of the second single off of County Squire, “All Your’n.”

Engulfing himself in modern-day politics is an audacious move for an up-and-coming artist who heavily relies on a rural, and presumably conservative, audience.

The sound of the album is rock-solid. The 32-minute retreat to the hollers of Kentucky that Childers hails from is loaded with fiddle and mandolin, and features a sound that replicates bluegrass as much as it does country.

Other than a few sparse stomps, slaps and timpani rolls, there is no percussion on the album. If it were released half a century ago, it would likely be called a “fiddling record.”

Childers’ fanbase cannot fault his sound, as he has stayed true to his Appalachian roots with each of his projects thus far.

Will his accompanying message, however, turn conservative fans away? Or will it draw in new fans from outside the genre and continue his momentum?

Either way, Childers has made it clear where he stands. And it’s hard to deny his authenticity.

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