Tyler Childers doesn’t know what it is about his home state of Kentucky that is breeding some of country and Americana’s keenest current songwriters, like Sturgill Simpson, Angaleena Presley and Kelsey Waldon, and he doesn’t really care to guess. “Maybe it’s just in the water,” he says, calling from a church parking lot on his birthday, before deadpanning, “you know, from the sulfur and stuff.”
Whatever is it – the water, the bluegrass in the bones, the blue-collar existence where callouses are earned as much from hard work as from the strings of the guitar – Childers has it on his forthcoming debut LP, Purgatory, produced by Simpson and David Ferguson, onetime engineer to Johnny Cash. With songs like “Whitehouse Road,” premiering below on Rolling Stone Country, he melds a mountain howl scarred by the missteps of young adulthood with a stirring, locomotive country chug. As well as a little bit of that untouchable, ragged Kentucky soul.
“I was just thinking about this dude I worked with – his tall tales and flat-out lies and how much of a wild cat he was,” Childers says about “Whitehouse Road,” a song he wrote six years ago at age 20. “He was an interesting character, but I always tried to steer clear of that when I was living back home, as far as getting into that much orneriness. Then I ended up moving to Lexington and getting into different kinds of orneriness, but orneriness nonetheless. I ain’t too much different. Same game, different baseball field.”
Playing shows in Kentucky for years and releasing music on his own, Childers met Simpson through the Grammy winner’s drummer, Miles Miller – they started talking after a gig at Nashville club the Basement. Simpson had more in common with Childers than just a birthplace, and offered to produce his record. Together with Ferguson, they made Purgatory in a few days at the Butcher Shoppe studio with Simpson contributing guitar and background vocals, Miller on drums and background vocals, and musicianship from fiddler Stuart Duncan and multi-instrumentalist Russ Paul.
“I’d already had two opportunities to record [these songs] on my own. So I stepped back and let it go where Sturgill thought it needed to,” says Childers about working with Simpson. “I didn’t come into the studio with a lot of expectations: ‘This is going to be this way, this is going to be that way.’ I obviously wouldn’t have needed him if I was going to be like that. [On “Whitehouse Road”], he suggested we slow it down and get it into this groovy pocket, and I said, ‘Alright, let’s see what it sounds like.'”
It was the right move. Like much of Simpson’s work, Childers blends that ethereal, off-kilter edge of bluegrass with Seventies country and an analog, Southern rock slant on “Whitehouse Road,” and lyrics that dig deep into the struggle to dull the pain of life in rural America. “We’ve been sniffing that cocaine, ain’t nothing better when the wind cuts cold,” he sings. “Lord it’s a mighty hard living, but a damn good feeling to run these roads.”
Purgatory is about navigating those roads, and making the choices that could just as easily lead to desolation and destruction as happiness and salvation. “A lot of these songs were written in the time between leaving my mother and father’s house and finding that middle ground,” Childers says. “Getting into trouble and finding the way out of it, finding where you are supposed to be. Finding your place. Purgatory is hell, with hope. You have a fighting chance.”
Purgatory is out August 4th on Hickman Holler Records via Thirty Tigers. Childers is on tour now, with dates alongside Parker Millsap, Nikki Lane, Yonder Mountain String Band and Sammy Brue.